Undoubtedly, philosophers do make moral judgments about particular cases. For example, they make judgments about actual historical cases – as G.E.M. Anscombe famously judged that it was wrong of President Truman to order the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
However, the ethical intuitions that moral philosophers rely on in testing moral theories – intuitions about trolley problems and the like – are not intuitions about particular cases. They are intuitions about types of cases. Admittedly, they are relatively specific types – but they are types nonetheless. As I shall explain, this has some importance for both moral epistemology and the methodology of moral theory.
The “particular cases” that philosophers present us with in attempting to elicit our intuitions are obviously not actual cases – no effort is undertaken to ensure that any such case has ever actually occurred (typically, no historical sources or newspaper reports are ever cited). Indeed, most probably, no case exactly like the one that the philosopher is presenting us with has ever actually occurred.
This does not matter. All that is required is that it is possible – that there should be some non-actual possible world where such a case occurs. However, it seems that it is never feasible for us to pick out a unique non-actual non-possible world. All that we can do is to quantify over such non-actual worlds – that is, to talk about a range of such possible particular cases, or in other words about a general type of case.
For example, suppose that a philosopher presents us with a trolley problem. If this were a particular case, there would be answers to the questions: Who is the particular agent in this case? (Is it you, or me, or President Trump, or who?) At what time did the trolley start running down the track? (Was it on a Tuesday, or a Thursday?) Where did this happen? (In China, or in Italy? In another solar system?)
However, it is clear that these questions are not meant to have any answers at all. In reflecting on the case, we are thinking about a general type of case – a type of case that would be exemplified equally well if a trolley were to start running down a track in China on a Tuesday, or if a numerically distinct but qualitatively similar trolley were to start running down a track in Italy on a Thursday.
It follows that the content of our intuitive judgment on this type of case is already a general moral principle – perhaps a highly specific moral principle about a highly specific type of case, but a general principle nonetheless.
Indeed, arguably, the type of case that we are focusing on is typically not just determined purely by the explicit description that the philosopher has presented us with – since we typically also need to rely on a mass of background beliefs and expectations about how the world normally works to fill in the details of the case.
In effect, then, the way in which we are thinking of the relevant type of case is as the type exemplified by normal cases of that kind (where ‘that kind’ picks out the kind exemplified by all and the only the cases that satisfy the explicit description that the philosopher has presented us with).
Thus, the content of our intuitive judgment is something like the following general principle: “In normal cases of that kind, it’s wrong for the agent of the case to push the bystander into the path of the trolley.”
I believe that several important consequences follow from this point.
- Methodological arguments like those of Peter Singer that rely on the idea of a sharp distinction between “case intuitions” and “principle intuitions” are unsound. The difference is not a difference in kind, but only a difference in degree – the so-called “case intuitions” are relatively specific and concern a narrow range of cases, while the “principle intuitions” are more general and concern a wider range of cases – but in principle there is a continuous spectrum of intuitions, leading from those that focus on highly specific types of case and those that focus on highly general types of case.
- A perceptual model for moral intuitions seems highly questionable – because perception by its nature is an awareness of a genuinely particular state of affairs, and not of some general truth about a general type of case. In crucial ways, ethical intuition must work differently from sensory perception.
- More generally, any moral philosophy that tries to build on such intuitions, and views them as akin to the everyday moral thinking of ordinary people, is committed to rejecting particularism (of the sort that has been defended by Jonathan Dancy). Since the contents of these intuitions are general principles, friends of these intuitions must reject the particularist assumptions that we should not expect to be able to articulate true non-trivial general principles, and that these principles play no important role in moral thinking.