A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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3/ Criticism of intuitionism

In general, it is the fragility of intuition as a mode of knowledge that is singled out. Intuitionists claim that they have a feeling that something has value. However, as Bouglé notes, behind the feeling may in fact lie fantasy 1.

Sentiment can degrade into fancy, but it can also degrade into caprice, and this is what Bentham argued, grouping together all the so-called sources of value (intuition, God, right reason, the moral sense) under the headings of "principle of sympathy or antipathy", or "principle of caprice". According to all these sources of value, something is held to be right simply because its defender says it is right. This is what he calls ipse-dixitism: it is enough to have the idea of saying that something is right for it to be right. Unfortunately, since everyone's whims are in conflict, ispe-dixitism can only lead to cacophony 2.
For this reason, a particularly convincing argument against intuitionism is that linguistic analysis can demonstrate that "intuitively knowing" that something exists means nothing more than "believing" that it exists 3.

In fact, I think that intuitionism can in no way constitute an answer to the problem of values, because it merely indicates a method for finding an answer to the problem of values, but in no way provides the content of the answer itself.

This obscure idea will perhaps be clarified by what follows. Suppose we are asked a physical, empirical question, for example: does a dropped object fall to the ground? and we reply: "We will determine this by visual observation". We have not yet answered our initial question, but we have only indicated a means, a technique, a method for answering our question. We do not know what this visual observation will reveal to us.

Now suppose we ask ourselves: does morality have value? and an intuitionist claims to have the intuition that it has great value. In fact, what he has shown us is the method by which he has seen what it is in morality that makes it valuable: intuition is this method (i.e. immediate contact with the thing). However, we still need to know this mysterious element that this famous intuition is supposed to have discovered in morality, which would give it this value: almost everything remains to be done. Anyone who stops there is like someone who is asked: "How tall is your son?" and simply replies: "You have to measure with a tape measure". He has indicated the method by which this question can be answered, but he has not answered the question. What we are looking for is a real answer, like: “He is five feet four inches”.

So we can be grateful to the intuitionist for pointing out that intuition is the method that has enabled him to discover that a thing=X has value, but we still have to ask him: "What has your intuition discovered about thing X that makes it valuable?"

The intuitionist will then invariably be led to answer something like: "It is quality Y, which I have found in X, that underlies its value".
This leads to two conclusions:

- Such an answer is equivalent to "X has a value because Y", which shows that intuitionism, which believed itself to be immediate intuition, in fact resides essentially in an argumentative discourse, proceeding through the mediation of arguments. Or rather: if intuitionism is to provide a genuine answer to the problem of values, and not simply indicate a method for doing so, it must be transformed into a rational argumentative discourse, mediated by reasoning.

- This answer is based on the qualitative method (seeking to establish the value of a thing by showing the presence of a quality in the thing), the impossibility of which we have already shown (we will have to establish the value of this quality, and so on, in a regression to infinity).

From this we can conclude that intuitionism cannot provide an answer, but only a method for answering the problem of values, and that this method is inadequate, insofar as it consists of nothing more and nothing less than the qualitative method.
This shows that the epistemological question of the method of axiology as a science is not at all the same as the axiological question of what has value, and that even if the latter is resolved, the former remains completely open.

Intuitionism is just one of the many forms that axiological objectivism has taken. It is probably time to turn our attention to another kind of value objectivism: formal axiology.

1. The Evolution of Values: Studies in Sociology with Special Applications to Teaching
2. Dictionnaire d'éthique et de philosophie morale, "Bentham" article
3. Ibid., "Hare" article