An area of philosophical thought I find particularly interesting is ethical intuitionism. It is a hotly debated concept among philosophers that is difficult to grasp and ever more difficult to justify.

When exploring contested philosophical topics, my favorite starting point is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I highly recommend it because it has serious academic street cred. Articles are written by philosophers, peer reviewed, and not open to free-for-all editing like Wikipedia.

The final point is particularly important given the edit wars that can erupt on Wikipedia over content disagreements on hot-button issues. Also, given that I know a prominent philosophy professor who, after a few beers, likes to make silly changes to articles (e.g. making Beethoven an Austrian) just to see how long it takes editors to make corrections, one should always question the validity of online sources.

While the SEP largely avoids this problem, articles can be daunting for casual philosophers. For example, take a look at the (abbreviated) opening paragraph on ethical intuitionism.

The most distinctive features of ethical intuitionism are its epistemology and ontology. All classical intuitionists maintain that basic moral propositions are self-evident, and that moral properties are non-natural properties … Some philosophers claim that ethical pluralism is an essential feature of intuitionist thought, but not all intuitionists are pluralists.

Let’s not worry about ontology and pluralism and only focus on epistemology and self-evidence of basic moral propositions. Epistemology is the study of the origin, nature, and limitations of human knowledge. One of the big discussions is whether non-inferential knowledge can exist, i.e. can we “know” something without any prior knowledge or reliance on other propositions?

A quick reflection shows that most things we know are actually inferred. For example, I know (in philosophy speak “justifiably believe”) that the garbage man will come tomorrow, because I know that tomorrow is Thursday and the garbage man always comes on Thursday.

Many find the inferentiality debate to be little more than intellectual masturbation. Can’t I just know that chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven are good without worrying about how I know this?

Things become more relevant, however, when we consider an issue such as torture. Those who argue against its use per se typically turn to intuitionist justifications. However, a recent survey shows that Americans are split 50/50 on the issue.

What do you know, or believe to know, non-inferentially? Leave a comment.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.

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