What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Justify
There are ways that ethical intuitions might be, and the various possibilities have epistemic
ramifications. Here I criticize some extant accounts of what ethical intuitions are and how they
justify, and I offer an alternative account. Roughly, an ethical intuition that p is a kind of
seeming state constituted by a consideration whether p, attended by positive phenomenological
qualities that count as evidence for p, and so a reason to believe that p. They are distinguished
from other kinds of seemings, such as those which are content driven (e.g., the sensory
experience that a stick in water seems bent) and those which are competence driven (e.g., the
intellectual seeming that XYZ is not water, or that one of DeMorgan’s laws is true). One
important conclusion is this: when crafting their positive theory ethical intuitionists have fewer
resources than intuitionists in other domains, not because of the subject matter of these intuitions,
but because of the their structure. A second conclusion, less certain than the first, is that the
seemings featured in substantive ethical intuitions deliver relatively weak justification as
compared to other seeming states.
What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Justify*
In recent literature on moral epistemology there are two ascendant views that try to
answer the following questions: What are ethical intuitions? How do they justify? On a view
defended by Robert Audi (1997, 1998, 1999, 2004) and Russ Shafer-Landau (2003) intuitions
are understandings of self-evident propositions, where such understanding alone is sufficient for
justification. On another view defended by Michael Huemer (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) intuitions
are sui generis seeming states, termed initial intellectual seemings, which are like other kinds of
seemings (e.g., those based on sensory experience or memory) in the way they justify.
Here I assume that we have some undefeated, intuitively justified ethical beliefs, but
argue that these dominant theories of what ethical intuitions are and how they justify are
inadequate. After arguing that Huemer’s intellectual seemings account is an improvement over
self-evidence theories (section 1), I want to draw some distinctions among seemings. All would
agree that when it seems to one that p one is, among other things perhaps, taking some attitude
toward content p. What has not been sufficiently addressed, however, is where to locate the
seeming. For any given seeming, we can ask whether it is located in a special seemingish
attitude taken toward content, whether it is located in the very content under consideration (and
not in a seemingish attitude), whether it is located somewhere else entirely, perhaps as a
phenomenologically salient character that attends the attitude-content pair (which by itself
doesn’t make anything seem to be the case), whether the seeming features a combination of these
options, etc. I argue that a commonly held position—that all seemings consist in special
attitudes taken toward (propositional) contents—strains the facts upon examination (section 2).
* Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on a previous draft.
Some seemings are located in the contents under consideration, the very contents that are to be
the subject of justified belief, while other seemings are located in phenomenological
characteristics attending attitude-content pairs. Some so-called intellectual seemings are
competence-driven and ill fit any of these categories. The upshot is that not all seemings are cut
from the same cloth, and this has some ramifications for whether, and the way in which, any
given seeming justifies belief.
When we turn to seemings in ethics—ethical intuitions—the account will be roughly as
follows (section 3). Substantive ethical seemings are no more than positive phenomenological
qualities upon considering ethical propositions.1 In these cases the seeming quality of an
intuition is not a feature of special seemingish attitude, nor is it a feature of the content under
consideration. The seeming quality of an ethical intuitions that p is exhausted by
phenomenological qualities that attend the attitude of consideration toward content p. The more
detailed theory of ethical intuitions on offer has some implications for the strength of intuitive
ethical justification, and the defeasibility of such justification (implications that might not apply
to others kinds of intuitions). In some respects ethical intuitions are more vulnerable to defeat
than other kinds of seemings, but in other respects they are less vulnerable. After discussing
some of these subtleties I end with a final remark on a related issue: an intuition’s status as
evidence (section 4).
1 Self-Evidence Theory and the Move to Intellectual Seeming Theory
Both Robert Audi and Russ Shafer-Landau maintain that ethical intuition is grounded in
self-evident propositions. Audi proposes the canonical view of a self-evident proposition as “a
1 For continuity with the literature, I take the objects of seemings to be propositions. One could
take them to be external things like objects and events as well. I surmise that the literature does
not do so because of inclination to be epistemic internalists here.
truth” such that “an adequate understanding of it is sufficient both for being justified in believing
it and for knowing it if one believes it on the basis of that understanding.”2 To make this a
sufficiently illuminating theory of self-evidence one must say much more about what it is to
adequately understand a proposition,3 and what is special about self-evident propositions such
that these can confer justification just by understanding them. Unfortunately, friends of the view
spend far more time telling us what self-evidence is not rather than telling us what it is. Thus
Audi argues that self-evidence does not entail indefeasibility,4 that the support for self-evident
propositions can be strengthened or weakened via non-intuitive modes of justification,5 that a
suitably humble intuitionism does not require that one see a proposition’s, self-evidence, or have
any intuitively justified beliefs about a proposition’s self-evidence,6 and that one can adequately
understand a self-evident proposition and yet fail to assent to it, or believe in it.7 Shafer-Landau
makes similar remarks (2003: Ch. 11).
Fair enough. But we do not yet know what it is to understand a proposition in a way that
is sufficient for justifiedly believing it. I understand the proposition that all crows are black, but
that alone is hardly sufficient for justifiedly believing it. How, then, are certain ethical
propositions different, or how is the notion of understanding different, that would distinguish
intuitively justified ethical beliefs? Analytic truths might get by on understanding alone, but
2 Audi (2004: 49). Accord Audi (1999: 206), (1998: 20), (1996: 114). Note that Audi does not
think that all intuitions have self-evident propositions as their objects, though he does argue that
ethical intuitions have self-evident propositions as their objects. Because ethical intuition is our
primary focus, I will only discuss his theory intuitions insofar as it involves understanding the
3 For a start see Audi (2004: 49-50).
4 See, e.g., Audi (2004: 44).
5 Audi (2004: 54).
6 Audi (2004: 42-44).
7 Audi (2004: 49, 54).
ethical intuitionists (rightly) deny that substantive ethical truths are analytic. Without any
explanation of how this is supposed to work, the grasping of self-evident propositions is
inadequate as a theory of what is going on when one has intuitive justification.
Despite being explanatorily impoverished, self-evidence theory manages to open itself up
to a serious objection. Particularly troubling is the thought that self-evident propositions are
true, which entails that ethical intuitions can only be had for true ethical propositions (which is
consistent with the defeasibility of the justification). This is far too strong. To see why, consider
a classic trolley case.
Trolley: A trolley is on course to hit and kill five individuals on the track ahead.
You are standing on a bridge above the track. The only way for you to save the
five individuals is to push the man in front of you from the bridge onto the track,
killing him, but activating the trolley breaks so it stops short of the five
individuals. Question: Is it permissible to push the man off the bridge, killing him
but saving five others?
Most have the intuition that pushing the man is morally impermissible. Even if deontology is
false, and consequentialism true, one can have this intuition. An adequate theory of intuitions
needs to account for this and self-evidence theory does not. A self-evidence theorist might grant
the point and claim that truth is required not to have an intuition but for an intuition to confer
prima facie justification. I will discuss the epistemic status of ethical intuitions in more detail in
section 3, but let me note that this epistemic claim also seems false – beliefs based on Trolley
intuitions can be prima facie justified. The important point for now, however, is that a self-
evidence theory of ethical intuitions is inadequate insofar as it introduces a truth condition on
having an intuition at all.
One might complain that the example is ill chosen. Intuitionists, the thought is, propose
certain mid-level principles as the objects of intuitive justification, and I have only provided an
intuition on a hypothetical particular. That is true, but I’m inclined to think that any adequate
theory of intuitions must incorporate intuitions on particulars like that given in Trolley, for these
seem epistemically probative if any intuitions are. Moreover, not all intuitionists who endorse
the intuitive justification of mid-level principles deny intuitive justification of particulars. W. D.
Ross was a particularist on this issue: “What comes first in time is the apprehension of the self-
evident prima facie rightness of an individual act of a particular type. From this we come by
reflection to apprehend the self-evident general principle of prima facie duty” (1930, 33).
In any event, the basic point is that the truth requirement featured in self-evidence
theories is too strong, and this point stands when we turn to mid-level principles. Consider
someone who finds Ross’s prima facie duty of justice intuitive: Prevent distributions of
happiness that are not in accord with merit. I take it that one can have an intuition when
considering the duty of justice (and can have justified beliefs based thereon) even if there is no
such duty. Intuitions are not just defeasible. They are deeply fallible, and yet justification
conferring for all that. Of course, one who endorses a theory of self-evidence can drop the truth
requirement in an attempt to salvage the core of the theory. I will consider this option shortly
after setting out the rudiments of intellectual seeming theory.
Rather than talk of understanding the self-evident, Michael Huemer classifies all
intuitions as a sui generis kind of seeming state (or appearance state) – one that is initial and
intellectual, but not a belief (2005: 99). Ethical intuitions, then, are initial intellectual seemings
about ethical matters (2005: 102). And intuitions justify corresponding beliefs insofar as they
instantiate the general principle of phenomenal conservatism (PC): “If it seems to S that p, then,
in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some degree of justification for believing that
Shall we favor this view over self-evidence theory? It has an advantage in that it features
no truth requirement, but what if the self-evidence theorist drops truth? Here I think seeming
state theory is simply more perspicuous, and it captures all the cases of intuition. We should
keep self-evidence theory around (minus the truth condition) only if there is some theoretical
work for it to do. Here are three obvious roles: 1) self-evidence could help to characterize some
intuitions that do not feature seeming states at all; 2) it could be that in some cases on intuition
self-evidence theory captures some element needed in addition to a seeming state; or 3) it could
be that in some cases self-evidence theory captures an element that augments intuitions
constituted by seemings. It does none of these things. First, to my knowledge, there is no good
example of an intuition that does not feature a seeming state (and no good example of an agent
who has intuitive justification for some belief that P that is not based on a seeming). The self-
evidence theorist needs to produce such a case if self-evidence is to take up the slack.
Second, it is possible that some intuitions are constituted by seemings plus something else
that self-evidence theory helps to capture. Here again the onus is clearly on advocates of self-
evidence theory to produce examples of ethical intuitions that cannot be fully understood in
terms of seemings. Or if intuitions are fully constituted by seemings, but they justify only when
they also feature a grasping of something self-evident, the self-evidence theorist must say more
about the positive account of justification. We certainly take seemings to be sufficient for prima
facie justified believing, and we would need some reason to require grasping the self-evident as
Third, are there cases in which understanding a self-evident proposition might augment
8 Huemer (2007: 30). For an earlier statement see Huemer (2005: 99).
one’s intuition, which is constituted by a seeming, which might augment one’s intuitive
justification? This would certainly leave some room for self-evidence theory, but again it is
difficult to think of cases that feature some psychological or justificatory residue left
unaccounted for by seeming theory, and even more difficult to see how self-evidence might fill
the gap. And again the onus is on the self-evidence theorist. Thus I provisionally conclude that
it will be more promising to plumb the depths of seeming state theory if we are to understand
what ethical intuitions are and how they justify.
2 Different Kinds of Seemings
Unfortunately, Huemer’s appeal to seeming states has problems of its own. Though
Huemer distinguishes types of seemings—intellectual, sensory experiential, memorial, etc.—his
view is that they are all constituted by attitude-(propositional) content pairs, where the nature of
the propositional attitude determines which species of seeming is instantiated in any given case.
In this vein he says:
I take statements of the form “it seems to S that p” or “it appears to S that p” to
describe a kind of propositional attitude, different from belief, of which sensory
experience, apparent memory, intuition, and apparent introspective awareness are
species. This type of mental state may be termed an “appearance.” PC
[phenomenal conservatism] holds that it is by virtue of having an appearance with
a given content that one has justification for believing that content.9
(Here we can accord Tolhurst (1998), who holds that all seemings are intentional states with
propositional content.) Huemer is more generally concerned to rebut the view that only certain
classes of seemings justify. A more nuanced question that concerns me is whether different
seemings justify in different ways. On the natural reading of PC all varieties of seemings bear on
justification in the same way regardless of any differences between the species of seemings.
9 Huemer (2007: 30) (footnotes omitted).
This merits critical attention. And a good place to start is with the nature of various
Consider first sensory experience. On Huemer’s view a sensory experience would
feature one species of a seeming-type propositional attitude taken toward some propositional
content. Though others have tended to agree, this view strikes me as mistaken. Firstly, what is
perhaps a minor point, it is questionable that the contents of sensory experience are propositions.
The contents of sensory experiences are typically quite rich, and their qualitative nature does not
seem to be the nature of propositions. A more moderate view is preferable – that some of the
contents of sensory experience are at least propositionalizable. Prima facie this friendly
amendment does not threaten the justificatory work that sensory experiences are supposed to
Secondly, and more importantly, it is dubious that sensory experience features a seeming-
type (propositional) attitude, as opposed to contents that in themselves make things seem a
certain way. To see this choice clearly, consider a case where one looks at a stick that is placed
in some water causing a sensory experience whereby it seems to one that the stick is bent. The
question here is whether the experiential mental state features a non-doxastic attitude in addition
to the bentish content, and in virtue of which it seems to one that the stick is bent. Importantly,
the question is not whether one can withhold doxastic acceptance when it seems that the stick is
bent—clearly, if one believes that the stick only looks bent because it is placed in water one can
fail to believe that the stick is bent. The question is whether the seeming is in some special
attitude taken toward the content, or in the content itself. A little reflection reveals the second
option as the natural way to think about the case. If the seeming were in the attitude then it
should be possible to have the very same bent-stick experiential content before the mind without
it seeming that the stick is bent. Just toggle the seeming attitude off and place some other
attitude in its stead. Yet this is not a genuine possibility. Even someone with ideal imaginative
capacities that can bring the bent-stick experiential content before his mind cannot do so without
it thereby seeming to him that the stick is bent. At most he can withhold doxastic acceptance of
the content, but he cannot withhold the seemingness if he has that content. The seeming, then, is
built into the content of sensory experience, as it were, and not to be found in some attitudinal
stance toward the content.10
If so, and if a seeming that p is sufficient to justify one’s belief that p (absent defeaters),
as the principle of phenomenal conservatism holds, then it is a character of the content of sensory
experience that justifies beliefs based on that sensory experience, and not any attitude that is
involved. Indeed, this seems to be right. When the hypothetical agent above forms the belief
that the stick is bent (without any inclination that it is placed in water) based on his sensory
experience it is the content of the sensory experience that justifies the belief – the bent
stickishness before his mind.
This view of experiences can be challenged if it turns out that any given sensory
experience content can be held constant while varying whether that content seems to be the case.
There are some interesting cognitive disorders that might be probative here. One disorder,
known as face blindness, or prosopagnosia, causes individuals to lose their ability to recognize
10 The following objection is not a good one: one’s experiential seemings can change as one’s
doxastic makeup changes; therefore, the seeming is in an attitude. Doxastic changes only affect
an experiential seeming that p by affecting the content of the seeming. In the Muller-Lyer
illusion, for instance, if one line does not seem to you to be longer than the other, then the
content of your experience must differ from mine. Either that or when you say ‘I’ve learned my
lesson - it doesn’t seem that one line is longer any more’ you mean that you’ve learned to
withhold doxastic acceptance of the proposition that one line is longer.