Foot, Thomson, and Edmonds go wrong by treating our moral intuitions about exotic dilemmas not as questionable byproducts of a generally desirable moral rule, but as carrying independent authority and as worthy of independent respect. And on this view, the enterprise of doing philosophy by reference to such dilemmas is inadvertently replicating the early work of Kahneman and Tversky, by uncovering unfamiliar situations in which our intuitions, normally quite sensible, turn out to misfire. The irony is that where Kahneman and Tversky meant to devise problems that would demonstrate the misfiring, some philosophers have developed their cases with the conviction that the intuitions are entitled to a great deal of weight, and should inform our judgments about what morality requires. A legitimate question is whether an appreciation of the work of Kahneman, Tversky, and their successors might lead people to reconsider their intuitions, even in the moral domain.
Cass Sunstein, ‘How Do We Know What’s Moral?’, New York Review of Books, April 24, 2014
Another possibility is that our intuitive sense of justice is a set of heuristics: moral machinery that’s very useful but far from infallible. We have a taste for punishment. This taste, like all tastes, is subtle and complicated, shaped by a complex mix of genetic, cultural, and idiosyncratic factors. But our taste for punishment is still a taste, implemented by automatic settings and thus limited by its inflexibility. All tastes can be fooled. We fool our taste buds with artificial sweeteners. We fool our sexual appetites with birth control and pornography, both of which supply sexual gratification while doing nothing to spread our genes. Sometimes, however, our tastes make fools of us. Our tastes for fat and sugar make us obese in a world of abundance. Drugs of abuse hijack our reward circuits and destroy people’s lives. To know whether we’re fooling our tastes or whether our tastes are fooling us, we have to step outside the limited perspective of our tastes: To what extent is this thing—diet soda, porn, Nutella, heroin—really serving our bests interests? We should ask the same question about our taste for punishment.
Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, New York, 2013, p. 272
[O]ur moral judgments are less reliable than many would hope, and this has specific implications for methodology in normative ethics. Three sources of evidence indicate that our intuitive ethical judgments are less reliable than we might have hoped: a historical record of accepting morally absurd social practices; a scientific record showing that our intuitive judgments are systematically governed by a host of heuristics, biases, and irrelevant factors; and a philosophical record showing deep, probably unresolvable, inconsistencies in common moral convictions. I argue that this has the following implications for moral theorizing: we should trust intuitions less; we should be especially suspicious of intuitive judgments that fit a bias pattern, even when we are intuitively condent that these judgments are not a simple product of the bias; we should be especially suspicious of intuitions that are part of inconsistent sets of deeply held convictions; and we should evaluate views holistically, thinking of entire classes of judgments that they get right or wrong in broad contexts, rather than dismissing positions on the basis of a small number of intuitive counterexamples.
Nick Beckstead, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future, doctoral dissertation, University of Rutgers, New Brunswick, 2013, p. 19
What is inconsistent with the universal applicability of quantum mechanics is not out ordinary experience as such, but the common-sense way of interpreting it. And I am bound to say that, in this area, I cannot see that common sense has any particular authority, given that our intuitions have evolved within a domain in which characteristically quantum-mechanical effects are scarcely in evidence.
If you postulate ‘intuitions’ as states which play a certain sort of role in a theory of beliefs about value, then the term ‘intuition’ is really just a place-holder for any state satisfying the demands of that theory.
The objection that consequentialism demands too much is accepted uncritically by almost all of us; most moral philosophers introduce permission to perform nonoptimal acts without even a word in its defend. But the mere fact that our intuitions support some moral feature hardly constitutes in itself adequate philosophical justification. If we are to go beyond mere intuition mongering, we must search for deeper foundations. We must display the reasons for limiting the requirement to pursue the good.
Shelly Kagan, ‘Does Consequentialism Demand Too Much?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 3 (1984), p. 239
It is significant […] that whereas it is easy to find thinkers from different times and places to whom it is intuitively obvious that we have special obligations to those of our own religion, race, or ethnic affiliation, this does not seems so obvious to contemporary ethicists and political theorists. If the strength of intuitions favoring special obligations based on racial and religious affinity is not sufficient grounds for accepting them, then the strength of our intuitions about, say, special obligations based on fellow-citizenship, should also not be sufficient reason for accepting them. Instead, we need another test of whether they should be accepted.
In most sciences, there are few things more prized than a counterintuitive result. It shows something surprising and forces us to reconsider our often tacit assumptions. In philosophy of mind a counterintuitive ‘result’ (for example, a mind-boggling implication of somebody’s ‘theory’ of perception, memory, consciousness or whatever) is typically taken as tantamount to a refutation. This affection for one’s current intuitions […] installs deep conservatism in the methods of philosophers.
Attaching epistemic significance to metaphysical intuitions is anti-naturalist for two reasons. First, it requires ignoring the fact that science, especially physics, has shown us that the universe is very strange to out inherited conception of what it is like. Second, it requires ignoring central implications of evolutionary theory, and of the cognitive and behavioural sciences, concerning the nature of our minds.
Where almost everyone feels that a particular kind of conduct is wrong, that might seem solid evidence that such conduct really is wrong. But Mill is not denying that our moral feelings provide some prima facie support for our moral opinions. If we feel that torturing children or stealing bread from the starving are wrong actions, then they probably are wrong. However, it is worth remembering some of the other moral feelings that people have also had in the past. Thus at various times people have felt that it was right to burn heretics and witches, to practice slavery, to expose unwanted children, and to punish severely wives who were disobedient to their husbands. Reflection on such cases supports Mill’s contention that feeling is an unreliable guide to moral truth, and that it is dangerous to treat it as a final court of appeal. Following Bentham, Mill demands that our moral opinions should be answerable to some external standard—that is, that we should be able to articulate reasons for them that go beyond a statement of our gut feelings, attitudes or ‘intuitions’. The provision of reasons for moral beliefs makes moral debate possible, from which truth and enlightenment can emerge. By contrast, dogmatically insisting that one already knows all the moral answers via one’s feelings or intuitions forecloses the possibility of an escape from error should those feelings or intuitions be wrong. Mill’s position is therefore better described as one of moral caution than of moral skepticism. His aim is not to persuade us that moral knowledge is unattainable, but to warn us against supposing that it can be securely attained by a purely subjective process unassisted by reason.
[A] feeling of liking or aversion to an action, confined to an individual, would have no chance of being accepted as a reason. The appeal is always to something which is assumed to belong to all mankind. But it is not of much consequence whether the feeling which is set up as its own standard is the feling of an individual human being, or of a multitude. A feeling is not proved to be right, and exempted from the necessity of justifying itself, because the writer or speaker is not only conscious of it in himself, but expects to find in other people, because instead of saying “I,” he says “you and I.”
A ubiquitous feature of philosophical practice is to consult intuitions about merely conceivable cases. Imaginary examples are treated with the same respect and importance as real examples. Cases from the actual world do not have superior evidential power as compared with hypothetical cases. How is this compatible with the notion that the target of philosophical inquiry is the composition of natural phenomena? If philosophers were really investigating what Kornblith specifies, would they treat conceivable and actual examples on a par? Scientists do nothing of the sort. They devote great time and labor into investigating actual-world objects; they construct expensive equipment to perform their investigations. If the job could be done as well by consulting intuitions about imaginary examples, why bother with all this expensive equipment and labor-intensive experiments? Evidently, unless philosophers are either grossly deluded or have magical shortcut that has eluded scientists (neither of which is plausible), their philosophical inquiries must have a different type of target or subject-matter.
Alvin Goldman, ‘Philosophical Intuitions: Their Target, Their Source, and Their Epistemic Status’, Grazer Philosophische Studien, vol. 74 (2007), p. 8
It can’t possibly be a good idea to assess philosophical theories by the extent to which they preserve everyday intuitions. The trouble is that everyday intuitions are often nothing more than bad old theories in disguise. Any amount of nonsense was once part of common sense, and much nonsense no doubt still is. It was once absolutely obvious that the heavens revolve around the earth each day, that the heart is the seat of the soul, that without religion there can be no morality, that perception involves the reception of sensible forms, and so on. If philosophy had been forced to respect these everyday intuitions, we would still be in the intellectual dark ages.
David Papineau, ‘The Tyranny of Common Sense’, The Philosophers’ Magazine, no. 34 (April-June, 2006)
When large regions of one’s data are suspect and for that reason given less credence, even complex curves will tend to look simpler as they are interpolated across such suspect regions. In general, the more error one expects in one’s intuitions (one’s data, in the curve-fitting context), the more one prefers simpler moral principles (one’s curves) that are less context-dependent. This might, but need not, tip the balance of reflective equilibrium so much that we adopt very simple and general moral principles, such as utilitarianism. This might not be appealing, but if we really distrust some broad set of our moral intuitions, this may be the best that we can do.
Robin Hanson, ‘Why Health is not Special: Errors in Evolved Bioethics Intuitions’, Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 19, no. 2 (Summer, 2002), p. 179
The idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice their craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their “intuition”, or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works.
Stephen Stich, in Steve Pyke, Philosophers, Oxford, 2011, p. 192
[P]hilosophers defending a given position against opponents have a powerful vested interest in persuading themselves that the intuitions that directly or indirectly favour it are stronger than they actually are. The stronger those intuitions, the more those who appeal to them gain, both psychologically and professionally. Given what is known of human psychology, it would be astonishing if such vested interests did not manifest themselves in at least some degree of wishful thinking, some tendency to overestimate the strength of intuitions that help one’s cause and underestimate the strength of those that hinder it.
Timothy Williamson, ‘Philosophical ‘Intuitions’ and Scepticism about Judgement’, Dialectica, vol. 58, no. 1 (March, 2004), p. 110
Consequentialism may be able to provide reasons for why their theory does not, in fact, entail some counter-intuitive outcome in the world in which we happen to live. But in relying on some contingent feature of the world, their theory, when it rules our such counter-intuitive outcomes, does so for the wrong reason.
Alan Carter, ‘Inegalitarian Biocentric Consequentialism, the Minimax Implication and Multidimensional Value Theory: A Brief Proposal for a New Direction in Environmental Ethics’, Utilitas, vol. 17, no. 1 (March, 2005), p. 71
[Moral] intuitions would fit the earlier social situations of people in hunter-gatherer societies, that is, the social conditions in which the evolutionary selection that shaped our current intuitions took place. (Would justifying norms by such intuitions make them relative to the conditions of hunter-gatherer societies?) How much weight should be placed upon such intuitions? Since they were instilled as surrogates for inclusive fitness, being correlated with it, why not now go directly to calculations of inclusive fitness itself? Or why not, instead, calculate what intuitions would be installed by an evolutionary process that operated over a longer period in which current social conditions held sway, and then justify our moral beliefs by their confluence with those (hypothetical) intuitions, ones better suited to our current situation than the intuitions we have inherited? Or why stay with intuitions instilled by evolution rather than ones instilled by cultural processes, or by some other process we currently find attractive? (But what is the basis of our finding it attractive?)
Analytical philosophers often aim at producing moral principles that may be very complex in structure, full of subclauses and qualifications, because these principles enable them to capture “our moral intuitions” and the precisely worded epicyclic subclauses enable us to deal cleverly with threatened counterexamples of various kinds. […] But the resulting principles often do more to disguise than to state the fundamental value basis on which decisions are to be made.
Professional philosophy, like any hierarchical organization, also displays unpleasant bureaucratic features, such as cronyism and in-breeding. Philosophers often describe their discipline as being an especially “critical” one, yet much of the time philosophers are deeply uncritical, more so than most might believe. As Hegel appreciated, most philosophers tend to capture their time in thought, that is, they end up giving expression to and trying to rationalize the most deep-seated beliefs of their culture (vide Hegel himself, not to mention Kant). Much philosophy takes quite seriously our ordinary “intuitions”—untutored and immediate responses to particular questions or problems—in ways that might be thought suspect. Much philosophy fits the mold of a recent book by an eminent philosopher, whose publisher describes it as “reconcile[ing] our common-sense conception of ourselves as conscious, free, mindful, rational agents” with “a world that we believe includes brute, unconscious, mindless, meaningless, mute physical particles in fields of force”. But why think such a reconciliation is in the offing? Too often, the answer is unclear in philosophy.
[W]e have no reason to trust anyone’s intuitions about very large numbers, however excellent their philosophy. Even the best philosophers cannot get an intuitive grasp of, say, tens of billions of people. That is no criticism; these numbers are beyond intuition. But these philosophers ought not to think their intuition can tell them the truth about such large numbers of people.
For very large numbers, we have to rely on theory, not intuition. When people first built bridges, they managed without much theory. They could judge a log by eye, relying on their intuition. Their intuitions were reliable, being built on long experience with handling wood and stone. But when people started spinning broad rivers with steel and concrete, their intuition failed them, and they had to resort to engineering theory and careful calculations. The cables that support suspension bridges are unintuitively slender.
Our moral intuitions are formed and polished in our homely interactions with the few people we have to deal with in ordinary life. But nowadays the scale of our societies and the power of our technologies raise moral problems that involve huge numbers of people. […] No doubt our homely intuitive morality gives us a starting point, but we have to project our morality beyond the homely to the vast new arenas. To do this properly, we have to engage all the care and accuracy we can, and develop a moral theory.
Indeed, we are more dependent on theory than engineers are, because moral conclusions cannot be tested in the way engineers’ conclusions are tested. If an engineer gets her calculations wrong, her mistake will be revealed when the bridge falls down. But a mistake in moral theory is never revealed like that. If we do something wrong, we do not later see the error made manifest; we can only know it is an error by means of theory too. Moreover, our mistakes can be far more damaging and kill far more people than the collapse of a bridge. Mistakes in allocating healthcare resources may do great harm to millions. So we have to be exceptionally careful in developing our moral theory.
The role that intuitions can play in moral philosophy is the role that we are content to let them play in other departments of thought (it is only in moral philosophy that they have risen so far above their epistemological station). In mathematics, the natural sciences, and other branches of philosophy, finding a conclusion intuitively repugnant does not close an argument; it is a reason to start looking for a good argument.
[T]here have been several important books about [distributive justice], notably Rawls’s book, and also that of Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He works at Harvard too, and it is curious that two people with such a similar background should produce books which politically are poles apart. It shows that we can’t depend on people’s intuitions agreeing.
R. M. Hare, ‘Dialogue with R. M. Hare’, in Brian Magee, Men of Ideas, London, 1978, p. 160
John Rawls opens his influential A Theory of Justice (1971) with a proposition he regards as beyond dispute: “In a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” Robert Nozick begins Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) with an equally firm proposition: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights they rise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.” These two premises are somewhat different in content, and they lead to radically different prescriptions. Rawls would allow rigid social control to secure as close an approach as possible to the equal distribution of society’s rewards. Nozick sees the ideal society as one governed by a minimal state, empowered only to protect its citizens from force and fraud, and with unequal distribution of rewards wholly permissible. Rawls rejects the meritocracy; Nozick accepts it as desirable except in those cases where local communities voluntarily decide to experiment with egalitarianism. Like everyone else, philosophers measure their personal emotional responses to various alternatives as though consulting a hidden oracle.
The intuitions which many moral philosophers regard as the final court of appeal are the result of their upbringing—i.e. of the fact that just these level-1 principles were accepted by those who most influenced them. In discussing abortion, we ought to be doing some level-2 thinking; it is therefore quite futile to appeal to those level-1 intuitions that we happen to have acquired. It is a question, not of what our intuitions are, but of what they ought to be.
In looking over the catalogue of human actions (says a partizan of this principle) in order to determine which of them are to be marked with the seal of disapprobation, you need but to take counsel of your own feelings: whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that very reason. For the same reason it is also meet for punishment: in what proportion it is adverse to utility, or whether it be adverse to utility at all, is a matter that makes no difference. In that same proportion also is it meet for punishment: if you hate much, punish much: if you hate little, punish little: punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility.