Intuitions are no basis for morality – reason must rule

Intuitions are not reasons. If I want someone to do something, I cannot justify my request by saying, “Because it’s obvious to me that you ought to do so.” Regretfully, many people on both the Right and the Left are currently disposed to this approach to social theory.

The most interesting case is that of the Left because they admonish evangelicals for deferring judgment to some higher being, but rather than take this criticism to heart, the Left follows suit and, instead of deferring to their God’s will, they dictate their own. Such unilateralism is unacceptable.

Both sides can learn something from the sciences. A scientist judges his or her theories according to their explanatory power, and the social theorist should do the same. Since it seems likely that the only explanation that the social theorist can offer is a list of reasons for accepting his or her conclusions, that list of reasons must be the basis by which her proposals are judged.

At this point, one encounters the rationale behind intuitionist social theory. The scientist’s explanation is of empirical data. Hence, one may suppose the social theorist’s is of something similar. However, this is not the case. The social theorist is not a positive scientist. Rather, she is concerned with the most pressing normative question facing humanity: how we ought to interact. That is, her explanations, when successful, will ultimately affect society’s intuitions about morality and not simply reiterate them.

Still, one may be wondering what sort of reasons can be given for a social theory’s conclusions. The very nature of reasons in this context seems to supply an answer to this question. A statement given by M is not a reason for N to do X, unless it motivates N to voluntarily perform X. Furthermore, a social theory’s scope of concern is, obviously, a society. Consequently, a statement is a reason to accept a social theory if and only if it motivates every member of a particular society to voluntarily act in accordance with its conclusions regarding human interaction.

This conception of social theory has the advantage of capturing many of the more appealing aspects of other conceptions of morality and social theory. First, it appeals to reason. Second, insofar as people take the consequences of following a social theory into account, this conception of social theory does, too. And lastly, the above discussion shows why impartiality seems to be so important in judging social theories.

I am sure that upon thoughtful reflection by many people, this method could yield many diverging social theories.

However, I find it likely that most of them would be some variation of a liberal Pareto principle. The Pareto Principle states: “A social state of affairs . is ‘efficient’ or ‘optimal’ if one cannot improve the situation of anyone in it without worsening the situation of someone else.” Additionally, a social state of affairs, B, is said to be Pareto superior to another, A, if B contains people who are better off than they were in A and no one in B is worse off than they were in A.

By a liberal version of this principle, I mean one that understands better and worse off in terms of the preferences of particular individuals as seen by those particular individuals. After all, those are the only preferences relevant to whether or not a statement is a reason to accept a social theory. Further examination of the Pareto principle will have to wait for another time, but its motivation is certainly clear given the above discussion regarding the method of the social theorist.