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?

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