A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2) The hierarchies proposed by intuitionism

Here are a few hierarchies that have been presented as intuitively certain, or at least obvious.

Anselm of Canterbury already argued that it goes without saying that a horse in its nature is better than a piece of wood, and […] a human being is superior to a horse 1.

Much later, Hans Jonas returned to this intuition when he argued that a being driven by the search for an end is obviously superior to one that has no end: We can regard the mere capacity to have any purposes at all as a good-in-itself, of which we grasp with intuitive certainty that it is infinitely superior to any purposelessness of being 2. At the lowest level of the hierarchy, then, is the inorganic being of dead matter.

H. Sidgwick states in The Methods of Ethics that utilitarianism requires at least one intuition: I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one person is no more important from the point of view […] of the universe than the good of any other. And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am obliged to aim at good generally… rather than at any particular part of it 3.

In Natural Law and Natural Rights, John Finnis assumes that a series of seven "fundamental values" can be found among the most diverse social strata, which would be recognised as self-evident by all: art, science, religion, human life, conviviality and friendship, play and practical reason.

Scheler is much more cautious when it comes to describing the hierarchy of values that intuition - or rather "preference" - reveals to him. He begins by evoking the reader's expectations, excited by his concept of "preference": We expect an ethics first of all to furnish us with an explicit determination of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in the order of values, a determination that is itself based on the contents of the essences of values 4. But Scheler curiously states that It is not our aim at this point in the discussion to furnish such a determination 5.
On the other hand, he agrees to define the “value-modalities”, considered as an order of ranks among the system of qualities of non-formal values 6. Thus, the kinds of a priori orders among values would obviously be (from the inferior to the superior):
1/ the values of pleasant/unpleasant
2/ the values of vital feeling
3/ spiritual values: beautiful/ ugly, just/unjust, true/false
4/ and finally sacred/ profane values

The latter would represent the ultimate axiological modalities, in other words, if we understand this obscure expression correctly: something sacred would have a higher value than something pleasant.

What does intuitionism have to say to someone who denies such a hierarchy, or the value of what is nevertheless presented as having obvious value?

He can only accuse him of being dishonest, or even abnormal, perverse. Brentano thus unreservedly accepts Aristotle's idea that everybody desires knowledge 7. How do we respond to someone who denies that knowledge has any value?

Let us listen to Brentano: There exists a pleasure and a displeasure of a higher kind. [Take the example of Aristotle]: All men naturally desire knowledge. In our species [this pleasure] is universal. Were there another species which, while having different preferences from us in respect of sensible qualities, were opposed to us in loving error for its own sake and hating insight, then assuredly we should not in the latter as in the former case say: that it was a matter of taste, […] rather we should here answer decisively that such love and hatred were fundamentally absurd, that such a species hated what was undeniably good, and loved what was undeniably bad in itself. [Another example] we prefer joy (unless indeed it be joy in what is bad) to sadness. Were there beings among whom the reverse held good, we should regard such conduct as perverse, and rightly so 8.

As we can see, the intuitionist never gives axiological doctrines that his intuition does not recognise a chance. He is all certainty, and has attained knowledge from the start. It has found the solution, even before anything like a problem of values has been constituted. It is not that the immoralist or the nihilist do not need to be refuted, it is that they do not even need to be listened to.

However, some thinkers have spoken out against axiological intuitionism. Perhaps it would now be appropriate to present their counter-arguments.

1. Monologion, ch.4
2. The Imperative of Responsibility
3. Formalism in Ethics and Non-formal Ethics of Values, 1st part, II, B, 4
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid. II, B, 5
6. Ibid.
7. Metaphysics I, 1
8. The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong