There is an intuitionistic view in Metaethics that is often ridiculed (Mackie is a good laugh at this point, so is Blackburn). Already for that reason I have recently become fascinated by the view. Roger Crisp names the view the ‘Radar View’ in his ‘Sidgwick and the Boundaries of Intuitionism’ paper in Stratton-Lake’s Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations book. The view is simple. Human’s  have a special, distinct, sense-like moral faculty – ‘the intuition’ or ‘the radar’. This radar is impinged by the moral reality and enables subjects to reliably form true moral beliefs. It explains the moral knowledge we have about how the world is morally speaking like in the same way as our ears and the hearing faculty can explain the knowledge we have about the auditory features of the world. This is a truly fascinating picture and I’d like to know more about it.

Now, as I’ve become intrigied by the view I’ve tried to look for how someone who has held the view formulates
it. This has turn out to be rather difficult. I’m starting to think that the whole view is a myth as it was something too good to be true from the start. The situation reminds me of cannibalism. There is a hypothesis in anthropology that no-one has ever been a cannibal. If you go ask ‘the tribes’ what they tell you is that, sure, their grandfathers, the savages, ate people,  but they, the civilised people, don’t. Or, that it’s the other tribes that eat people but they are evil, we are good. If you think about it, this is rather weak evidence. They have a motive to make themselves look good and this can be done by making others look bad. They also give what the anthropoligist wants – talk about cannibalism. No-one ever says that, yeah, I eat people. Of course, the physical evidence probably falsifies this sceptical hypothesis…

Anyway, someone must have held ‘the radar view’ you probably think. Crisp says that ‘This was clearly the position of the moral sense theorists’. So, they must have. You would think. The only person he refers to is Hutcheson who, ‘for example, suggests that ‘The Author of Nature…has given us a moral sense to direct our actions… a determination of our minds to receive simple ideas of approbation or condemnation from actions observed antecedent to any opininion of advantage or loss to rebound to ourselves from them”.

So, I went to investigate Hutcheson. Turns out that he did not hold anything like the radar view, and, if you read the quote Crisp gives, it doesn’t commit Hutcheson to such a view either. The first problem is that I have hard time locating a passage where Hutcheson talks about a moral sense organ that would correspond other sense-organs. The textual support is rather for the claim ‘For Hutcheson, the moral counterpart of the sensory organ would seem to be the whole person’ that is made by Bernard Peach, the editor of Hutcheson’s ‘Illustrations of the Moral Sense’. In the quote, Hutcheson talks about ‘the mind’ which is too loose to refer to a distinct organ. This makes me think that the correct way to understand the talk of the moral sense is to ‘translate’ the sense to a moral ‘sensitivity’. Hutcheson’s view is the platitude that people are morally sensitive to their environment.

The next problem is that the outcomes of the people’s moral sensitivies are non-cognitive states for Hutcheson, appropations and disapprobations (see the quote above). These are in modern terms pro- and con-attitudes, desires for and against. If there was a radar that was perceiving the moral reality it would have to create perceptual *beliefs* like radars create representations of the environment. A radar doesn’t bleep ‘Hurraah for ice-cream!’. So, all in all, rather than having an obscure intuitionistic view Hutcheson comes out as a plausible modern day expressivist. On a side note, he has a modern view about justifying and motivating reasons too.

So, if Hutcheson didn’t hold the radar view, maybe some of the other intuitionists did. But, who? Crisp goes on to great lengths to argue that even though Sidgwick talked about the moral sense he didn’t not hold the the radar view with a distinct faculty. Many of the other intuitionists he lists under the ‘hotline view’ which is a rationalistic view opposed to the perception like ‘radar view’.

It could be all a myth then. No-one has been a cannibal. Or has anyone seen any textual evidence to the contrary?

9 Replies to “The Radar View

  1. Jussi,
    I think Mackie’s arguments from queerness and relativity are seriously marred by being directed largely at positions that few if any people actually hold. The ‘radar view’ is a fine example of this. It’s actually extremely hard to find people who hold this view!
    When I first read your post Richard Price occurred to me as a possible example. And sure enough, Price is cited in Jyl Gentzler’s paper “How to Know the Good: The Moral Epistemology of Plato’s Republic” as a proponent of this view. To me, the quotation suggests that Price may fall into this camp, but doesn’t really settle the matter:
    “As bodily sight discovers to us visible objects; so does understanding, (the eye of the mind, and infinitely more penetrating) discover to us intelligible objects; and thus, in a like sense with bodily vision, becomes the inlet of new ideas.”
    The question, of course, is how literally this analogy is meant to be taken, and thus whether “the eye of the mind” ought to be considered to be, as you write, “a special, distinct, sense-like moral faculty.” Really, nothing in the quotation Gentzler provides establishes that the Price’s faculty is meant to be distinct.
    At any rate, I am certainly not aware of any contemporary moral philosophers who accept anything close to the radar view.

  2. thanks Troy. The Price quote is interesting but I think that it resembles more the ‘hotline view’ which Crisp attributes to most of the rationalistic intuitionists. He lists Suarez, Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Clarke, and Shaftersbury here. I think that the word that Price uses, ‘understanding’, is crucial here. And, so is the notion of the objects it discovers, ‘ideas’. Many of the people in this group thought that reason or understanding has a ‘hotline’ to a separate Platonic realm of ideas. These ideas have a self-evident content – just their understanding provides the sufficient justification for them beyond doubt. I think the difference to the radar view is that in the latter the moral properties are thought to be in the realm of the natural world and they have a causal effect on our sensitivies. In the ‘hotline view’ the realm is supposed to be independent and the connection non-causal.

  3. Jussi,
    A fine question. A pair of thoughts:
    1. I suspect that those who use the ‘radar view’ as a term of criticism have a view about the possible mechanisms through which moral knowledge could be acquired, and when they confront a philosopher that doesn’t fit within their view, the critics impute to that philosopher a belief in an obscure ‘moral sense’ or radar. (I certainly think this is a correct diagnosis of Mackie’s queerness argument, which often strikes me as less an argument than an expression of bafflement.) In particular, there’s a tendency to suppose that moral knowledge is either a priori, in the way you describe rationalistic intuitionism, or is straightforwardly perceptual, akin to our knowledge of colors and smells. Since it’s tough to see moral knowledge as fitting into either category, it must be acquired via a special radar. What surprises me about this line of criticism is how resilient it seems to be even in our post-Quinean, post-Davidsonian age, an age in which we can no longer be so confident in the clarity of such distinctions as analytic/synthetic, a priori/a posteriori, scheme/content, etc.
    2. Nativism lurks beyond this criticism to some degree. Again, if you have particular assumptions about how moral knowledge could be acquired and you confront a view that doesn’t fit your assumptions but claims there is bona fide moral knowledge, you might then argue that the view requires a kind of implausible nativism. But here it seems to me the critics may be attacking a straw man, inasmuch as even those philosophers who speak in moral sense terms often say that this sense must be developed, cultivated, habituated, etc., before genuine moral knowledge is possible and is therefore not innate in any important sense. (Lovibond is an example of such a view.) Indeed, I can hardly think of a philosopher who thinks we have innate and untutored knowledge of moral truth. Even that most native of nativists, Plato, didn’t hold that view.

  4. Jussi,
    You described the Radar View as follows:

    Human’s have a special, distinct, sense-like moral faculty – ‘the intuition’ or ‘the radar’. This radar is impinged by the moral reality and enables subjects to reliably form true moral beliefs. It explains the moral knowledge we have about how the world is morally speaking like in the same way as our ears and the hearing faculty can explain the knowledge we have about the auditory features of the world.

    This sounds a lot like the view that Graham Oddie puts forth in his recent Value, Reality, and Desire, with (at least) one important difference: he very pointedly eschews talk of intuitions. He thinks that we have evidence of the irreducible good not by intuitions, but via our desires, and therefore what you’re calling the “radar” is not as mysterious as it’s sometimes made out to be. But in most other respects, that description of the Radar View seems to match Oddie’s story quite nicely (though another difference is that he’s concerned with value generally, rather than with morality in particular). That is, unless the faculty’s being “special” is supposed to be in some sense unknowable or otherwise strange. The radar, on his view, just is desire, and he’s quite happy to make analogies between it and ordinary sense-perception.
    Shameless plug: For a quick overview of Oddie’s project, I’ve got a review coming out in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, I believe in the December issue.
    And maybe Oddie’s Boulder colleague, fellow PEA Souper, and card-carrying intuitionist, Michael Huemer, can tell us what he thinks of the Radar View and point us to more literature.

  5. Michael,
    that’s very interesting. I’ve always thought that the consequences of Quine’s epistemic holism and the criticism of the synthetic/analytic distinction for moral philosophy should be investigated more carefully. I did write a piece on that for my thesis but it had to be cut off for reasons of space. Maybe I’ll dig it out one day and start working on it.
    thanks for the Oddie hint. I better check it out. I’m slightly skeptical how *desires* can play the evidential role for value properties that would allegedly cause them. First, they seem to have a wrong direction of fit and second there seems to be too much variation in them. If there were values and desires reliably detected them, then you would think that people desired similar things in similar circumstances. But, I’m sure Oddie discusses these issues so I better check the book out.
    I’ve been just browsing Huemer’s intuitionism book and it is really great. Not much talk about radars though, at least yet. He rightly calls the idea of a moral sense ‘mysterious’ and ‘spooky’. Haven’t read the whole book yet so there probably is more about the faculty view. I take it that Huemer means something completely different with intuitions though.

  6. Jussi,
    In addition to Oddie, look at Terence Cuneo’s “Signs of Value: Reid on the Evidential Role of Feelings in Moral Judgment” (British Journal for the History of Philosophy 11, 2006: 69-91).

  7. “What surprises me about this line of criticism is how resilient it seems to be even in our post-Quinean, post-Davidsonian age…”
    Question from a non-specialist: are any metaethical positions that are particularly well-suited to our post-Quinean, post-Davidsonian age? or to followers of Quine and Davidson?

  8. I don’t think Ross held the ‘radar view’ as you (or Crisp) describe it, although given his claims about how intuited propositions are ‘self-evident,’ it might be closer to the radar view that it seems. Combine a moral faculty of intuition with Ross’ emphasis on (Aristotelian) practical wisdom and maybe you’re close to the radar view?
    One other intuitionist prospect: C.D. Broad’s discussion of ‘fittingness’ in Five Types of Ethical Theory. He never explicitly endorses intuitionism, but he seems to paint it in a plausible light.

  9. Well, maybe I hold something a bit like a radar view:
    This is work in progress, so don’t beat it up too badly… no, correction, beat it up as badly as you can.
    The main problem with that paper, as far as I’m concerned, is that my thinking’s moved on since then. But not away from a broadly intuitionist position.
    Here’s my latest take, in rough outline. We should distinguish a radar metaphysics from a radar phenomenology. On the metaphysical side, it really would be weird to think that moral properties got to us like radio waves get to radios. And more importantly than being a weird view, there’s just no evidence to think that that’s how we get to know about moral properties.
    What is less weird is the idea that moral experience involves directly experiencing moral properties, not in the quasi-magical radar way, but in something like the way that competent readers experience the words that they’re reading.
    We can speak of pattern-recognition in general as perception. To be sure, it’s representational perception rather than the simpler sensory kind, but pattern-recognition is perception nonetheless.
    Then if moral experience is a particular kind of pattern-recognition, moral experience can be a particular kind of (representational) perception.
    Some advantages of this view:
    1. Allows the phenomenology of the moral life, which often feels as simple and direct as any perception can be.
    2. Explains supervenience. On this view moral properties are patterns (in virtue of the broader fact that all properties are patterns). Obviously these patterns cannot be as they are unless the subvenient matter (whatever it may be) is as it is; and obviously every change in the patterns is constituted by a change in the subvenient matter.
    3. Is a realist view. If properties are patterns, then every pattern that is “really there” corresponds to a property that is “really there”.
    4. Is a Platonist view, since grasping Forms is pattern recognition. (I know most people won’t think that an advantage, but I do.)
    That’s probably enough provocations for one lunch time. Comments welcomed.

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