Edit to add another (better?) phrasing

I'm looking for information that addresses this question:

All prescriptive ethical theories need to be descriptive to at least some degree(1). However, a completely descriptive ethical theory is just that -- descriptive. How do you judge (or what is a framework for judging) whether a set of cases where the ethical theory prescribes different moral judgement/behaviour than is typically observed constitutes a failure of the ethical theory?

Who has explicitly addressed the problem as to when to decide to allow for a specific ethical theory to deviate from common-sense moral intuitions?

(1) By descriptive I mean describing/reproducing what some people assess as the correct moral decision. If a purported ethical theory did not have any particular relationship to the common sense use of the word ethics, we'd hardly call it an ethical theory.

Original Question

Who has explicitly addressed the problem as to when to decide to allow for a specific ethical theory to deviate from common-sense moral intuitions?

Suppose I set up a suitably elaborated theory of ethics, and I find that gratuitous murder is perfectly acceptable. This seems like a good reason to reject that theory of ethics, i.e. it seems that matching at least some basic moral intutions is a requirement of any ethical theory.

Suppose I set up a suitably elaborated theory of ethics, but it fails to correspond with typical people's responses to the Trolley Problem(s). Should that be interpreted as a failure of the theory of ethics, or as a case where peoples' typical intuitions are morally suspect?

Requiring that theories of ethics merely be able to reproduce typical moral intuitions seems unduly limiting -- it rules out the existence of prescriptive moral theories. [Note that arguments that all moral theories cannot/should-not be prescriptive would address this question.] In addition, this seems problematic in the moral test cases where there is no clear common intuition (I don't know of any such cases, but I can't rule out that they exist).

I see similar delineation problems in terms of aesthetics and epistemology, and it might arise in other fields as well. Thus someone may have tackled this as a kind of general problem, if so that is of interest too.

  • I acknowledge that matching moral intuitions may merely be a proxy for matching on a more fundamental level, i.e. good moral theories match most moral intuitions because they capture something fundamental about morality; that same fundamental is the cause of the moral intuition. This still leaves the problem of identifying which moral intuitions are good indicators of the underlying moral fundamentals.
    – Dave
    Oct 14, 2014 at 14:09
  • I think your title is inappropriate; the delineation of descriptive and prescriptive ethics is not about intuitions, it's about the role of culture and social development. Descriptive ethics is rationalist (see my answer); prescriptive may be. Oct 14, 2014 at 16:46
  • @goldilocks see my edit -- I think that it clarifies how I see this as a question about the boundary between the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of ethical theories.
    – Dave
    Oct 14, 2014 at 18:20
  • I think there is a bit of a loophole in your question. Historically most moral questions have not been widely agreed upon. There may be a few extreme examples (say murdering your own children) that are universally considered bad, but on almost every question there are at least degrees of difference between societies. Therefore I do not think any moral system can be purely descriptive without being uselessly narrow. That's why no one seems to agree on moral systems, cause others' seem to conflict with our intuitions on at least some points.
    – Jason Bray
    Jun 30, 2016 at 16:51

3 Answers 3


Sisela Bok has a few books that try to give non-technical overview of just these concerns about when a general principle of ethics becomes impossible to hold prescriptively, and where the contradictions lead.

One is on lying one is on secrecy and one is on the use of violence as entertainment. She goes over in detail how general rules break down and how different people have looked at case-wise ethical concerns.

I find them tedious, and only ever got to the middle of the second one. But her footnotes might point you at someone you find more interesting.

  • Here's a summary of On Lying infed.org/mobi/… -- the explicit description of a process to validate that a general principle should be over-ridden in a particular case, gets at the intent of this question.
    – Dave
    Oct 14, 2014 at 20:39

Who has explicitly addressed the problem as to when to decide to allow for a specific ethical theory to deviate from common-sense moral intuitions?

It's not much of problem to start with. Most ethical theories are not intuitionist, that is, they do not depend upon "common-sense moral intuitions" -- they derive either from rationalism or theology. Although theological systems may posit (e.g.) a role for a God given sense, this does not mean that the distinction between right and wrong is founded in such a sense; rather, the sense is founded in the distinction, which is dictated by God, and in such systems there will never be a case where the sense deviates from correct.

WRT rationalist theories, "intuition" may be a starting point for inquiry but it must be assumed that intuition is not necessarily correct. For example, if someone says, "My gut tells me killing is wrong" (or "..the Earth is flat"), a rationalist asks, "Why should this be accepted as true? What arguments can be made for and against the intuition?"

A rationalist critique of intuitionism would be that intuitions are neither divine nor biologically hard-coded (instincts), and instead purely psychological phenomenon. They might represent unconscious beliefs, that is, things we have uncritically absorbed and accepted as truth without reflection, and/or things that simply "seem obvious" on the surface. Going back to the Earth is a flat plane example, on the surface, it might seem "common sense" and our senses tell us this, but if we inquire further, it is easy to posit a counter theory, that the Earth is spherical, and state that our senses can tell us this also (even if it does not jibe with common sense). So if it is not purely a matter of the empirical, moving from a flat to a round Earth involves working through some (un)conscious assumptions to see if they are rationally justified.1

To sum up, in most secular ethical theories deviation from common sense intuition would be allowed if it can be demonstrated that the intuition is not rationally justified. In theological systems, true mortal intuition can never be wrong; the problem is that you are confused/corrupted or the victim of interference from a supernatural entity.

1. E.g. if "common sense" says that down, the direction in which things fall, is an absolute direction, the surface of the Earth could not be curved and thus a round Earth, where down is relative to the center, would be highly "counter intuitive".

  • I mostly agree. There are, however, theological ethical systems called "voluntarism" which says that God is not bound by reason and that things are however he wishes them to be. In that case, human intuition can be wrong. Oct 14, 2014 at 16:50

Two points:

Deviations from Moral Intuitions

It seems a simple consequence of logic that if you identify certain moral positions (X is morally right, Y is morally wrong, etc.), any system of ethics that goes against those positions must be incorrect. In questions of right and wrong, whether a belief is commonly held is potentially informative but not of ultimate importance.

Constructing an Ethical System

Most philosophers I've read alternate between appeals to intuition and laying down specific rules:

  1. Socrates does this by asking his interlocutor a series of questions (e.g., about different virtuous people) to draw out some intuition, and lead that intuition to more general statements until there is something prescriptive (e.g., whether Virtue can be taught).
  2. Acquinas in Summa Theologica does not lay out rules. Instead, he asks himself a series of questions about a single topic. From the answers to those questions, one can come away with a prescriptive answer.
  3. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity uses as the underpinning of all his logic that in figuring out how other humans work, we have as ourselves the first example. He then takes intuition about what we know about ourselves to extrapolate to other people.

Those are just three examples, but I could keep going. It seems then that as a practical matter, the problem you pose of having a complicated ethical framework that doesn't pass some basic (by the author's own criteria) sanity check at the end of its construction is generally not an issue, as philosophers build ethical systems bit-by-bit, testing whether what they've said makes sense along the way, checking that the most basic issues are handled in the beginning.

  • I was in agreement until you said "is not possible" because utilitarianism absolutely can find itself in such a situation, and generalizing a little, other forms (e.g. Kantian) can return equally monstrous results (e.g. it is wrong to kill a single person if doing so is necessary to prevent the torture and then slaughter of every other living human--for if you were to do so you would be treating them as a means to an end (i.e. stopping torture+slaughter of everyone)). So I don't think this answer is true in particular or gets at the OP's concern at all.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 14, 2014 at 19:39
  • Sorry, what I wrote in retrospect was unclear. My point was that having an ethical framework whose author then finds suddenly at the end doesn't pass some basic tests is not, in practice an issue (and thus presented as a false dilemma by OP). As in your example, a utilitarian may come up with what an ethics that does the "wrong thing," but a utilitarian would never come to the end and be surprised that in certain cases people are being used as means to ends. Oct 14, 2014 at 20:04
  • The intent of the first example case was to present a clear case where it seems sensible that conflict with commonsense morality could be used to reject an ethical theory. If you like, you can interpret "suitably elaborated" as "just having started to elaborate...". (I've removed "end of the day" from the question).
    – Dave
    Oct 14, 2014 at 20:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .