A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2) The hierarchies proposed by intuitionism

Here are some hierarchies, presented as intuitively certain, or at least as obvious.

Anselm of Canterbury holds 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 expresses a similar intuition, as he maintains that a being aiming at a certain end is obviously superior to the one which has none: 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. So at the lowest level of the hierarchy, we find the inorganic being of the inert matter.

H. Sidgwick affirms for his part in The Methods of Ethics that the 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.

John Finnis supposes in Natural Law and Natural Rights that we find among the social classes a set of seven “fundamental values”, recognized by all as obvious: art, science, religion, human life, conviviality, friendship, game, practical reason.

M. Scheler is much more prudent, when he describes the hierarchy of values that intuition, or rather the “preference”, reveals to him. To his readers, curious to see this hierarchy, he announces: 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 strangely, Scheler affirms that it is not our aim at this point in the discussion to furnish such a determination 5.
However, he accepts 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 6 are expected to be, evidently:
1/ values of the agreeable/disagreeable
2/ values of the vital feeling
3/ spiritual values: beautiful/ugly, right/wrong, true/false
4/ and finally, values of the holy/unholy

These last ones represent the ultimate axiological modalities, viz., if I understand correctly this obscure expression: something holy is superior in value to something agreeable.

But what does the intuitionist answer to the one who denies such a hierarchy, or the value of what is presented as clearly having a value?
He can only accuse him of being dishonest, or even abnormal, perverse.

Thus Brentano fully admits the Aristotelian idea that everybody desires knowledge 7. What to answer to the one who, yet, 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 see, the intuitionist gives no chance to the axiological doctrines that do not share his intuition. He is self-confident, thinking he has reached the height of wisdom. He has found the answer, even before something like the problem of values were raised. According to him, we need not listen to the immoralist or the nihilist.

However, some thinkers stood up against the axiological intuitionism. Perhaps it is now time to present their 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