Meta-ethical approaches - Intuitionism

Hume demonstrated that you can't move from an is to an ought, and Moore described the fallacy of defining good in terms of natural properties. This could have lead to nihilism, a complete rejection of morality. One alternative, which Moore favoured, is intuitionism.

Intuitionists hold that there are moral truths. We all know this. If someone claimed to be unsure whether it is okay to be a serial killer, or didn't understand why it was wrong to rape or torture, they would be met with disbelief and horror. Intuitionists say there are objective moral values, and we just know what they are.

The biggest criticism is that morals vary, and people disagree about basic principles.  For example, is it okay to eat meat? Should gay people be allowed to marry? Is it wrong to change your gender?

In answer to this, intuitionists claim that listening to our intuitions requires a mature mind. To understand transgender issues, we need to be informed and reflective. The belief is that if we really know the facts about an issue, and have the intellectual maturity to imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes, we will be able to work out what is right and wrong.

Moore's comparison to knowing colours is helpful. We all know the difference between a red and blue balloon, but it can be confusing working out when red becomes purple etc. Just because people disagree about how to work through principles of equality, justice and freedom, this doesn't mean we are in any doubt that it is wrong to discriminate or be unfair.

HA Prichard

Prichard believed we are intuitively aware of our moral obligations. This can be easily observed when we think about whether we should steal something or cheat on a partner. It is more complicated when we have conflicting obligations. Prichard said we should examine the situation carefully and choose the greater obligation. Again, this can be seen in any moral dilemma, where a person is torn between keeping a promise and helping someone in need, for example. What else can we do except weigh up the circumstances and see which obligation is the greater?

There is no doubt that we may feel conflicted. There is a moment in 'This is us' where Kevin is about to go out on stage on the opening night of his new play, but he knows his brother Wallace needs him. Kevin immediately knows what the right thing to do is, Prichard would argue, but will he have the strength of character to do it?


An awful lot rests on knowing what our moral intuition is telling us. Is it the voice of our conscience? Is it a gut feeling? Is it our rational mind having weighed up a situation? Many people feel conflicted and unsure in moral situations.

Another problem is that we all seem to have different intuitions, and it seems like we get our moral intuitions from questionable sources. For intuitionism to work, we should have "unquestioning confidence" like mathematical insight. Instead, a religious upbringing can result in a strong moral conviction about the evils of homosexuality. We tend to favour our own country's claims to the moral high ground in cases of conflict, etc.

The intuitionist has a good response to these criticisms. They only show the need for us to be informed and objective when weighing moral issues. How is it that I come to know that homophobia is not right, despite my parents' or pastor's views? How else than by intuition?

The intuitionist puts forward a good case, but there is no way to prove that our moral intuitions are correct. Whilst we can try to gain more clarity about the nature of sexuality, for example, it is hard to know how to debate gay marriage when the right answer is supposed to be something that we immediately know through intuition.


Intuitionists agree with Naturalists that there are objective moral truths. They are both ethical cognitivists. Naturalists provide an objective way of determining what is right or wrong (the hedonic calculus for utilitarians, or practical reason in Natural Law).  However, Intuitionism isn't overturned by the naturalistic fallacy.


Emotivists are ethical non-cognitivists. They don't just say that moral statements are wrong, they say they are meaningless. You need to know where emotivists are on strong footing (non-cognitivism), but also that the theory itself is very weak (it just isn't right about the nature of moral statements).