A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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3/ Critiques of intuitionism

In general, they point out that intuition is a mode of knowledge which cannot be trusted. The intuitionist claims that he feels that this or that thing has a value. But, as Bouglé remarks, behind feeling, fantasy may be hidden 1.

Feeling is likely to conceal fantasy, but also caprice. A similar idea was proposed by Bentham. He held for his part that the so-called sources of value (intuition, God, reason, moral sense) fall under the “principle of sympathy and antipathy”, or “principle of caprice”. According to these sources of value, an idea is considered as true simply because its defender affirms that it is true. He calls this “ipse-dixitism”: an idea is true just because we hold it -it is sufficient for its truth. But as all our caprices conflict with each other, ipse-dixitism can only lead to cacophony 2.
That is why a particularly convincing argument against intuitionism consists in showing by a linguistic analysis that "to know by intuition that something exists" means nothing but “to believe that it exists" 3.

In fact, I think that intuitionism cannot in any circumstances provide an answer to the problem of values, since it consists merely in the indication of a method to find an answer to the problem of values, but does not provide the content of the answer itself.

Let me explain this obscure idea. Suppose that we were asked a physical question, about an empirical fact, for example, “does a thrown object fall on the ground?” and that we answered, “it is by the visual observation that we will find it”. We have not yet answered to our initial question, but we have only indicated a way, or a method, to answer our question. We do not yet know what this visual observation will teach us.

Now suppose that we ask: ‘has morality a value?’ and that an intuitionist claims he has the intuition that it has a high value. In reality, what he does here is only to indicate the method by which he has found in morality what gives it a great value: intuition is this method (viz. an immediate contact with the thing). But we do not yet know what this mysterious element that his so-called intuition has discovered in morality is, and that is supposed to give it its value: everything remains to be done. If you leave it there, it is as though someone asked you “how tall is your son”, and that you answered “you have to use a tape measure to determine it”. You give the way to answer the question, but no answer at all. What we expect is a real solution, like: “he is five feet four inches”.

So we can be thankful to the intuitionist for telling us that intuition is the method which enabled him to discover that something=X has a value. But it remains to ask “what does your intuition has discovered in the thing X, which gives it a value?”.


In this case, the intuitionist is obliged to answer something like, “it is the quality Y that I have found in X, which gives it a value”.
From this, two conclusions must follow.

- such an answer is equivalent to “X has a value because Y”, and that shows that intuitionism, considering itself as the proponent of an immediate intuition, consists actually in a argumentative discourse, proceeding through the mediation of arguments. In other words: the intuitionist, if he really wants to answer the problem of values, and not only present a method for this, must use a argumentative rational discourse, proceeding through mediation of reasoning.

- this answer is based on the qualitative method (to try to found the value of something by showing in it a quality), which I have already criticized. Indeed, I have tried to prove its impossibility: we will have to found the value of this quality, etc., in an infinite regress.

It is now time to conclude: intuitionism cannot provide any answer, but only a method to answer the problem of values, and this method has revealed itself to be inappropriate, being nothing else than the qualitative one.
So we see that the epistemological question of the method of axiology as a science is not the same thing as the axiological question as to what has a value, and that if the former was resolved, the latter would remain open.

The intuitionism is only one of the many forms of the axiological objectivism. It is now time to examine another kind of objectivism of values: the formal axiology.


1. The evolution of values: studies in sociology
2. Dictionary of ethics and moral philosophy, article "Bentham"
3. Ibid., article "Hare"