Common Sense and First Principles in Sidgwick's Methods

Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (1):179-201 (1994)
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What role, if any, should our moral intuitions play in moral epistemology? We make, or are prepared to make, moral judgments about a variety of actual and hypothetical situations. Some of these moral judgments are more informed, reflective, and stable than others (call these ourconsideredmoral judgments); some we make more confidently than others; and some, though not all, are judgments about which there is substantial consensus. What bearing do our moral judgments have on philosophical ethics and the search for first principles in ethics? Should these judgments constrain, or be constrained by, philosophical theorizing about morality? On the one hand, we might expect first principles to conform to our moral intuitions or at least to our considered moral judgments. After all, we begin the reflection that may lead to first principles from particular moral convictions. And some of our moral intuitions (e.g., that genocide is wrong) are more fixed and compelling than any putative first principle. If so, we might expect common moral beliefs to have an important evidential role in the construction and assessment of first principles. On the other hand, common moral beliefs often rest on poor information, reflect bias, or are otherwise mistaken. We often appeal to moral principles to justify our particular moral convictions or to resolve our disagreements. Insofar as this is true, we may expect first principles to provide a foundation on the basis of which to test common moral beliefs and, where necessary, form new moral convictions.

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David Brink
University of California, San Diego


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