When should moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning?

Every set of moral principles of which I am aware can be made to look ridiculous. All that is needed is to construct a hypothetical scenario – a ‘thought experiment’ – in which the set of principles (I will call the set a ‘framework’) leads, via an unassailable logical argument, to a conclusion that recommends a morally repugnant act.

Utilitarianism can usually be made to look silly via a thought experiment in which cruelty to one innocent individual will save many others from great suffering. Kantian ethics, with its absolute rules such as ‘never lie’ can be made to look silly by hypothesising a mariticidal spouse at the door that wants to know where her fleeing husband is. Divine command ethics is made to look silly by the story of Abraham and Isaac, or any of the Old Testament genocides. Virtue ethics might escape the silliness charge, but only by being so vague that it avoids making any moral recommendation in a case where all alternative actions are unpalatable to our moral intuitions. Such indecisiveness seems to me even sillier, as to not act is itself an act, and often has worse outcomes than taking one of the unpalatable actions.

But we are moral creatures, living in a world beset by moral dilemmas. We must act, so we need some basis for deciding. How can we decide about actions when we feel that every possible moral framework is flawed in some way?

One response is to insist that moral reason over-ride intuitions. Under this approach, we would decide on our fundamental moral principles via a period of intense reflection. Once decided, we would make all moral decisions by reasoning from those principles, and we would stick with the decision even if we found it repugnant to our intuitions.

This approach has the advantage of logical consistency in the sense that all decisions are consistent with the principles, and hence with each other. However there is troubling inconsistency in the fact that the whole system rests on principles whose sole justification is our moral intuition, yet we then reject our moral intuition when it conflicts with the rational application of those principles. If our intuition is good enough to serve as the foundation for our entire framework, why is it not good enough to over-rule that framework when there is a conflict?

At the opposite extreme is a variant of Moral Particularism, in which we reject all moral principles and moral reasoning, and judge every potential action based solely on our intuitive moral feelings about it. I don’t like the sound of that, as it allows very little scope for moral development. If we have an intuitive dislike for certain people or actions, based on some combination of our natural dispositions and our upbringing, we will never find any reason to challenge and reject that dislike. It could be a belief that women should always obey men, or that other races are less worthy of respect and kindness than my own race for instance.

If we wish neither to always let moral reasoning over-rule moral intuitions nor to always let moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning, we need a basis for deciding which of the two should win when there is a conflict. For a long time this seemed to me an unsolvable problem, leaving us in a state of potential moral confusion. But now I think there may be some hope of a solution. To present it, I will first consider two examples. The examples both relate to utilitarianism, because that is the framework I know most about. But similar examples could be developed for other frameworks.

Example 1. Fred and the Father-son chat

Fred was brought up in a fundamentalist religious family, and one of the moral rules he imbibed from as early as he could understand it was that sexual acts between two men were an abomination – one of the worst possible sins. Coincidentally, Fred also has a genetic disposition to feel a slight aversion towards the idea of sexual acts between two men, in the same way that many animals have a natural aversion towards sexual acts with close blood relatives.

Fred discarded his religious beliefs when at university, has adopted a utilitarian moral framework and is completely persuaded by arguments that consenting, caring sexual relations between two male adults are entirely morally acceptable. Yet, because of his natural inclinations, and the residual effect of his upbringing, from which he will never be able to completely free himself, he still feels intuitively that there is something wrong with male homosexual acts, even though his reason says there isn’t.

Fred is now happily married to a woman and has a ten year old son who is starting to ask questions about sex. Fred wonders whether he should portray all types of mature, consenting, respectful sexual activity as equally acceptable, or whether he should subtly imply that heterosexual sex is preferable. His reason recommends the former, but his intuition recommends the latter.

Example 2. Sheila and the Terrorists

Terrorists have hijacked a commercial plane with fifty passengers on it and are planning to crash it into a nuclear power station on the outskirts of a major city. Engineers have advised the Prime Minister, Sheila, that if the plane crashes into the reactor there will be a radioactive cloud released that will kill millions.

Sheila is told that the air-force jets shadowing the plane can fire missiles to destroy it, but without that there is no way of diverting the plane from its target, and there is no way of averting the disaster if the reactor is struck. The pilots only need Sheila’s command to fire the missile.

Sheila is a utilitarian and her conclusion from her moral framework is that she should order the jets to fire. Yet she finds the idea morally repugnant. How can she order the death of fifty innocent people?


My proposal for resolving conflicts like these is to investigate the moral intuition, to try to understand why we hold it. If we are able to find a convincing reason why we feel that way, then we can decide whether we wish to over-rule the moral intuition, based on whether we like that reason and on whether we would like to feel differently if we could.

In Fred’s case it would be fairly easy for him to trace at least part of the source of his negative feelings about homosexuality. He would be well aware of the permanent effect the inculcation of dispositions in young children can have. He would be able to see that he was trained by his fundamentalist parents to feel negatively about homosexual acts, in the same way that he was trained to fear eternal punishment if he ever ceased to believe the dogmas of his parents’ religion. Chances are he has been unable to completely rid himself of either feeling, notwithstanding all the rational arguments he has for their invalidity.

But when he realises that the source of his feeling is a childhood indoctrination that he deplores, he will feel confident about rejecting the feeling, and allowing his moral reasoning to over-rule the moral intuition it provides.

The other criterion is whether he would wish to feel differently if he could. Because he rejects his moral upbringing, he is likely to wish that he did not feel negatively about homosexuality, and to regard that negative feeling as a cross that he reluctantly has to bear. This realisation again supports a decision to over-rule the moral intuition.

What about the other source of the intuition – Fred’s genetic aversion to the idea of homosexual acts? I have no idea whether such a genetic aversion exists and if so whether it is common or very rare. But it is at least plausible that an aversion to homosexual acts could be a trait that is selected for in some species, in order to focus all of the animals’ efforts and energy on sexual activity that propagates the species. If Fred thinks that he may have such a trait then, unless he is prone to the Naturalistic Fallacy (the belief that whatever is natural is morally right), he is likely to conclude that this natural trait is something he would rather suppress and try to eliminate, in the same way humans try, through the process of civilisation and education, to suppress the natural tendency to kill or injure rivals for mates, food or social status. Just as we might wish to be free of our natural tendency to anger, Fred would wish to be free of his aversion to homosexuality, if he could.

All this considered, I feel confident that when Fred has his father-son chat, he will over-rule any inclination to imply that homosexuality is best avoided, and present a picture entirely consistent with the recommendations of his moral framework.

For Sheila it is not so easy. She knows that whatever she chooses will cause her and others enormous anguish. Her moral reasoning is clear – she must destroy the airliner. Her moral intuition tells her that would be a barbaric act.

Sheila can follow the same process as Fred, to try to identify the source of her moral intuition.

She might conclude that her revulsion against killing stems from the same source as her utilitarian principles – her empathy for fellow sentient beings. If she concludes that’s all it is, her choice is easy. The revulsion against killing is there because killing is usually gratuitously cruel. So in a case like this where the killing is not gratuitously cruel (it is cruel, but it is not gratuitous) the justification for the revulsion disappears and it is reasonable to over-rule the revulsion.

But what if Sheila concludes there is more to the revulsion than the fact that killing is usually gratuitously cruel? What if she feels that there is something more that is wrong with killing, beyond its cruelty? If she can positively identify what that ‘something more’ is, then she has discovered a new moral principle, and she can reflect on whether she wishes to respect it or whether she would like to reject it if she could. If it is something she wishes to respect then that opens up the door to allowing the intuition to over-rule the moral reasoning – in other words to not destroy the airliner. What this discovery does is suggest that Sheila’s moral framework is flawed in some way. It may be fundamentally flawed and need wholesale replacement, or it may need to become more nuanced, more complex – perhaps just by adding the new principle to the existing ones or perhaps by more complex changes. Since in this case Sheila has managed to identify the missing principle, it is likely to be possible for her to deduce what changes are needed to her framework to remove this conflict, without introducing any obvious new conflicts. This process has a weak but interesting similarity to the way that scientific theories are refined when new discoveries are made.

Equally possible though is that Sheila is unable to locate the source of her intuition against killing. She is convinced it’s more than just an aversion to gratuitous cruelty, but she can’t work out what that ‘something more’ is. This is different from Fred’s case, where he identified the source and concluded he wanted to reject it. And it is different from the case where Sheila identified the source and concluded she wanted to respect it. To continue the scientific analogy of the previous paragraph, this is like the conflict between observations of the constancy of the speed of light that was demonstrated by the Michelson-Morley experiment and the equivalence of frames of reference (Galilean Relativity). Physicists in the late nineteenth century knew there was a conflict in their theory. They knew there was ‘something more’ needed, but they didn’t know what it was. It was several years before Einstein resolved the conflict with his theory of relativity. That was in one sense a refinement of the existing Newtonian theory. It had new principles that, in most but not all situations, gave very similar answers to the Newtonian theory.

If Sheila can’t pinpoint the source of her intuition then she may well need a new theory. But she can’t be sure of that until the source is pinpointed and a resolution found. In the meantime she just has to do what humans do all the time, in love and war, in cricket and in business – make a decision in the presence of inadequate information. She will go one way or the other, and either way the decision will cause agony for her and for others. The only consolation is that, whatever decision she makes, at least she did her best to work out the right thing to do.


We haven’t developed a way of always choosing between the dictates of moral reasoning and moral intuitions. That would be too much to expect. If there was any moral framework that was completely free of dilemmas we wouldn’t spend so much time debating and comparing moral issues.

We have however identified a way of proceeding when such a conflict arises. In some cases, maybe even most, that approach can lead to a resolution, either via rejecting the intuition as Fred did, or by respecting it as Sheila did in the first instance, and following that by a revision and update of our moral framework.

In the last case, where the source of the intuition cannot be identified, the dilemma remains. But at least in that case we will have highlighted a flaw in our moral framework, and we can stay on the lookout for insights that may enable us to refine the framework to correct the flaw.

And what do I think? Well I think Fred should reject his moral intuition and give his son the even -handed account. And in Sheila’s case I just don’t know. None of the moral frameworks I can think of have an answer to that dilemma that convinces me. I feel there is indeed ‘something more’ that is wrong with killing the people on the plane in that case, but I am hopelessly unable to identify what that ‘something more’ is. So I don’t know what I would do if I were placed in that situation. I’ll just have to hope I never become Prime Minister.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction

November 2012


One Comment on “When should moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning?”

  1. Anon says:

    Great post. Ethics can be maddening (even more so than other branches of philosophy) because, at the bottom, our ethical views are based on passionate responses rather than rational evaluations. Yet — as RM Hare pointed out when explaining his initial abandonment of emotivism — humans almost always feel the need to justify our ethical intuitions rationally and to have ethical principles that are consistent with one another (and to, as you put it “investigate our moral intuitions”). We *feel* as though our ethical intuitions, like our factual beliefs about the world, must accord with some sort of rational, internally-coherent framework, which largely separates our moral sense from our aesthetic senses (which often *are* strictly emotivistic).

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