Short Review – P. Singer. Ethics and Intuitions.

Ethics and Intuitions. Peter Singer.  Source: The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3/4, Devoted to James Rachels (2005)


  • After Rachels, holds that intuitions should not be the basis for a normative moral theory.
  • Justifies this with reference to Greene’s Trolley Dilemma, ultimately showing that whilst there may be an emotional difference in throwing a switch or pushing a fat man off an overpass, there is no moral difference.
  • Does hold, however, that ‘the single most important advantage we have over the great moral philosophers of the past is our understanding of evolution and its application to ethics’ but that ‘the direction of evolution neither follows, nor has any connection with, the path of moral progress’.
  • The application of neuroscience and neurobiology is, for Singer, not in that they offer new conceptions of ethics but that ‘undermine some conceptions of ethics which themselves have normative conclusions’. Furthermore, it has helped to explain the causes of previously observed attitudes.
  • Offers two potential directions for future study: firstly, that we can accept that moral intuitions ‘are and always will be emotionally based intuitive responses’, potentially leading to a form of moral scepticism, or we can try to disentangle the emotional responses which we owe to our evolutionary and cultural history from those with a rational foundation.


  • A case of the philosophers strike back. Placing intuitions at the heart of morality surely leads to relativism and, as the Trolley Dilemma shows, ‘there is no point trying to find moral principles that justify differing intuitions’.
  • Seemingly sound but doesn’t question the fundamental presuppositions of Greene’s work – how do we know which emotions are triggered in this experiment?
  • Although could we not regard morality itself as an evolving set of competing (sub) systems? As Singer himself notes ‘there is little point in constructing a moral theory designed to match considered moral judgements that themselves stem from our evolved responses to the situations in which we and our ancestors lived during the period of our evolution as social mammals, primates and finally human beings’.
  • A useful strategy to apply in fields such as human nature, free will, epistemology… almost any aspect of philosophy which deals with a human agent.
  • It is a little unclear as to how the second approach could work, something which Singer himself acknowledges.

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