Many people build their moral beliefs out of deep-seated gut feelings that themselves have no rational grounding. What I wanted to ask is: is this a good way to construct a belief system? If so, could any feeling at all serve as a foundational principle? For instance, would a moral system that takes a deep-seated racism as a building block be any less justified than one that relies on deep-seated empathy?

If I want to construct a sound system of beliefs, then there's not much to be said for merely relying on gut instinct. That's not because gut instincts are necessarily wrong or unreliable. It's because if I'm trying to construct a system as opposed to simply enumerating my commitments, critique, evaluation and adjustment are part of the process. But most people don't have a system of beliefs, and even to the extent that they do, it's bound to be a limited system. My beliefs about some things are much more systematic and reflective than about other things. Given that none of us have endless resources to commit to working out our beliefs, that's inevitable.

But you say that "many people build their moral beliefs out of deep-seated gut feelings that themselves have no rational grounding." I'm worried about that way of putting things. If by "rational grounding" you mean something like "argument from explicit reasons," then I'd disagree that this is what's always needed. It's not just that giving reasons has to stop somewhere on pain of infinite regress. It's that, to use Alvin Plantinga's phrase, some beliefs are "properly basic." I don't need to give reasons to be reasonable in believing that there's a floor under my feet. It's enough that I notice that it's there. (I could be mistaken, of course. Or dreaming. Or crazy. But I don't need to chase down those blind alleys to be reasonable.) I don't need to give reasons to be reasonable in thinking it would be wrong to slip out of the restaurant without paying my bill. It's not that there are no reasons to be given; it's that people who aren't good at identifying and articulating the reasons can still be reasonable in thinking that stealing is wrong.

This sort of thing is true in pretty much every area of knowledge or belief. Being reasonable or justified is one thing. Being able to articulate reasons and justifications is another. There's a much bigger story to be told here, but part of the takeaway will be that we aren't epistemic islands. Knowledge is social; gut instincts don't come from thin air; being reasonable is partly a matter of being plugged into a reasonable community in the right sort of way.

Turning to your specific example: if someone's moral outlook rests on deep-seated racism, it's not reasonable. It's not reasonable because racism is wrong, and moral beliefs built on racism are very likely to be wrong. (Yes; it's quite possible to give a raft of reasons for that claim. But that's a whole other topic.) People whose guts tell them to hold racists attitudes have badly trained guts. People whose guts lead them to reject racism are more fortunate, even if they get tongue-tied when they find themselves arguing with glib-gabbing nasties. But this doesn't mean that the anti-racists are just mindlessly parroting what they've been told. It's quite possible—indeed quite common—to have well-tuned judgment that outstrips one's ability to justify the judgments.

This doesn't at all mean that looking for explicit reasons is bad. It also doesn't mean that societies should do without people who spend time reflecting, investigating, criticizing. What it means is that none of us need do this about everything we think, and for many people, it's fine if they do it in a relatively limited way.

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