on February 13, 2013
Like another reviewer, I started out agreeing with Huemer's basic claim, having concluded some forty-five years ago that the intuitionist position provided the most satisfactory explanation of normative beliefs. I read the book in part in the hope that he could provide better arguments than I had come up with, in particular a better rebuttal of what I view as the most serious challenge to our position. Unfortunately, he doesn't.
He does do a very good good job of demonstrating that ethical intuitionism is a defensible position and offering arguments to show that most of the alternatives, including ones that are much more widely accepted, are not. But he does not provide an adequate response to the one challenge I am concerned with, the view that combines ethical nihilism with evolutionary psychology.
The claim of that view is that there are no normative facts, that nothing is good or bad and there is no moral reason to do or not do anything. It explains our moral beliefs, the intuitions that Huemer views (and I view) as imperfect perceptions of normative facts, as explainable by evolution--they were beliefs that increased the reproductive success of those who held them in the environment in which we evolved, and so got hard wired into their descendants.
That approach challenges intuitionism in two ways. First, it explains the evidence, my ethical intuitions, on the basis of facts of reality I already believe to be true. Once we have one explanation there is no need for another. Second, it raises the question of how, if there are moral facts, we could have acquired the ability to know them, since at least some of them would presumably have led us to modify our behavior in ways that reduced our reproductive success--make us less willing, for instance, to slaughter the men of a neighboring tribe and take their women.
Despite these problems, I have not yet abandoned my current moral position, in part because the alternative position fails to answer the questions I want answered, indeed implies that they are unanswerable, that there are no actual oughts. In part also, I fail to adopt the nihilist position because I am unable to believe it. That inability is psychological, not logical. I cannot actually believe that there is nothing wrong with torturing small children for the fun of it or murdering large numbers of innocent people, both conclusions that follow from the view that nothing at all is wrong or right.
on May 21, 2014
I agree with Huemer on most things. In Ethical Intuitionism he defends a thesis of objective moral properties, which are not reducible to ordinary, descriptive "natural" properties, and that we know at least some moral truths non-inferentially (what he calls rational intuition). His argument is almost entirely negative in that it consists of arguments against the metaethical alternatives. He does a good job taking them down, but it could use more by way of a positive case... and he doesn't spend much time at all dealing with error theory (a point best descrived by Richard Garner in Beyond Morality, although his thesis is quite different). To him, morality is committed to categorical reasons, which resonates strongly with me.
on February 13, 2007
This is an outstanding defense of the straightforward view that there are objective ethical facts, that such facts are not reducible to other kinds of (e.g. natural) facts, and that some of these ethical facts are simply seen to be true without being inferred from other things we know.
While the basic elements of this view are straightforward, the philosophical issues related to it are complex. Huemer does an excellent job of seeing to the heart of the matter and explaining his position in a clear fashion. He follows the tried-and-true procedure of laying out his own view, criticizing alternatives to it, and defending it against a variety of objections. Huemer's defense of ethical intuitionism against assorted objections is a real strength of the book. He considers both popular and more philosophical objections, and his replies are challenging. Any intellectually honest person who has considered and rejected ethical intuitionism (or some view labeled "ethical intuitionism") will want to read this book (and many others *should* read it whether they want to or not).
The book is very reader-friendly; much of it is accessible to non-philosophers and more technical sections are identified as such and can be skipped by non-specialists without disruption of the main thread of argument. It also contains a very helpful analytical table of contents.
Students, professional philosophers, and interested laypersons will find much of value in this book. The only significant drawback of the book is its price. I very much hope that the publisher will produce a paperback version so that the book can reach the wide audience it deserves (and who badly need it).
on April 1, 2007
This is a fantastic book about metaethics. Metaethics is the study of the meaning of right and wrong, as opposed to just plain ethics, which purports to tell us what's right and what isn't. For example, someone might ask "Is it good to keep promises?" That's an ethics question. But if someone asks "When you say 'It's good to keep promises', what do you mean?" then that's a metaethics question.
Huemer does a great job of explaining his views clearly and supporting them with a lot of strong arguments, in a clear and accessible style. He thinks that moral statements are meaningful and are true or false just like statements about physical reality (this is called moral realism) and that we become aware of moral truths through intuition (hence the book's title). He criticizes all forms of moral subjectivism, which is the view that moral statements can be true or false depending on the speaker's, or society's, attitude or perspective toward the statement.
Huemer also does us hobbyists the favor of clearly marking the parts that are intended primarily for his fellow professional philosophers due to their technical nature and depth of engagement with the literature.
If you are interested in metaethics, or in a clear exposition of moral realism and critique of subjectivism, this is required reading. It helps if you're already familiar with modern moral philosophy -- it's not intended purely for a popular audience -- but if you count philosophy among your interests and hobbies, then you don't need to be an academic to appreciate this book.
on September 18, 2008
First, a disclaimer. This book defends a position I have held for most of my 44 years as a philosophy professor.
It is the book I would have written if I had been a smarter and more energetic person. It is just about as good as it could be.
The author has a special gift for clarity and succinctness which is rare among academics. The concluding chapter is a summary of his main points and is a marvel of clarity. If one has, as so many do, a long held negative opinion of ethical intuitionism, one should read this short chapter and be persuaded by it to then take the position seriously and to read the whole book.
My only negative feeling is one of envy.
on October 21, 2014
Michael Huemer (University of Colorado at Boulder) offers an updated picture of intuitionism intended to resuscitate the intuitionist account first presented by G. E. Moore (and elaborated by later writers like W. D. Ross in The Right and the Good). Huemer proposes that our moral intuitions are akin to the a priori knowledge suggested by Kant which includes both knowledge we take from the world directly, via the senses, and from the ideas we have about the world as these are given to us in the concepts themselves.
Arguing that our ethical intuitions are of this second type (G. E. Moore had proposed they were akin to so-called simple unanalyzable properties like colors which would make them like the first type), Huemer suggests that, just as we know some things rationally, e.g., that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, that time proceeds sequentially, that nothing can be all red and all blue at the same time, that "a spinster is an unmarried woman" (contained in the meaning of "spinster") and that purple is a color (because, he points out, being a color is similarly inherent in it's definition), so we know that "pleasure is good." This, he assures us is similarly intrinsic to the concept of pleasure.
Having initiated the book with a spirited and well-argued attack on the alternatives (taking down subjectivism, non-cognitivism and moral nihilism decisively) and having proceeded to show that many of the standard attacks on the adequacy of an intuitionist account are wrongheaded because they demand more of intuitionism than they are prepared to demand of other forms of knowledge claims we make, he turns to the book's real point and this hinges on the case he wants to make FOR intuitionism. That case stands or falls on his claim that we can understand how good is intuited intellectually on the model of his "pleasure is good" argument. But here the thesis seems to founder.
On his view, knowing purple is a color is to know, a priori, what he calls a "property of purple." Aside from learning to use the word "purple," we don't need to discover its meaning for the meaning is in the use. Whenever "purple" is used in the standard way (and not, say, as a proper name) it must designate a color and that is built into learning how to use the word correctly. He then adds that, in the same way that we know purple is a color, so we know that pleasure is good and this is to know a "property of pleasure." But the analogy is not as strong as he thinks.
Certainly we do tend to think of pleasure, taken in the abstract, as unabashedly desirable (hence good) and this seems to suggest to us possession of a property called goodness. But pleasure is not, in fact, good in the same sense that purple is a color, since the idea of being a color applies to all standard uses of the word "purple" while there are many, many cases in which the notion of being good would not, on consideration, apply to pleasure (e.g., the pleasure of heroin for the addict, strong drink for the alcoholic, sexual activity for the callously promiscuous, amassing wealth for the greedy, etc.). Moreover, unlike "purple," the term "pleasure" covers a wide variety of cases, from physical sensations of many different types, to different kinds of emotional satisfaction, to the joys of hard labor or hard training (for the athlete). And, since all instances in which we use the word "pleasure" do not name the same experience or even the same kind, we can hardly agree that all are instances which unabashedly qualify as good.
Thus goodness cannot be thought of as a property, intrinsic to the idea of pleasure, in the same way that being a color can be thought intrinsic to being purple. Moreover, it's linguistically odd to speak of purple as having a property of color, which he requires to make the analogy that sets up his claim that to know what pleasure is is also to know a property of goodness belonging to pleasure. Purple is certainly a color, in the sense that it fits into that class of "things" which bear the name "color" in English. That meaning IS conceptually built into "purple" in much the same way being an unmarried woman is built into "spinster". But pleasure isn't similarly built in for it isn't best understood as one of a class of "goods" but only as something that is sometimes good and sometimes isn't. Since we can conceive of instances when pleasure isn't good, unlike how we can think of "purple," the analogy with purple and color breaks down.
If Huemer's argument is to hold, he needs a better affirmative account of how being good is embedded in other concepts we have. Still, it's a good book with a sharply pointed analysis of the different theories that have been advanced over the years as a basis for explaining the cognitive and practical significance of moral valuing. And, indeed, I was very taken with the innovative way he arranges the different possibilities. I had never thought, for instance, to group the idea of divine authority for moral claims under the broader category of subjectivism. Or to recognize a distinction between moral nihilism and non-cognitivism which, to me, have always seemed closely bound up with one another.
on May 24, 2016
I loved this book. It was extremely accessible and easy to read. I have a BA in Philosophy, so I'm familiar enough with philosophical concepts but I am also sometimes discouraged by especially dry, dense philosophical works. This book was not like that - nearly anyone could read this and understand the arguments, but it also provided a serious, philosophically tenable defense of intuitionism. As an atheist and a materialist, I have had trouble in the past reconciling my general worldview with moral realism, which, historically, has appealed to God or some other supernatural foundation as a basis for realism. This book offers a defense of realism that anyone should be able to accept.
The only criticism I have is that I would have liked to hear more about what these intuitions *are*. Huemer provides a few examples (and I take his point that we all seem to have them, and know what they are), but it would have been nice to hear a little bit more about the epistemological question that will naturally arise ("Well, if we have these intuitions, what are they?"). Still, this is not really a problem for his view, nor did it take much away from it. Overall, this was a great read which I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about realism and intuitionism.
on June 18, 2012
I've always been intimidated by philosophy, but this book was great. The last chapter was a great summary of philosophy in general and the last few sections about Huemer's personal journey and thoughts on history were very interesting.
on June 29, 2015
The first philosophy book I read after deciding to pursue philosophy seriously. And what a great book to start with! A powerful defense of a carefully nuanced version of ethical intuitionism, Huemer's arguments are as compelling as the language is clear and understandable. Aside from presenting a strong case for moral realism, Huemer also runs the reader through a quick survey of the meta-ethical landscape, which was very useful to me as a newcomer to academic philosophy.
I enjoyed this book so much that I immediately sought out Huemer's other two books and as many of his articles as I could get my hands on.
on May 3, 2009
Michael Huemer's book "Ethical Intuitionism" defends a non-naturalist version of moral realism, according to which moral facts are true irrespective of what anyone might think of them, that such facts are not part of the material world accessible to empirical science, and that we have knowledge of these moral facts through intuition. This is presumably an extreme minority position within secular academe.
I'm not necessarily hostile to "moral realism" or "dualism", and I even liked the author's self-assured and arrogant style, after reading the meeker arguments for a somewhat similar position by Russ Shafer-Landau. I wonder what would happen if Michael Huemer, Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath would be placed in the same TV studio? That would be great fun!
Still, I must admit that I found Huemer's book to be ultimately disappointing. I never understood its central point: the intuitions themselves. Huemer writes that we have intuitive knowledge of many things. Most of his examples turn out to be self-evident logical truths, such as "If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then C is smaller than A". But in what meaningful sense is that an "intuitive" truth? It's ultimately based on empirical observation and rational reasoning, not "intuition". It also turns out that moral truths are *not* of this kind, according to Huemer. Here, the author makes the somewhat weaker claim that moral truths might be prima facie true, while not being self-evident. Moral truths are weaker than logical truths. But if so, can we really rely on intuitions to solve our moral conundrums? What is prima facie true might not actually be true, so it seems we need something else than mere intuitions! From the top of my head, some form of rationalism seem to be in order here.
I can't put my finger on it, but I suspect Huemer might be wrong!
"Ethical intuitionism", while not a book for the general public, is nevertheless surprisingly easy to read for a scholarly philosophy book. I take that to mean that Huemer wants to address students. It's not uninteresting, but in the end this student remains unconvinced.