What is Intuitionism? - Characteristics, Strengths & Weaknesses

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  • 0:02 Intuition
  • 1:21 Intuitionism
  • 3:41 Strengths & Weaknesses
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Of all the places to look for moral truths, one common suggestion is within our own minds. But this means something distinct within the philosophy of intuitionism. Explore this philosophy and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Intuition

Some things are just right, and some things are just wrong. How do I know? Because I know. I know that good is good because I know that good is good. I just know, you know? I know because it's obvious. I know because it's intuitive. Intuition is the ability to understand something without conscious reasoning or thought.

You see, we don't have to put a lot of thought into absolutely everything we do. Well, some of us don't put much thought into anything we do. But the point is that some things are just obvious at a subconscious level. I'm hungry. I'm happy. This chair is comfy. I'm happy that this chair is comfy. These are things I know intuitively.

I also know that stealing is bad, being honest is good, and being mean is wrong. Yes, I had to learn these things once, but now they're so obvious that I don't even have to think about them. So, intuition is a pretty powerful thing, and for many philosophers, that makes it an important place to look for moral truths. After all, some things you just know. You know?

Intuitionism

Where does intuition come from? It's a subconscious reflex, something free of conscious decision-making, so that leads many philosophers to assume that there is something inherently truthful about it. Intuitionism is the philosophical theory that basic truths are known intuitively. Basically, your intuition knows something because it is true. Universally, objectively, true. When you're a philosopher, looking for the fundamental sources of morality, that's a pretty major claim to make.

But, intuition is not supposed to guide our every action. According to intuitionism, our intuition helps us discover fundamental morals, but we still have to decide how to put those into action on a daily basis and make the best choice for any given situation.

Now, there are many branches of intuitionism, but in its simplest form, this theory rests on three beliefs. First, objective moral truths do exist. There is such a thing as right and wrong, and your personality, society, or culture do not change those.

Second, fundamental truths cannot be broken down into simpler components. This idea, first majorly articulated by the philosopher G. E. Moore in 1902, states that a basic moral truth is like any basic truth. Moore famously said that yellow can only be described as yellow - you can't attempt to break it down any further because yellow is a primary color and things that are yellow are simply yellow. By that same logic, things that are objectively and fundamentally good are good. You can't define good by happiness or pleasure or benefit to society, you can only define it as good.

And the third belief of intuitionism is that human beings are able to know these truths through intuition. Now, this theory admits that we can twist and misinterpret basic truths because we are emotional beings, but the fact remains, intuitively, we know if something is right or wrong.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The supporters of intuitionism believe that this theory solves many great problems with ethical philosophy. Often, philosophers say that we cannot know universal truths because our emotions get in the way, or that moral truths don't really exist. Intuitionism is, therefore, a great way to explain how we can find moral truth while still acknowledging that humans are emotional beings who interpret their morals very differently. That's why there are so many ideas about right and wrong, because we can easily convince ourselves to believe what we want. Intuitionism does not, therefore, necessarily judge the morality of specific actions, but just illustrates that moral truth is real and accessible, and encourages people to seek it.

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