Moral philosophy has come to rely on moral intuition as an arbitrator of truth. Ethical theories live and die by their ability to match our moral intuitions. The result of this strange worship of intuition is that the moral theories that survive are nothing more than restatements of what philosophers find intuitively plausible, with no justification for their foundation besides their intuitive plausibility.
The problem with this approach is shown most clearly in the case of utilitarianism versus deontological philosophies. Utilitarianism, at least in its simplest form, is a perfect example of moral philosophy done the right way – its premise (that happiness is good and suffering is bad) is observably true, rather than justified “intuitively” (which is not any justification at all). Deontological philosophies are the opposite – their premises rely on things like “rights” and “duties” which can only be justified intuitively.
Since philosophers see moral intuition as the sole determinant of what is right and wrong, utilitarianism is of course criticized on the grounds that it can give counterintuitive conclusions. So for example critics will proudly point out that utilitarianism cannot guarantee against slavery. Of course, it isn’t actually possible to construct a realistic situation where utilitarianism recommends slavery – it’s pretty damn difficult to construct an UNrealistic one – but that’s beside the point. Slavery is always wrong, because our moral intuitions say so. So if utilitarianism says it’s wrong 99.999% of the time then that is not enough, because our moral intuition says that it is wrong 100% of the time. And since it’s impossible that moral intuition could be wrong 0.0001% of the time, utilitarianism must be false.
After having so thoroughly proven utilitarianism false the critic will then go on to argue for his own deontological moral philosophy which, he will proudly note, CAN guarantee against slavery in ALL cases. Deontological philosophy matches our moral intuition that humans should never be enslaved because one of its premises is that humans have a right to freedom, i.e. that humans should never be enslaved. This premise is justified because intuitively it seems obvious that humans should never be enslaved.
Utilitarianism’s ability to go against our moral intuition is not a weakness. It is a strength – no, not even that – it’s a prerequisite for an ethical theory to be able to make any progress at all. If an ethical theory is lauded for its inability to violate our intuitions then it is being lauded for being a reflection of our beliefs rather than for being able to improve our beliefs. It is congratulated for being unable to produce progress.
The progressive nature of utilitarianism versus the sycophantic nature of deontology is born out in philosophical history. Bentham and Mill, the Big Two utilitarians, both worked against racism and sexism at a time when these were dominant ideologies. Why? Because utilitarianism is an actual ethical theory which can make progress; it helps us move beyond our unjustified prejudices and see what is actually true. It is capable of coming to counterintuitive conclusions and of challenging our beliefs.
Deontology – rights and duty-based ethics – is supposed to be superior to utilitarianism because it guarantees against oppression and prejudice. And yet Kant, the great deontologist, was extremely racist and inexcusably sexist. The greatest deontological philosopher of all time had ethical views that were simply unconscionable. This is because the forces deontological philosophies appeal to – ‘rights’ or ‘duties’ - are invisible (and nonexistent), and so what our rights and duties consist of is ultimately determined by intuition, which of course is where our biases and prejudices show themselves most prominently. As such the only thing a deontological philosophy can truly guarantee is not that it will protect against oppression but that it will conform to your prejudices and biases.
Let’s look at an example from the 20th century. Now that intellectuals have reached an agreement that sexism and racism are definitely bad, a deontologist comes out of the woodwork and condemns utilitarianism for not guaranteeing against slavery… even though utilitarian reasoning is the only ethical system that consistently opposes it. This new deontologist is massively successful – this is John Rawls and his Principles of Justice.
But John Rawls’ philosophy is not an improvement. It is again simply an iteration of his generations’ status quo, carrying his generations’ biases and preconceptions along with it. His philosophy does indeed guarantee that it will frown upon the kind of oppressions philosophers were already frowning upon. What it fails to do is fight an oppression that is still considered acceptable – in fact, Rawls’ principles of justice actually work to reinforce that oppression. Specifically, he leaves animals entirely out of his original position thought experiment. This is inexcusable. Bentham, who lived in the eighteenth century, was an animal rights activist. Yet Rawls – a modern 20th century philosopher, who criticizes utilitarianism for failing to protect aganist oppression – cheerfully leaves animals out entirely of his principles of justice. As far as his principles of justice are concerned there is absolutely nothing wrong with factory farms, dog fighting, or any other kind of horrifying mistreatment of animals.
Once animal rights have been established – through utilitarian reasoning – perhaps some fashionable deontologist will condemn utilitarianism for not guaranteeing strongly enough against the oppression of animals; that it allows oppression of animals to occur in an obscure thought experiment that she will fail to define very well. And perhaps she will have dictated this condemnation to an artificially intelligent computer which she cheerfully keeps bound as her personal assistant, because after all, it just doesn’t seem intuitively plausible that computers can have rights.