Can we have moral knowledge without intuition?

I'm trying to justify my ethical beliefs, but can't do so without appeal to intuition.

  • 1
    I believe our moral sense is more like a capacity to recognize rather than an intuition. Experience is required for there be something to recognize, but the moral sense itself is innate.
    – user3017
    Oct 30, 2017 at 22:18
  • 3
    The questions of having and justifying knowledge are different. For instance, many mathematicians would admit the role of intuition in producing new mathematical knowledge, but would deny it a justificatory role. Similarly, we may come to have moral beliefs intuitively, but that does not necessarily justify them. Both IEP and SEP have long articles on Moral Epistemology, i.e. answering how moral knowledge is possible.
    – Conifold
    Oct 30, 2017 at 23:47
  • that's interesting. so i can have moral knowledge that something is permissible without having to try to justify it to anyone else
    – user29299
    Oct 31, 2017 at 0:10
  • 1
    More precisely, you can have an unjustified moral belief, a moral hunch so to speak. Even if true it only becomes knowledge after you can justify it (to yourself or others), at least on Plato's definition of "knowledge".
    – Conifold
    Oct 31, 2017 at 0:37
  • 1
    Moral sense is not definitive enough to serve as a guide to morality in a positive way — God's written revelation is necessary for that; rather, moral sense mostly operates negatively, indicating when we sin. In that way, it serves to indicate our incapacity to live according to God's moral law, making us aware of our need for redemption.
    – user3017
    Oct 31, 2017 at 1:27

3 Answers 3


The requirement for intuition is not with morality. You can have a morality based upon just about anything, including the whims of your master, or the whims of some dead master who imagined talking to God. Many people do.

But things change when it comes to your intention to justify your thinking.

No system of justification can exist without some sort of axioms. Whether you explicitly state them or not, you have some basis for your judgments, and you string together judgments according to some set of rules, which are simply the active form of axioms.

What is not covered by accepted or negotiated rules, has to come from interpretation. That means that assent to the rules themselves requires interpretation as a basis. The rules cannot be given to you without a grounding in your interpretation of your situation.

As Descartes pointed out a long time ago, if you dwell upon it long enough, it seems obvious that interpretation necessarily involves starting from internal sensation. The feeling of assent you give to a statement, the idea that you understand anything, is based on an emotional reaction. Most folks informally call that emotion 'intuition'.


Can we have moral knowledge without intuition?

Intuition is not an infallible source of moral knowledge. It is often badly wrong. For example, lots of people in Nazi Germany thought it was perfectly acceptable to torture and murder millions of Jews.

In general, thinking of morality in terms of its source is a bad idea. Moral knowledge is created by guessing about what is right and wrong and criticising the guesses:



We don’t need to assume such a reality in order to explain all that is beyond doubt... Moral intuition and the moral knowledge it is presumed to make possible are redundant hypotheses that we can safely discard. It is largely this dismissal of moral intuitionism that has given rise in the second half of the last century to moral naturalism as the dominant moral theory among those who continue to believe that moral knowledge is possible.

though it still figures in particularism

At the other extreme are forms of moral particularism, according to which one directly intuits the moral rightness or wrongness of an act once one has understood its particular natural features

Without intuitions in the former sense, morally sensitive persons can personally reflect on the relevant features of a situation, and deduce that something is wrong based on

similar examples and general moral principles, trying to arrive at a balanced view of the morally relevant features of the case at hand. Perhaps there are analogues to how we would behave when puzzled about a scientific question.

though I suppose this may also be what is meant someone means by "intuition", a deductive inference based on knowledge we have previously acquired (e.g. "torture is wrong").

Even if the more technical sense of "intuition" cannot justify moral knowledge, having moral intuitions might make us more morally sensitive and help us learn moral knowledge from experience, by encouraging us to e.g. challenge our non-moral motivations and assumptions (I don't have a quote for that, but in the same way as Kantians might not be entirely non-virtuous).

You must log in to answer this question.