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Question Session 02

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Thanks to Sarah Trummer ( for the dice.


Direct Insight: Hannah’s Question

Hannah asks, What ‘direct insight’ are other philosophers claiming to have into moral properties?

This question is about Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 268)’s rejection of direct insight.

Those authors mention Stratton-Lake (2002). I’m unsure exactly what they have in mind here as that’s an edited collection with 12 chapters, but the introduction highlights something called epistemological intuitionism:

‘Epistemological intuitionism is the view that certain moral propositions are self-evident—that is, can be know solely on the basis of an adequate understanding of them—and thus can be known directly by intuition’ (Stratton-Lake, 2002, p. 2).

As this book is not easily available (although you can ask the library to scan a chapter for you), I suggest considering Audi (2015), which contains the following claims:

‘Intuition is a resource in all of philosophy, but perhaps nowhere more than in ethics‘ (p. 57).

‘Episodic intuitions […] can serve as data […] … beliefs that derive from them receive prima facie justification’ (p. 65).

‘self-evident propositions are truths meeting two conditions: (1) in virtue of adequately understanding them, one has justification for believing them […]; and (2) believing them on the basis of adequately understanding them entails knowing them’ (p. 65).

Paul Theo suggested a further way of thinking about ‘direct insight’ (thank you!):

‘I think the other dominant way to justify direct insight (besides self-evidence views) would be the seeming state theory of intuition, which draws analogies between sense perception and moral intuition, and claims that both share a prima facie positive epistemic status.’ See Pust (2019, p. §1.3).

Although I don’t propose to consider such views in these lectures, you could reasonably consider them as part of your work for the course.

Defending Consequentialism: Jagoda’s Second Question

Jagoda asks how accepting the hypothesis that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions could be part of a defence of consequentialism. (This relates to Why Is the Affect Heuristic Significant?.)

Baldouin offers a quote that is relevant to this question:

‘Critics often argue that consequentialism can’t be accurate, because it implies moral judgments that are counter-intuitive, such as that we are morally permitted to punish an innocent person in the well-known example where this is necessary to stop riots and prevent deaths. With the heuristic model in hand, consequentialists can respond that the target attribute is having the best consequences, and any intuitions to the contrary result from substituting a heuristic attribute’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010, p. 269).

As Baldouin notes, the suggestion is that the hypothesis about the Affect Heuristic can play a role in responding to some objections to consequentialism. As far as I know, neither Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010) nor others are suggesting that there is a role for this hypothesis in establishing, positively, that consequentialism is true.

Acceptance: Jagoda’s 11:55 question

Jagoda opens by asking, ‘Is acceptance a moral attribute?’.

No. Wrongness is a moral attribute; perhaps also when we talk of actions being harmful, unfair, disloyal, disrespectful or impure we are attributing moral attributes. Maybe there are other moral attributes. But acceptance seems like the wrong kind of thing to be a moral attribute.

Jagoda’s question is related to Moral Attributes Are Inaccessible, and in particular to the fourth candidate for moral wrongness. According to this candidate, for an act to be morally wrong is for it to violate a rule that all impartial, rational people would accept. Jagoda objects:

Through accepting something we are making the decision that we either agree with it or have no objections to it and we surely do this through making some sort of judgement about the thing we are accepting and why we accept it. Therefore, [the fourth candidate would imply that] we cannot have people who are both impartial and yet accept something (a rule)?’

I think Jagoda is right that these rough-and-ready charicatures of how to characterise moral wrongness would need substantial refinement to be plausible. They are just props in an argument for the claim that moral attributes are inaccessible.

I argued that this argument fails (in Moral Attributes Are Accessible1). Perhaps Jagoda’s objection adds support to that view.

Metaethics and Epistemology: Svenja’s and Adam’s questions

Svenja asks,

When we talk about an action having the ‘attribute of moral wrongness’ and this attribute being accessible to us or not, are we assuming that such an attribute exists independently of us and that whether or not an action has this attribute is an objective fact?

In reply I offer a comparison between wrongness and blueness.2 In both cases, I’m unsure whether we are assuming that the attribute exists independently of us, nor whether there are objective facts about it. But if there is a problem here, I think it’s unlikely to be a specifically ethical problem.

Adam follows up by objecting,

Do Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010) believe moral attributes are inaccessible because they are inherently impossible to gain direct insight into or just difficult? If they are inherently impossible, we have never gained direct insight, so on what basis can we say that we have any grip on moral attributes whatsoever? If they are difficult to compute, how difficult? It looks to me like Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010) is saying that gaining insight into moral attributes is in principle possible but in practice impossible, in which case, the problem remains.

What I should have done in response to this part of Adam’s objection is referred back to the comparison between moral attributes and risk (in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study). Risks are often inaccessible to non-experts who have not suffered personal tragedies. But such people can become experts, of course. Similarly, I think the only premise Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010) need is that the moral attributes relevant to particular actions are inaccessible to most participants in experiments involving those actions.

Adam objects, further, that

Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010) seem to be saying that the difficulty of knowing objective moral attributes is just a problem for the reliability of moral intuitions. However, if no one currently alive can gain insights about the moral properties of an event doesn’t that raise much more fundamental questions about what right [justification?] we have to even assign moral properties to events in the first place?

I think this is wrong. They are not saying that moral intuitions are unreliable in general. Given some background assumptions about the limits of reason, their view is compatible with the claim that in many familiar situations, moral intuitions are a highly reliable basis for reaching a conclusion (and may be the most reliable basis available). Their hypothesis about the Affect Heuristic only implies that moral intuitions are likely to be unreliable in unfamiliar situations.

So I agree with Adam that we are skirting questions about justification for propositions about moral attributes. But I take the opposite view: something like the hypothis that moral intutions are a consequence of the Affect Hypothesis may will provide the basis for a plausible account of how humans can know that some actions are right and others wrong.


Affect Heuristic : In the context of moral psychology, the Affect Heuristic is this principle: ‘if thinking about an act [...] makes you feel bad [...], then judge that it is morally wrong’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010). These authors hypothesise that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions.
A different (but related) Affect Heurstic has also be postulated to explain how people make judgements about risky things are: The more dread you feel when imagining an event, the more risky you should judge it is (see Pachur, Hertwig, & Steinmann, 2012, which is discussed in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study).
inaccessible : An attribute is inaccessible in a context just if it is difficult or impossible, in that context, to discern substantive truths about that attribute. For example, in ordinary life and for most people the attribute being further from Kilmery (in Wales) than Steve’s brother Matt is would be inaccessible.
See Kahneman & Frederick (2005, p. 271): ‘We adopt the term accessibility to refer to the ease (or effort) with which particular mental contents come to mind.’
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, moral intuitions are unreflective ethical judgements.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’
unfamiliar problem : An unfamiliar problem (or situation) is one ’with which we have inadequate evolutionary, cultural, or personal experience’ (Greene, 2014, p. 714).


Audi, R. (2015). Intuition and Its Place in Ethics. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 1(1), 57–77.
Eskine, K. J., Kacinik, N. A., & Prinz, J. J. (2011). A Bad Taste in the Mouth: Gustatory Disgust Influences Moral Judgment. Psychological Science, 22(3), 295–299.
Gold, N., Pulford, B. D., & Colman, A. M. (2015). Do as I Say, Don’t Do as I Do: Differences in moral judgments do not translate into differences in decisions in real-life trolley problems. Journal of Economic Psychology, 47, 50–61.
Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2005). A model of heuristic judgment. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), The cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 267–293). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kidwell, B., Farmer, A., & Hardesty, D. M. (2013). Getting Liberals and Conservatives to Go Green: Political Ideology and Congruent Appeals. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(2), 350–367.
Pachur, T., Hertwig, R., & Steinmann, F. (2012). How Do People Judge Risks: Availability Heuristic, Affect Heuristic, or Both? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18(3), 314–330.
Pust, J. (2019). Intuition. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice (Revised edition). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Roberson, D., & Hanley, R. (2010). Relatively speaking. Words and the Mind, 1(9), 183–199.
Schnall, S., Benton, J., & Harvey, S. (2008). With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1219–1222.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.
Stratton-Lake, P. (Ed.). (2002). Ethical intuitionism: Re-evaluations. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Witzel, C., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2016). Categorical perception for red and brown. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 42(4), 540–570.
Witzel, C., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2018). Color Perception: Objects, Constancy, and Categories. Annual Review of Vision Science, 4(1), 475–499.
  1. Note that this section does not provide sufficient reason to conclude that moral attributes are accessible. It’s concluion is that the arguments considered to not provide sufficient reason for the view that moral are inaccessible nor for the view that moral attributes are accessible. 

  2. I cited Roberson & Hanley (2010) as they provide background on Berinmo colour words, and Witzel & Gegenfurtner (2016) as an example of evidence that there is a link between which colour words you have and which categorical colour properties you can discriminate. Witzel & Gegenfurtner (2018) offer a useful review.