In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethical Intuitionism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Empirical Challenges
  • Ethical Intuitionism and Metaphysics
  • Ethical Intuitionism and Ethical Pluralism

Philosophy Ethical Intuitionism
Robert Cowan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0037


Ethical intuitionism is the meta-ethical view that normal ethical agents have at least some non-inferentially justified ethical beliefs and knowledge. Although intuitionism has traditionally been associated with non-epistemological views, such as non-naturalism, robust mind-independent realism, and ethical pluralism, the defining thesis is here taken to be an epistemological one. Indeed, the principal motivation for ethical intuitionism is arguably to provide a response to the epistemic regress of justification for ethical beliefs. Given this, both empiricist (“moral sense”) and rationalist intuitionist accounts can be found in the historical and contemporary philosophical literature. Despite being out of favor for much of the 20th century, ethical intuitionism has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Several accounts of how non-inferential justification for ethical beliefs might be possible have been developed and a flurry of critical work has been undertaken in response, much of which has stemmed from work in empirical psychology. This article is largely focused on contemporary debates and developments.

General Overviews

A few good overviews of the literature on ethical intuitionism are available that differ in their focus. Bedke 2010 and the relevant chapter in Zimmerman 2010 are the most up to date. For an introduction to contemporary intuitionism that connects it with historical controversies, see Stratton-Lake 2002. Kirchin 2005 is similar in focus and is also worth reading. Irwin 2008 and Irwin 2009 contain overviews of empiricist and rationalist historical intuitionists. Stratton-Lake 2013 provides a concise account of the historical development of rational intuitionism. For an overview that focuses on the views of historically more remote ethical intuitionists—both empiricist and rationalist—see Hudson 1967.

  • Bedke, M. S. “Intuitional Epistemology in Ethics.” Philosophy Compass 5.12 (2010): 1069–1083.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2010.00359.x

    A very helpful overview of developments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the contemporary literature that focuses on self-evidence, seemings accounts, and challenges to ethical intuitionism from empirical psychology. Also includes some original critical work against contemporary self-evidence accounts.

  • Hudson, W. D. Ethical Intuitionism. London: Macmillan, 1967.

    Overview of some of the more historically remote ethical intuitionist accounts. Discussions of both rationalist intuitionism (e.g., S. Clarke) and moral sense intuitionism (e.g., A. Shaftesbury). Interesting but inessential for understanding contemporary debates.

  • Irwin, T. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study. Vol. 2, From Suarez to Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Excellent overview of the philosophical positions of the major figures in the history of ethics. Contains sections on S. Clarke and Thomas Reid.

  • Irwin, T. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study. Vol. 3, From Kant to Rawls. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Excellent overview of the philosophical positions of the major figures in the history of ethics. Includes sections on Henry Sidgwick, G. E. Moore, and W. D. Ross.

  • Kirchin, S. “What Is Intuitionism and Why Be an Intuitionist?” Social Theory and Practice 31.4 (2005): 581–606.

    DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract200531427

    Presents a critical assessment of some of the arguments presented in Philip Stratton-Lake’s collection Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations (see Stratton-Lake 2002) but also serves as a nice introduction to ethical intuitionism similar in focus to that of Stratton-Lake.

  • Stratton-Lake, P. “Introduction.” In Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations. Edited by P. Stratton-Lake, 1–28. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A good introduction to many of the main concepts associated with ethical intuitionism, including self-evidence and non-naturalism. Notable for its focus on reevaluating the prospects for ethical intuitionism in light of developments in epistemology and ethics. A particularly useful starting point for those new to the subject.

  • Stratton-Lake, P. “Rational Intuitionism.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Ethics. Edited by R. Crisp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199545971.001.0001

    Clear and concise introduction that traces the historical development of rational intuitionism. Contains valuable discussion of objectivity, the nature of moral concepts, and self-evidence.

  • Zimmerman, A. Moral Epistemology. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    The chapter on ethical intuitionism includes a good overview and critical discussion of developments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and is notable for its discussion of perceptual and emotions accounts. Complements the Bedke 2010 introduction owing to its difference in focus; also makes an excellent undergraduate textbook for a moral epistemology course.

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