Intuitions Aren’t Shared That Way

Part of the se­quence: Ra­tion­al­ity and Philosophy

Con­sider these two ver­sions of the fa­mous trol­ley prob­lem:

Stranger: A train, its brakes failed, is rush­ing to­ward five peo­ple. The only way to save the five peo­ple is to throw the switch sit­ting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby pre­vent­ing it from kil­ling the five peo­ple. How­ever, there is a stranger stand­ing on the side track with his back turned, and if you pro­ceed to thrown the switch, the five peo­ple will be saved, but the per­son on the side track will be kil­led.

Child: A train, its brakes failed, is rush­ing to­ward five peo­ple. The only way to save the five peo­ple is to throw the switch sit­ting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby pre­vent­ing it from kil­ling the five peo­ple. How­ever, there is a 12-year-old boy stand­ing on the side track with his back turned, and if you pro­ceed to throw the switch, the five peo­ple will be saved, but the boy on the side track will be kil­led.

Here it is: a stan­dard-form philo­soph­i­cal thought ex­per­i­ment. In stan­dard an­a­lytic philos­o­phy, the next step is to en­gage in con­cep­tual anal­y­sis — a pro­cess in which we use our in­tu­itions as ev­i­dence for one the­ory over an­other. For ex­am­ple, if your in­tu­itions say that it is “morally right” to throw the switch in both cases above, then these in­tu­itions may be counted as ev­i­dence for con­se­quen­tial­ism, for moral re­al­ism, for agent neu­tral­ity, and so on.

Alexan­der (2012) ex­plains:

Philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions play an im­por­tant role in con­tem­po­rary philos­o­phy. Philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions provide data to be ex­plained by our philo­soph­i­cal the­o­ries [and] ev­i­dence that may be ad­duced in ar­gu­ments for their truth… In this way, the role… of in­tu­itional ev­i­dence in philos­o­phy is similar to the role… of per­cep­tual ev­i­dence in sci­ence...

Is knowl­edge sim­ply jus­tified true be­lief? Is a be­lief jus­tified just in case it is caused by a re­li­able cog­ni­tive mechanism? Does a name re­fer to what­ever ob­ject uniquely or best satis­fies the de­scrip­tion as­so­ci­ated with it? Is a per­son morally re­spon­si­ble for an ac­tion only if she could have acted oth­er­wise? Is an ac­tion morally right just in case it pro­vides the great­est benefit for the great­est num­ber of peo­ple all else be­ing equal? When con­fronted with these kinds of ques­tions, philoso­phers of­ten ap­peal to philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions about real or imag­ined cases...

...there is wide­spread agree­ment about the role that [in­tu­itions] play in con­tem­po­rary philo­soph­i­cal prac­tice… We ad­vance philo­soph­i­cal the­o­ries on the ba­sis of their abil­ity to ex­plain our philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions, and ap­peal to them as ev­i­dence that those the­o­ries are true...

In par­tic­u­lar, no­tice that philoso­phers do not ap­peal to their in­tu­itions as merely an ex­er­cise in au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Philoso­phers are not merely try­ing to map the con­tours of their own idiosyn­cratic con­cepts. That could be in­ter­est­ing, but it wouldn’t be worth decades of pub­li­cly-funded philo­soph­i­cal re­search. In­stead, philoso­phers ap­peal to their in­tu­itions as ev­i­dence for what is true in gen­eral about a con­cept, or true about the world.

In this sense,

We [philoso­phers] tend to be­lieve that our philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions are more or less uni­ver­sally shared… We… ap­peal to philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions, when we do, be­cause we an­ti­ci­pate that oth­ers share our in­tu­itive judg­ments.

But any­one with more than a pass­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with cog­ni­tive sci­ence might have bet in ad­vance that this ba­sic un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion of a core philo­soph­i­cal method is… in­cor­rect.

For one thing, philo­soph­i­cal in­tu­itions show gen­der di­ver­sity. Con­sider again the Stranger and Child ver­sions of the Trol­ley prob­lem. It turns out that men are less likely than women to think it is morally ac­cept­able to throw the switch in the Stranger case, while women are less likely than men to think it is morally ac­cept­able to throw the switch in the Child case (Zam­zow & Ni­chols 2009).

Or, con­sider a thought ex­per­i­ment meant to illu­mi­nate the much-dis­cussed con­cept of knowl­edge:

Peter is in his locked apart­ment and is read­ing. He de­cides to have a shower. He puts his book down on the coffee table. Then he takes off his watch, and also puts it on the coffee table. Then he goes into the bath­room. As Peter’s shower be­gins, a bur­glar silently breaks into Peter’s apart­ment. The bur­glar takes Peter’s watch, puts a cheap plas­tic watch in its place, and then leaves. Peter has only been in the shower for two min­utes, and he did not hear any­thing.

When pre­sented with this vi­gnette, only 41% of men say that Peter “knows” there is a watch on the table, while 71% of women say that Peter “knows” there is a watch on the table (Star­man & Fried­man 2012). Ac­cord­ing to Buck­walter & Stich (2010), Star­mans & Fried­man ran an­other study us­ing a slightly differ­ent vi­gnette with a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, and that time only 36% of men said the pro­tag­o­nist “knows,” while 75% of women said she “knows.”

The story re­mains the same for in­tu­itions about free will. In an­other study re­ported in Buck­walter & Stich (2010), Ge­offrey Holt­man pre­sented sub­jects with this vi­gnette:

Sup­pose sci­en­tists figure out the ex­act state of the uni­verse dur­ing the Big Bang, and figure out all the laws of physics as well. They put this in­for­ma­tion into a com­puter, and the com­puter perfectly pre­dicts ev­ery­thing that has ever hap­pened. In other words, they prove that ev­ery­thing that hap­pens has to hap­pen ex­actly that way be­cause of the laws of physics and ev­ery­thing that’s come be­fore. In this case, is a per­son free to choose whether or not to mur­der some­one?

In this study, only 35% of men, but 63% of women, said a per­son in this world could be free to choose whether or not to mur­der some­one.

In­tu­itions show not only gen­der di­ver­sity but also cul­tural di­ver­sity. Con­sider an­other thought ex­per­i­ment about knowl­edge (you can punch me in the face, later):

Bob has a friend Jill, who has driven a Buick for many years. Bob there­fore thinks that Jill drives an Amer­i­can car. He is not aware, how­ever, that her Buick has re­cently been stolen, and he is also not aware that Jill has re­placed it with a Pon­tiac, which is a differ­ent kind of Amer­i­can car. Does Bob re­ally know that Jill drives an Amer­i­can car, or does he only be­lieve it?

Only 26% of Western­ers say that Bob “knows” that Jill drives an Amer­i­can car, while 56% of East Asian sub­jects, and 61% of South Asian sub­jects, say that Bob “knows.”

Now, con­sider a thought ex­per­i­ment meant to elicit se­man­tic in­tu­itions:

Sup­pose that John has learned in col­lege that Gödel is the man who proved… the in­com­plete­ness of ar­ith­metic. John is quite good at math­e­mat­ics and he can give an ac­cu­rate state­ment of the in­com­plete­ness the­o­rem, which he at­tributes to Gödel as the dis­cov­erer. But this is the only thing that he has heard about Gödel. Now sup­pose that Gödel was not the au­thor of this the­o­rem. A man called “Sch­midt”… ac­tu­ally did the work in ques­tion. His friend Gödel some­how got a hold of the manuscript and claimed credit for the work, which was there­after at­tributed to Gödel… Most peo­ple who have heard the name “Gödel” are like John; the claim that Gödel dis­cov­ered the in­com­plete­ness the­o­rem is the only thing that they have ever heard about Gödel.

When pre­sented with this vi­gnette, East Asi­ans are more likely to take the “de­scrip­tivist” view of refer­ence, be­liev­ing that John “is refer­ring to” Sch­midt — while Western­ers are more likely to take the “causal-his­tor­i­cal” view, be­liev­ing that John “is refer­ring to” Gödel (Mach­ery et al. 2004).

Pre­vi­ously, I asked:

What would hap­pen if we dropped all philo­soph­i­cal meth­ods that were de­vel­oped when we had a Carte­sian view of the mind and of rea­son, and in­stead in­vented philos­o­phy anew given what we now know about the phys­i­cal pro­cesses that pro­duce hu­man rea­son­ing?

For one thing, we would never as­sume that peo­ple of all kinds would share our in­tu­itions.

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