Ethics, theory, and intuition

Are thoughts good or bad? Do they necessitate ethical (or unethical) behaviors and practices?

Both as a Buddhist and a Pragmatist, I don’t believe we ‘own’ our thoughts at all. Thoughts are generated by electrochemical activity in the brain, responding to previous experiences. There is no reason to claim them as ‘mine,’ any more than I can claim that what I see is somehow generated by my eyes. The sun rises, the sun sets – have I control over seeing this? Thoughts about neighbors, or employment, or politics – is any of this ‘me’?

“Me’ is just an existential convenience; thus any thought ‘me’ entertains is simply that fiction re-investing itself in its own existence.

Problems arise when people think they own their thoughts, and that such ownership requires action. What a waste of time!

There are no ‘good’ thoughts, and none ‘bad.’ There are physiological responses that demand ‘I’ respond to ‘my’ thoughts, and there is recognition that all thought is, on one level or other, simply what passes through a brain too enamored of itself and needing practice to learn otherwise.

(Also, as someone who has written a bit of fiction as a hobby, I should note that good fiction writers need to think unthinkable thoughts, if they are to get to the truth of their characters. Dostoyevsky wrote brilliantly – from the inside – of murders, as did Poe. Neither committed murder, as far as I know. They didn’t have to – they knew their fictions were just that. All our thoughts are fictions, sometimes useful to act upon, sometimes not. It is misguided to believe otherwise.)

Most of our ethical responses do not derive from well-thought out ethical theories, direct reasoning of right and wrong. This might be an ideal, but it is not the human animal as we have known it through history. One can imagine an Aquinas, or a Kant, or a Confucius pondering an ethical choice carefully before deciding on the proper action to take; but most of us rely on what we often call ‘gut-feelings’ – or, more reflectively, our intuitions.

There is a mainstream theory in contemporary philosophy that intuitions just are beliefs – thoughts occurring as linguistic units that we hold to be justified. It should be noted that if this is so, then intuitions can be stated as propositions for analysis; and that as statements they can be used for theory construction; thus intuition and theory would be co-dependent. But this is actually an over-sophistication of common experience.

Most people do not experience intuitions as thoughts, but as feelings. Often these feelings are quite vague and difficult to articulate. I walk into a room filled with strangers, and feel uncomfortable, leaving as quickly and as gracefully as I may. Why? ‘I don’t know, those people were just not my type.’ Can this be stated as a belief? possibly, but how meaningfully? to what end? Can background beliefs be uncovered? Also possibly; but those beliefs are not the intuition, they merely condition it as response.

The conditioning of our intuition by belief, by converse with others, by reading or other interaction with cultural experience (art, the sciences, media), is by no means a trivial matter that we can leisurely cast aside. Our intuitions are not “instincts,” as they are sometimes called, arising from biological necessity. They develop as responses during maturation among elders and peers. They keep us aligned with, connected with, the unstated (but viscerally experienced) feelings of others.

But this conditioning raises important questions; after all, how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided? And what can we do when the conditioning fails, for whatever reason, and we cannot respond properly by intuition?

So I do think there’s a place for ethical theory. Having experienced a highly dysfunctional upbringing, I’m not so keen on trusting to sympathy for assuring ethical responses. There is certainly a pathology to be found among those who do not feel the sympathies that drive much ethical behavior. Unfortunately, in a society as diverse and fragmented as our own, such pathologies are quite wide-spread, even among the brightest. Some suffering this, recognizing their deficiency, may develop or learn appropriate responses through theory, which thus provides a kind of therapy. And there is some value in it as propadeutic, helping condition the feelings that we rely on in our actual behavior. And without a healthy public discussion on ethics, some would be left dependent on indoctrination – or on blind obedience to law. Theory of ethics may have limited value, but thinking about ethics is generally a useful endeavor, as long as one doesn’t obsess on it. And any ethical behavior ought to be reasonably explained, if only post-hoc, in order to provide guidance for future behavior, by further conditioning the intuitions – the feelings – that finally drive all our behaviors.

Nonetheless: I remember I had read about Maimonides as a great ethical thinker; so I was surprised to discover, on reading the passages on ethics in Guide of the Perplexed, fairly common sense instruction to ‘be good,’ ‘act charitably,’ ‘don’t envy others,’ and like calls to heed the instructions of one’s elders. At first I was disappointed; but on reflection I realized that the richest wisdom is often the simplest and most commonplace. Much sound ethical instruction, however phrased, amounts to ‘be good;’ and that’s probably as it should be. Ethics is about what we do together, not esoteric schema that we talk about.


Now, for future discussion, I note that I’ve surfaced a problem without providing resolution, and it’s important, so I’ll repeat it: “how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided?” In other words, what do we do when the society around us – that raises us and guides us, and gives us the bearings by which we navigate our lives – just happens to be wrong?  And how do we do this, how do we change our minds?  It’s a difficult question for any theorist of a social-determinist bent. I have suggested possible answers before (it’s one of the reason I’m a ‘compatibilist’ on the ‘free will/determinist’ debate). But the various conflicts involved – between socialization and individuation, between necessary acceptance of communal norms and equally necessary transgressions, between collective interests, humanistic interests, and social justice – are extraordinarily complex, and attempts to articulate them sometimes feel like trying to catch the wind….

In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty
I want to be in the warm hold of your loving mind

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while behind your smile
And everywhere I’d look your eyes I’d find

For me to love you now
Would be the sweetest thing, it’s what’d make me sing
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind

For standing in your heart
Is where I want to be and long to be
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

– Donovan Leitch


3 thoughts on “Ethics, theory, and intuition

  1. “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
    There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”
    (“Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin)

    The Humbling of Indra

    Joseph Campbell
    Lecture I.1.2. The Individual in Oriental Mythology
    13:42 Minutes


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