In this matter Men must consult their own Breasts. — Francis Hutcheson


Intuitions may be an indispensable tool in philosophical reasoning, but they are also a blunt one and too rarely examined given how often we rely on them. This leads to confused blame for arguments that use them as much as confused praise; an excellent example can be found in Moore’s Two Planets argument against ethical hedonism and Hutcheson’s Dying Benefactor argument against psychological egoism. Both rely completely on intuition-pumping to do their work; both are routinely dismissed as crass question-begging. But an asymmetry in our intuitions in each of these arguments reveals that the charge is unjust; they ought to be just as decisive for skeptics as to converts, and that tells us not only that hedonism and egoism are false, but also something interesting about the nature of philosophical intuitions.


Philosophers, typically, have intuitions, and at some point or another we are all inclined to use them. Appeals to intuition occur at some point in many if not most philosophical arguments: every argument needs premises, and if you trace them back, sooner or later, you’re bound to reach a fork in the road, and some sort of more immediate insight, defended by means other than philosophical inference, is brought out to settle which way to go — that is, to determine, or at least set some boundary conditions for, answers to hard questions about premises, arguments, analytic definitions, or necessary and sufficient conditions. But if intuitions are a popular — and probably indispensable — tool for philosophers, they’re also something of a blunt tool: they’ll nail down the issue decisively for those you can get to share them, but they are also easy to misuse and often swung with full force where they are neither needed or wanted. They are by nature fuzzy, sporadic, and unsystematic — some might say unprincipled — and notoriously unlikely to convince those who are willing to keep even a little bit of skeptical distance. Even when used correctly they’re likely to give off a bit of the musty odor of dogmatism.

But different arguments lean on intuitions at different points, to different degrees, and in different ways. And the category that the current fashion dubs our “intuitions” is really so broad — including what were once (according to the nature of the appeal and the fashion of the times) variously called deliverances of Common Sense, verdicts of conscience, primitive propositions, clear and distinct perceptions, endoxa, the un-forgetting of the Forms, and more besides — that the general category can hardly be distinct enough to be both coherent and interesting at the same time. Careful examination is needed, and concrete examples, to say anything clearly. What I intend to do in this essay, then, is examine a couple of controversial arguments that depend heavily on intuition: G. E. Moore’s Two Planets argument against hedonism, and an argument from Francis Hutcheson’s Inquiry directed against psychological egoism. Moore’s argument, at least, is notorious for its appeal to intuitions — because it’s so completely and self-consciously an intuition-pump that many philosophers can see it as nothing more than crass question-begging; similar sentiments would no doubt be widely expressed towards Hutcheson, if he were as widely read as Moore. But intuition-pumps though they may be, I will argue that these arguments are not only defensible, but in fact decisive. And, furthermore — because of some interesting facts about the role that intuitions play in a proper defense of the arguments — they ought, in fact, to be convincing not only to those who have the intuitions they’re trying to pump, but even to those who don’t share them. Having sketched out my defense of these arguments, I will highlight some of the interesting doctrines that my defense helps itself to in order to do its work.[1]

So much for the preliminaries, then; let’s get on with the arguments.


Here is the argument from Treatise II of Hutcheson’s Inquiry. Hutcheson is arguing that even considering any immediate pleasure in contemplating the happiness of loved ones, there still must be motives for benevolent action other than your own pleasure:

[S]uppose that the Deity should declare to a good man that he should be suddenly annihilated, but at the instant of his exit it should be left to his choice whether his friend, his children, or his country should be made happy or miserable for the future, when he himself could have no sense of either pleasure or pain from their state. Pray would he be any more indifferent about their state now, that he neither hoped or feared any thing to himself from it, than he was in any prior period of his life? (p. 83)

If there you could ever have a reason to do something benevolent, or avoid something malicious, even though you could never reap any pleasure or suffer any pain from it, then there’s at least one reason for acting other than the pursuit of pleasure for yourself. Thus, psychological egoism (which makes a universal claim about reasons for action) is false. Q.E.D.

And here is the argument from Moore’s Principia Ethica. It comes in § 50, during his refutation of ethical hedonism:

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire—mountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. … The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? … If this be once admitted, if in any imaginable case you do admit that the existence of a more beautiful thing is better in itself than that of one more ugly, quite apart from its effects on human feeling, then … we shall have to include in our ultimate end something beyond the limits of human existence. (§50 ¶9)

If anything about the unseen beautiful world makes it rational to prefer it over the unseen heap of filth, then[2] the beautiful world must have at least one thing, other than pleasure, which is good for its own sake. Thus ethical hedonism (which makes a universal claim about the things that are valuable for their own sake) is false. Q.E.D.

Both of these arguments are shameless intuition-pumps; there’s good reason to think that they were both written that way for self-conscious methodological reasons.[3] The dialectic is nearly identical: both appeal to our moral intuitions about hypothetical choice between a clearly benevolent option, and a clearly malicious option, where extraordinary circumstances guarantee that neither could ever affect the balance of pleasure over pain for yourself (in Hutcheson’s case) or anybody (in Moore’s). If you did have to choose between the beautiful and the ugly world, or happiness or misery for your survivors, which would you choose? Both arguments depend on an intuition that you would, after all, have some preference for the benevolent over the malicious choice; that intuition demonstrates that the reductionist theory — either of motivation or of value — cannot capture the real texture of our moral lives. Both arguments also tend to elicit indignant charges of question-begging — charges which include both a deep objection, and countless superficial cavils — “What about the five seconds of guilt you’d feel before you were annihilated?” “Maybe I loathe aesthetic realists so much I’d choose the ugly planet, just to prove them wrong!”

The quibbles, I think, are settled decisively by Moore and Hutcheson themselves, just by making clear, or tightening up, the case that they have in mind (we’re not interested in whether there are instrumental reasons to prefer the ugly over the beautiful world; some small or momentary pleasure can’t properly explain the strength of the preference we have, or ought to have).[4] But there remain deeper reasons to charge Moore and Hutcheson with question-begging. Because their arguments owe their force entirely to the moral intuitions you have about your choice, how could they convince anyone except those who share your intuitions? What’s to stop a hedonist from just insisting, “On sober reflection I don’t agree that there’s any reason for me to prefer my survivors’ happines or the existence of an unseen beautiful world.” If forced to choose they might just insist they’d choose arbitrarily.[5] It’s far from inconceivable that a hedonist might just stick to her guns like this;there are a lot of hedonists out there and they may well have already imagined cases like this and decided for indifference. Broadly, how can an intuition-pump work if your interlocutor just hasn’t got the intuition?


Still, it’s worth pausing to note how strong these arguments really are, just as they’ve been presented, even in the face of such a charge. There probably are hold-outs willing to claim that comparing the two planets or the two fates for their family just leaves them cold. But there are also plenty of people who are convinced by it, who find that they do have some intuition that they would make the benevolent choice. Those people have already been given as good a reason as any to reject hedonism, and that alone is an interesting philosophical result. But the charge of question-begging is a serious one, and I did promise that my argument should convince even those who do not share my intuitions about these hypotheticals. Fortunately, there is a move left for Moore and Hutcheson, even if they did not avail themselves of it: the appeal to asymmetric intuitions. Here’s what I mean: someone who’s skeptical of the arguments wants us to accept indifference between the benevolent and malicious choices as a plausibly imaginable outcome. Well, maybe it is; those intuitions aren’t my intuitions, but if I take a step back from the question of what I would do, I can understand someone else having the intuition that she would be indifferent. Indifference seems like it’s available for consideration, even if, in the end, it’s the wrong answer.[6] But to be fair, the hedonist ought to admit that the same is true of intuitions in favor of the benevolent option: even if you think they’re wrong, you ought to be able to imagine someone having them without thinking them especially perverse or unreasonable. But while I can understand someone wanting even unseen happiness or beauty, and I can also understand someone not caring either way, I can’t understand anyone wanting pointless suffering for their survivors, or an ugly instead of a beautiful world.[7]

That mismatch should tell us something. Intuitions for indifference may be open to discussion, and so may intuitions for the benevolent option, but an intuition for the malicious option is just crazy. But then even if you don’t share my direct intuitions about whether to prefer one over the other, it seems that there’s something about the malicious option that closes it off from sane intuitions, while leaving intuitions for the benevolent option open. There’s something — which ex hypothesi has nothing to do with producing different amounts of pleasure or pain — that makes the ugly choice more unreasonable and the beautiful choice less. And that means that there must be at least one thing other than pleasure or pain, that affects the rationality of choosing one or the other alternative. And if that’s true, hedonism isn’t. Q.E.D.

In other words: sticking to the hedonist stance doesn’t just require an intuition that you, personally, would be indifferent. It also demands that you regard an intuition for the benevolent choice as just as irrational as an intuition for the malicious choice, and for exactly the same reasons. But what would you say about someone who chose the one, and about someone who chose the other? It’s one thing to suggest that the happiness of your survivors is, when all things are considered, of no real benefit to you, or that preferring that the unseen beautiful world exist is, in the end, a bit silly. It’s quite another to say that useless kindness is just as irrational as ruining your family for no reason other than perverse malice, or that an intuition that the unseen beautiful world ought to exist just for beauty’s sake is just as baseless as an intuition that an unseen filthy world ought to exist just for filth’s sake. But if you can’t sustain these indirect intuitions about my choices as strongly as your direct intuition about your own choice, then you can’t reasonably sustain your hedonism, either.


If my defense of Moore and Hutcheson succeeds, then it offers as good a reason as any to reject both ethical hedonism and hedonistic psychological egoism, even for those who feel some intuitive pull towards them. That’s an interesting result in itself, but it’s also worth saying a bit about what further doctrines my defense helps itself to, and what that means for philosophy.

First, the defense demands that we take virtue- and vice-terms, such as “kind” and “cruel,” or “sensitive” and “philistine,” seriously as reason-giving and action-guiding terms. The reason that the asymmetry in our intuitions exists, and lodges as powerful an objection against hedonism as it does, is that the benevolent option is, in Hutcheson’s case, compassionate, and in Moore’s, aesthetically sensitive; whereas the malicious option is, respectively, senselessly cruel and monstrously philistine. It’s one thing for the hedonist to suggest that kindness or sensitivity might, sometimes, not be valuable by themselves; it’s quite another to maintain that they would be just as irrational as cruelty or philistinism, and the reason for this difficulty is that the cruelty or philistinism of an act is as such a reason against it. Moore and Hutcheson demonstrate that hedonism, in various forms, would require these terms to reduce to a natural description, which may or may not have reason-giving force, depending on the breaks; and that is among the chief reasons that hedonism must be false.

Second, my defense of these intuition-pumps rests heavily on intuitions itself — on the difficulty of sustaining an intuition that intuitions for benevolence would be just as crazy as intuitions for malice. But it’s worth noting that where my appeals to intuition are placed is a bit different from the usual. An interlocutor might share the direct intuitions that Hutcheson and Moore appeal to, and be convinced without any need for my indirect defense; I intend, however, to make the arguments as convincing to the skeptic as to the convert. Yet the intuition that makes the argument work for the skeptic (who doesn’t share our direct intuitions about the choices) is a second-order intuition about the convert’s intuitions (to the effect that, even if wrong, they are not crazy). That is, the argument rests on an appeal to the kinds of philosophical intuitions that might reasonably be on offer; not just the intuitions that you have, but the ones that other people could have that are worthy of rational consideration.

That’s something: the way we talk about “philosophical intuitions” today (and Moore himself, alas, is partly to blame here)[8] almost invariably suggests that their force is (1) psychological in nature, and (2) strictly first-personal. I have my intuitions and you have yours; my intuitions justify my philosophical conclusions because they transfer the confidence I feel in them to whatever they entail. But since you don’t feel my confidence in my intuitions, the only way that I can make my intuitions matter to your conclusions is by getting you to share them somehow, perhaps by telling the right sort of story and eliciting the natural reaction. If that’s all intuitions are and all they do, then charges of question-begging are perfectly just, and worse, it’s unclear why even I should have any confidence that my own intuitions track the truth—felt confidence is a guarantee only of a mental state, not an epistemic one. But if my defense of Moore and Hutcheson works, then it means that we can, and have, put “philosophical intuitions” to work in quite a different way. My argument turned on the distinction between the soft intuitions that you might have about the benevolent option or indifference, and the hard intuition that you ought to have against the malicious option; that distinction was made not in terms of the intensity of your personal commitments, but rather how you would or wouldn’t receive someone else’s intuitions into the space of reflective discourse. The argument calls for a non-psychologistic account of the force of intuitions, and (for precisely the same reason) demands we accept not only our own intuitions, but also other people’s, as potentially probative in philosophical questions. This may illuminate how important it is for philosophy that Common Sense is indeed common, and that Aristotle was on to something when he suggested the opinions of the wise and the opinions of the many as good candidates for endoxa — even though few of us are wise and none of us are many.

Since my own argument rests on an appeal to your intuitions about other people’s intuitions, there might still be someone out there who is willing to grasp the nettle, and deny not only the intuition for the benevolent options, but also the intuition for the asymmetry between the intuitions for the benevolent and malicious options. If someone is willing to earnestly insist that, after all, they think that an unseen hideous world is no worse than an unseen beautiful one, that ensuring your family’s happiness after your death is no more rational than ensuring their ruin, and even that it is no more perverse to think someone could reasonably choose senseless malice or ugliness, as it is to think they might reasonably choose useless beauty or benevolence, then I must admit I have nothing to say to them; only let them hear the words of Hesiod:

Far best is he who knows all things himself,
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight. ◊


  1. I do not, by the way, intend this as a way of identifying potential points of weakness for the argument, but rather as a way to prove that those presuppositions are true. The argument works; therefore we must accept the doctrines presupposed by it. This may seem to beg the question; it almost certainly seems ass-backwards. But what you call ass-backwards I call a transcendental argument, and if you think there can’t be a transcendental argument that’s any good, I offer this argument as empirical evidence that you’re mistaken.

    One further note before I begin. This essay belongs to philosophy and not to scholarship; I’ve argued elsewhere that a solution like this one offers a nicely unified understanding of Hutcheson’s argument for the moral sense, but I don’t know whether Hutcheson would recognize my charitable reconstruction as an interpretation, rather than a revision, of his argument. On the other hand, I think it is clear, from Moore’s discussion of his method in PE §§ 45-46, that this is definitely not how he conceived the force of his own argument. Nevertheless, my formulation makes Moore’s argument more broadly convincing than his own does; so I hope he wouldn’t mind the contribution on his behalf. In any case, whether the argument is Moore’s or Hutcheson’s or strictly my own, it is, I think, interesting, and that is reason enough to offer it.

  2. Barring the pseudo-Berkeleyan maneuver of claiming that the planet would still be pleasant in the sight of an All-Seeing God.

  3. In Moore’s case, the reason is that he says so (in PE § 46); in Hutcheson’s, that it's implicit in his doctrine of the moral sense.

  4. Those who are inclined to deny the intuition may object that there could be reasons to choose the ugly world over the beautiful one; maybe, for example, you hate aesthetic realists so much that you’d do anything just to prove them wrong. (We might name this “the Rob Loftis objection,” after no-one in particular.) But if this is intended as an objection to Moore, then it simply misses the point; of course there may be any number of reasons to ruin some beautiful place -- a desperate need for a toxic waste dump, perhaps, or a fanatical attitude towards moral psychology. But Moore makes it clear that these sorts of considerations do not touch on his point:

    In any actual choice we should have to consider the possible effects of our action upon conscious beings, and among these possible effects there are always some, I think, which ought to be preferred to the existence of mere beauty. But this only means that in our present state, in which but a very small portion of the good is attainable, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake must always be postponed to the pursuit of some greater good, which is equally attainable. But it is enough for my purpose, if it be admitted that, supposing no greater good were at all attainable, then beauty must in itself be regarded as a greater good than ugliness; if it be admitted that, in that case, we should not be left without any reason for preferring one course of action to another (§ 50 ¶ 9).

    Similarly, those who share the intuition for the benevolent choice, but won’t yet give up on hedonism, often produce weak replies such as: “What about the pleasure from imagining the beautiful world and knowing that it’s real?” “What about the five seconds of unbearable guilt that you’d feel before God did annihilate you, if you chose to make your family miserable?” Wouldn’t these tip the scales of pleasure and pain, and so explain away your preference? I think Hutcheson condemns these objections beyond any hope of appeal:

    Can there be any instance given of our desiring any thing only as the means of private good, as violently when we know that we shall not enjoy this good many minutes, as if we expected the possession of this good for many years? Is this the way we compute the value of annuities? (p. 83)

    Whatever pleasure or pain might come from the momentary contemplation of your choice will still be distinctly out of proportion to the strength of the preference. The five seconds of guilt you may feel before annihilation, or whatever pleasure you may take in contemplating the reality of a beautiful world you’ll never see, may tip the scales, but it just hasn’t got the weight you’d need to tip them enough to match the strength of the preference that you ought to have.

    Even if you’re unconvinced that Moore’s or Hutcheson’s cases, as written, are cases with such a noticeable disproportion, it’s easy enough to revise them so that they will be (suppose that God promises you’ll be annihilated as soon as you have made your choice, or that after you have chosen a planet to make real your memory will be altered so that you’ll think it was all a dream). If this are the objections to Moore and Hutcheson, then all you have is an evasion of the thought experiment, not a reply to it.

  5. A clever hedonist might even convince herself that she can confess some emotional tug toward the benevolent option, as long as she explained away the tug by saying that the intuition comes from a psychological confusion, due to the fact that the vivid description of the spectacular or wretched consequences makes us imagine seeing those results, and inflames our emotions. Since our emotional reactions are conditioned by the ordinary cases where future pleasure and pain are under consideration, we end up confusing our intuition about a result we’d experience for an intuition about a result that we could never experience. I think this diagnosis is far from being just, but the reasons why are best explained by the way that our intuitions concerning the benevolent option and our intuitions concerning the malicious option are mismatched, which is discussed properly below.

  6. I’m setting the hedonist up for a fall of course, but she had better agree up to this point anyway. It is only if indifference is a plausibly imaginable intuition, available for rational consideration, that a charge of question-begging could even get a grip, since an option needs to be available for rational consideration before someone giving an argument has any responsibility to rule it out.

  7. To imagine such a person is to imagine someone who is so motivationally monstrous that her perverse preferences couldn’t possibly bear on rational moral deliberation, and her deliberation edges dangerously close to, or perhaps even over, the line of possible sympathetic understanding.

  8. I say partly because while he clearly holds that the evidential force of intuitions is strictly first-personal (see PE § 45 on proof and consensus), he also clearly denies that it is psychologistic (see PE § 86 on intuitions and self-evidence). He suggests the laws of logic, observational reports, and self-evident ethical truths as examples of statements incapable of any direct proof, and suggests that this means that we can only get them or fail to get them for ourselves, but cannot give decisive reasons to anyone who disagrees. The best epistemic satisfaction we can have on these points is consensus, and to strive for it “We can only persuade him by shewing him that our view is consistent with something else which he holds to be true, whereas his original view is contradictory to it. But it will be impossible to prove that that something else, which we both agree to be true, is really so; we shall be satisfied to have settled the matter in dispute by means of it, merely because we are agreed on it” (§ 45 ¶ 2). But Moore does not suggest, and in § 86 he explicitly denies, that the psychological fact of our agreement to, or confidence in, these intuitions is the reason that they are true, or the evidence for them:

    This result, which follows from our first investigation, may be otherwise expressed by saying that the fundamental principles of Ethics must be self-evident. But I am anxious that this expression should not be misunderstood. The expression ‘self-evident’ means properly that the proposition so called is evident or true, by itself alone; that it is not an inference from some proposition other than itself. The expression does not mean that the proposition is true, because it is evident to you or me or all mankind, because in other words it appears to us to be true. That a proposition appears to be true can never be a valid argument that true it really is. By saying that a proposition is self-evident, we mean emphatically that its appearing so to us, is not the reason why it is true: for we mean that it has absolutely no reason. It would not be a self-evident proposition, if we could say of it: I cannot think otherwise and therefore it is true. For then its evidence or proof would not lie in itself, but in something else, namely our conviction of it. That it appears true to us may indeed be the cause of our asserting it, or the reason why we think and say that it is true: but a reason in this sense is something utterly different from a logical reason, or reason why something is true.

    On the other hand, Moore isn’t wholly of having contributed to the psychologistic account of intuitions, either, even if he did not indulge in it himself. Making intuitions’ force strictly first-personal doesn’t entail identifying it with some psychological quality in the belief; but it does make it tempting to do so, since psychological qualities are thought to be the preeminent examples of essentially private attributes. Conversely, it also seems likely that the temptation towards psychologism might help explain why Moore was so confident that, unless we can do something as strong as decisively demonstrating “to deny [a point] involves contradictions” (§ 46), we can do no better but agree to agree on it. If the evidentia weight of non-inferential truths is identical with some psychological quality or another of the belief, then it’s obvious why the only route to their truth is a private pilgrimmage; you’ve got your psychological states but you can’t have mine. But if the weight of non-inferential truths is not psychological in nature, it’s no longer nearly so clear why there might not be any number of ways (analogy, testimony, tradition, exegesis, understanding of language-games, et cetera) much less strict than a formal demonstration that the denial is self-contradictory, or even an inductive argument, that nevertheless provide decisive and public access to the truth. A strictly first-personal account of intuitions and a psychologistic one are not logically equivalent; but I think there are good reasons to see them as mutually reinforcing.