Monthly Archives: September 2013

Moral Intuitions and System I

Popular sources for philosophical discussion (such as Philosophy Bites) have addressed a variety of topics from the perspective of moral or ethical intuitionism.   When someone poses a moral question, one’s initial or “gut”, reaction is one’s intuition about the right course of action.

A distinction is being subtly erased with moral intuitionism.  How one reacts to trolley problems or lifeboat scenarios  is just that – a description of how one feels in response to a suggestion.  But to make this into a class of moral thinking implies that intuition is normative, or that how one does react is how one should react.  This shift is sometimes explicit.  For example, Leon Kass, formerly of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, has notably referred to a type of negative moral intuition as “repugnance”, where a commonly-held response of revulsion or disgust at a topic or image is actually a guide to what human beings should avoid or abjure.

A noted defender of moral intuitionism, Michael Huemer, has offered some straightforward defenses of its application to politics, particularly the free market/classical liberal/libertarian variety.  He is particularly strong in critiquing more rationally-oriented moral thinkers, such as Nozick and Rand, and calls his version of intuitionism “common sense morality”.

In his definition, moral thinking must “start from normative premises that seem obviously right to almost everyone” (he lays out five possible alternative views).  A specific example would be, “one should not physically attack, rob, kidnap, imprison, or enslave people, without having a good reason.”

Two tricky problems emerge for intuitionism so defined, which he partially addresses:

  • the “common” in common sense isn’t the same as universal
  • petitio principii: “good reason” begs the question of what “good” means (both in the sense of valid and in the sense of right or just)

Different societies have accepted attacking, robbing, kidnaping, etc. those outside particular groups, so “common sense” is essentially limited to a modern Western context.  Further, to say that “good reasons” may exist for doing these things even in that context implies that intuitions are morally and automatically correct unless you have to think about them, which means your ultimate moral conclusions aren’t intuitive anymore.

At this point, intuitionism collapses into the pretty heinous statement, “do whatever you feel like doing” (feelings are automatically right in a moral sense by definition).

The bigger question occurs: where do these intuitions (feelings) come from?  If there really is no common cross-cultural set of general responses, then your responses are essentially “nurture”, emerging from local practices, traditions, and beliefs.  A recent WSJ story regarding the New Delhi attacks strongly implies this, and shows what happens when two different local cultures clash.

But, on the other hand, if there are some intuitions that are common across cultures, then there’s something in-built in humans which one could argue is the source of morality.  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow  describes System I and System II thinking, where System I is intuitive and immediate, while System II is slower, rational, and energy-intensive.

Huemer seems to suggest that morality is properly based on System I responses.  Kahneman might agree, seeing that System I is how we tend to live most of our lives.  However, Kahneman also points out that System I is easily fooled and can often be wrong about the facts.

So, does our moral thinking fit into the System I/II model?

Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”

While reading David Hume’s very entertaining 1757 essay, “Of the Standard of Taste“, two thoughts occurred:

  1. Paragraph 4, if published today (and actually noticed), would cause rioting in several major cities worldwide.
  2. Hume describes an ethical position (though he’s not in agreement) which is often stated in the popular press as being from the 1960s, not 200 years earlier:
The difference, it is said, is very wide between judgment and sentiment. All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard. Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it. On the contrary, a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind; and if that conformity did not really exist, the sentiment could never possibly have being. Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek in the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes. It is very natural, and even quite necessary to extend this axiom to mental, as well as bodily taste; and thus common sense, which is so often at variance with philosophy, especially with the skeptical kind, is found, in one instance at least, to agree in pronouncing the same decision.

So, “what’s tasteful to you is ugly to me” is OK, because “what’s true for me may not be true for you.”  And so everyone lives in his own isolated world.  At least Plato had everyone in the same cave, experiencing the same illusion.

Is a desire to live merely status quo bias?

recent WSJ piece seems to argue that our mad scrambles to hold onto life near its end are particularly inappropriate, implying that our desire to live is either a case of denial of reality, or perhaps even (as later letters argued) an example of status quo bias.  The implications of this on bioethics and transhumanism will have to wait  until a future post.  But is our desire to live, particularly at death’s door, simply status quo bias?

Nick Bostrom spoke, in a 2012 Philosophy Bites podcast, in some detail about the human tendency for status quo bias (you can also find mention of it in Bryan Caplan’s EconTalk podcast on his book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter”).  Briefly, status quo bias is preferring to keep what we currently have over any alternatives, if gaining the alternative means an obvious giving-up of what we have.  Few people would turn down having an additional $1 million, but may pause if asked to give up their current homes to get it.  This has implications for trade — are we actually overcoming an in-built bias or tendency when engaging in a market? — not to mention gambling, but there’s a philosophical angle as well.

Consider the following thought experiment.

You are on your deathbed, and not particularly sanguine about it.  In fact, you are panicked.  Someone comes to you, knowing about your condition and concerns, and you have the following conversation:

“Do you remember yesterday?”

You: “Yes, in some detail.”

“Do you remember both the good and bad parts of it?”

You: “It was mostly bad, given current circumstances, but yes.”

“And you recall the most significant events in your life?”

You: “Yes, of course.”

“And you recall the best and worst parts of your life, perhaps better than average days, correct?”

You: “That’s probably true for everyone.”

“Do you remember when you were born?”

You: “No, not at all.”

“But you would agree that it was a significant event, whether it was good or bad or a bit of both?”

You: “Sure.”

“Do you remember before you were born?”

You: “No.  How could I?”

“Well, would you agree that what you will shortly experience is no better and no worse than what was happening to you before you were born?  After all, you remember the best parts of your life, and the worst.  You remember the most significant events, yet can’t recall being born (a very significant event).  So, one could argue that the experience of not-yet-being born is less significant than being born, and is neither among the best nor among the worst of your experiences.  As your physical state after your death will be similar to not-yet-being-born, being dead is likely not terrible but not fantastic and is likely unremarkable.  And, given your current panic and pain, could even be an improvement.”

Would you be at all comforted by this argument?

Assume that there isn’t a semantic problem here about being afraid of the death “process”, as some euphemistically call it.  It’s being dead — the state — that causes worry.  Your interlocutor isn’t arguing that an afterlife will be better than your current one, or even that an afterlife exists.  He merely suggests that “it can’t be worse” than before you were born, and you can’t even recall that.

This equivocates on whether experience is possible before you were born or after you die, making comparison impossible.  As Thomas Nagel noted, you aren’t there to have the experience.  Then the real argument is over whether the permanent cessation of consciousness is the real fear, with the word “death” being an overloaded shorthand.

So, is the human desire to live simply wanting to keep what one has and knows?