The Morally Obvious

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The Morally Obvious

I. Obviousness. There is no way to contrive an ethical theory which does not rely in the end upon moral judgments that are subjectively "intuitive" or obvious or "just seen". No matter which of the major approaches to ethical theory one takes, an ultimate reliance upon the individual's intuitive judgment is inevitable. If one supposes that moral valuations are sui generis, irreducible, the deliverances of a moral sense or faculty, then manifestly what one "just feels" or "just sees" to be morally valuable will have to be the final court of appeal. If one supposes that moral values are a special subclass of human likings or preferences, say those things men want overall, in the long run, in the light of man's deepest needs and his sympathetic nature, etc., why then those wants and preferences must themselves be finally known by making their presence felt. The presence of a want, of a satisfaction or fulfillment, of pleasure or pain, is known intuitively and immediately. Finally, if moral values are perceived by the eye of reason, as a number of philosophers still urge, so that the wrongness of things is known by the mind in a way similar to its knowing 2 + 2 = 4, this too must be seen as an ultimate reliance upon the intellectually "obvious", or the intuitively known.

It appears that whether in ethics or in any field of human opinion we can ask for justifications only so far. Even when a successful justification of an opinion can be given, the very success of that justification involves the "just seeing" of how the justification applies to and supports the opinion. Beyond that, we can always request a proof of the justifying premises or considerations themselves, and if we keep asking for a justification for the justification that has just been given, we will soon reach a point where all that can be said is that the thing just seems obvious, and we can only hope that others will think so too. Notoriously, of course, others often don't.

I have said that moral judgments must in the end rest upon an "intuitive" judgment of some sort. The word "intuition" is too useful and too close to what I mean to avoid, but it also has technical connotations I wish to disavow. Philosophers often use "intuition" to mean a way of knowing involving no inference whatever and yielding infallible and incorrigible results.
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