Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Tracy Isaacs


The three integrated articles of this dissertation are concerned with the epistemic status of moral intuitions. The first article argues in favour of moderate moral intuitionism, the view that while any successful moral epistemology must be intuitionist to at least some extent, it must also take intuitions to be fallible. This is accomplished by synthesizing work by Robert Audi and George Bealer into a view of moral intuitions which is capable of overcoming some major contemporary objections against intuitionism, particularly from Sharon Street and Peter Singer.

The next article raises a more powerful objection to intuitionism, applying feminist ethics and moral epistemology to suggest that powerful social forces impair our ability to distinguish mistaken intuitions from reliable ones. This objection is addressed with an argument, based on work by Michele Moody-Adams and Cheshire Calhoun, to the effect that the possibility of moral knowledge and resultant responsibility allow us to retain the capacity for making this important distinction between intuitions. Nevertheless, as George Sher argues, there is still reason to think that the intuitions we rely on to shape and justify our moral beliefs contains important mistakes which negatively impact the reliability of our resulting moral judgements.

This major problem, that of distinguishing helpful from harmful moral intuitions, is the topic of the third article. Henry Sidgwick attempted to develop a decision procedure for this purpose in The Methods of Ethics, positing four major criteria, the fulfilment of which would confer the highest possible level of certainty on an intuition. Sidgwick's four tests are evaluated primarily with reference to contemporary feminist scholarship, and though they constitute a promising start to a rigorous intuitionist moral epistemology, they are also wanting in a number of ways. The article improves the epistemic status of Sidgwick's tests with a hybrid Sidgwickian-feminist theory, reinterpreting his tests as values to be respected but which allow flexibility and even tension. While this approach may not be able to confer the same level of certainty as Sidgwick's, it is more respectful of the complexities and nuances of a more reliable moral epistemology.