Intuitions: Moral vs Political

There’s an industry in moral philosophy in the muddy business of digging out intuitions. Imagine, advocates of this industry say, that you hold this-or-that moral principle. Some principle which claims, for example, that you can kill people under these-and-those circumstances. But then there’s an important counterexample. In this-or-that scenario (which is almost always hypothetical), the principle gives the wrong result. The principle “violates our intuitions”. (It’s almost always some very unspecified “we” whose intuitions are violated.) Perhaps, however, if we moved to some slightly alternative moral principle, which slightly changed under which circumstances we can kill, we could explain this case away—the principle would “fit” our intuitions better. But here’s another counterexample which this principle cannot explain! And so the dialectical machinery runs on. Normally, a satisfyingly solution is found within around 20 pages, which happens to be the length of a publishable article.

The Benefits of Intuitions

Despite my cynical way of presenting it, I do not think this is a fundamentally mistaken way of doing philosophy. Part of what philosophy should do, after all, is to show conflicts and contradictions in our beliefs. That’s what theory is for: it should offer some more systematic rendering of what we (pre-theoretically) believe. Some very hard decisions need to be made in this process. It is unlikely that we can hold on to all the moral beliefs that are dear to us—for example, when it comes to cases like the moral status of animals and our love for meat-eating.

It’s also clear that our intuitions ought to count for something. The label “intuition” tends to confuse non-philosophers, and much of philosophical writing would be clearer, and more convincing, if philosophers avoided it (at least when they spoke to the outside world). An intuition is simply a basic intellectual appearance, some plausible claim about morality we think is true before any heavy-handed theorising, and which is not derived from any other beliefs. Neither need intuitions be mere hunches, or how things superficially appear at first but not at a second look. There’s no deep mystery about the category of intuitions, then, or why moral theorising should pay respect to it.

Looking at particular cases or “thought experiments” (another label that non-philosophers often find confusing to scandalous, and is best avoided) serves another function, too. Where we write about morality, it is easy to get lost in airy abstractions. What does the injunction never to treat people “merely as a means” really demand? In the abstract, it might sound quite convincing. Once you turn to particular cases, however, we find that the notion is anything but clear. What does it require you to do in difficult trade-off cases? There is often a mismatch between abstract rhetoric and the performance of that rhetoric when applied to a range of cases. Intuitions about cases play an important role in grounding abstract theorising. (We can, of course, have intuitions about the truth of general moral principles as well. But I focus here, as most philosophers too, on appeals to intuitions in the context of particular cases.)

Morals and Intuitions

Having said so, I have some doubts about how far appeal to intuitions can carry us in doing moral philosophy, and I have particular worries about them in political philosophy. Let me start with the general worries. First, the intuitionist methodology employed in papers of this kind often seems vaguely falsificationist in how they conceived of the role of intuitions vis-a-vis principles. That is, these papers start from a supposed general “law” of ethics, which in the moral case we call a principle. Such principles are universally quantified statements about permissibility, wrongness, or other moral categories that apply everywhere and to everyone. Second, we subject this law to severe testing. In the moral case, this is done through the method of thought experiments—more or less advanced Trolleyology. Third, finding that the law fails to explain the experiment (i.e., the principle failing to explain the intuition), we reject the law. Fourth, we move to some more general or improved moral principle which explains all existing cases so far, and ideally has additional predictive power for new cases.

It’s this simple story of “testing” our principles, and going back and forth between abstract and concrete, which gives the intuitive methodology its vague veneer of scientificness. I’m not saying that advocates of the intuitive method conceive of themselves in this fashion. I’m using the analogy to explore what I think the shortcomings of this method are.

Falsificationism has mostly fallen out of favour in the philosophy of science. The first blow is that very little in the history of science seems to follow falsificationist strictures. Scientists rarely if ever give up their theories in the light of a single piece of contradicting evidence. Worse, many new scientific theories are “born refuted”. They survive, and find their adherents, and ultimately become dominant paradigms, often not because of their predictive power, but because of other theoretical virtues they have, such as their simplicity or elegance.

If the idea that we can falsify empirical laws through single counterexamples is somewhat silly, then the idea that moral principles can be refuted through one counterexample, or a small number of them, is equally silly. Like scientific theories, any plausible moral theory will have a number of assumptions built into its Lakatosian “protective belt” which will protect it from immediate refutation. Counterexamples certainly can indicate problems for a moral theory, but its fit with our intuitions is only one dimension of assessing it amongst others.

This, however, is not what intuitionists commonly do in their papers. Here, moral principles are stated and quickly discarded under the rattling fire of hypothetical counterexamples. But one often gets little sense that these principles are elements of wider theories—bodies of moral thought which have some internal logic, which have merits like simplicity, elegance, or fruitfulness, and which their adherents are unlikely to discard that quickly—and are wise to not discard that quickly.

Core and Margin

Second, there’s a certain tendency to “test” moral principles by applying them to types of cases which fall outside their core range of application. Where physicists state laws of nature, these are often naturally read as having a universal scope—to be universally quantified such that they apply everywhere at all times. So if these laws break down at the centre of a black hole, or in the first nanoseconds of the universe’s creation, that’s a problem for those laws. We expect of those laws that they explain all relevant physical phenomena to us.

Laws in other disciplines, however, do not have the same grade of universal applicability. Most laws in economics, for example, make implicit assumptions about the type of empirical situation they apply to; this restricts the scope of their application. An economic model might assume, for example, that people are by and large rational, that no one has cornered a particular market, or that there are no barriers for market entry. These assumptions are necessary to break the theorising about modern economics down to a mathematically and theoretically tractable degree.

If moral principles are akin to laws, then I think we should see them much more like laws in economics—the “softer” sciences, if you wish—then laws in a science like physics. Most moral principles are plausibly understood as following from an implicit model: a set of simplifying assumptions which restrict the range of application for the principles based on them. No economist would simply use a model based on perfect competition for a market which we know to be cornered by a monopolist, at least not without highlighting that the model becomes less reliable in such cases. Models, and the corresponding laws, have a core range of application for which they are meant to apply. Testing them outside that core range seems an unfair way to look at them.

Now, it is true that moral principles are often presented as if they had universal application, and in that sense the blame does not rest with the adherents of the intuitive method alone. Kant certainly presented his principles in that way, and utilitarian principles are normally presented in a similar fashion, as universally quantified principles that apply to all types of human action. But a much more moderate reading of moral principles would accept that, like economic models, they are based on a whole range of implicit assumptions which define a core range of application for them.

For example, I think that a theory like libertarianism rests on the implicit assumption that individuals have roughly equal mental and physical capacities, and are broadly autonomous in that they do not depend on any other person to make a sustainable living. If you focussed on cases outside this core range—say, children, the severely disabled, or societies with extreme power imbalances—then libertarian principles start to look more and more implausible. On the universalist reading of libertarianism, that simply disproves it as a theory. But a slightly more charitable reading might be that these cases simply fall outside the range of cases for which libertarianism is meant to apply.

A better way to “test” libertarianism is to criticise it for those core cases it was designed for—transactions between free, roughly equally powerful individuals. If we can show that libertarianism fails to explain those cases, we would have a powerful case against it. You might also reply that a theory which cannot explain how we should deal with children or extreme power imbalances does not have a sufficient range. I sympathise with that criticism. But that criticism is different from saying that the theory fails because it is refuted: the criticism now is that the theory does not have an adequately wide range of explanation.

Returning to the moral cases, I think too much is made of killing and maiming. Too much attention is directed towards re-directing trolleys, poisonous gases, or falling boulders. Some moral principles might have these kinds of cases explicitly as their core range of application. But most moral principles, I suspect, are meant to apply first and foremost to “ordinary life” where the stakes are often much lower. (I also suspect that these are the cases where those principles find their origin.) Can a moral theory explain the nature of promising, the bonds of friendship, or the binding force of contracts between strangers? If so, then our theory has achieved quite a lot; we might not be very concerned if it fails to give the appropriately correct response to whether we should kill this-or-that group of people in some highly hypothetical scenario.

There are other challenges to the intuitive method. One way to bring the worry home is to ask yourself whether your paper will be read, in a hundred years, primarily by anthropologists or by philosophers. That is, will your paper survive merely as an interesting exemplar of members of a curious past trying to rationalise their peculiar code of morals? Or will it be remember as a way of seriously thinking about the grounds of morality? Some philosophy papers are just incomprehensible if you do not buy into the core intuitions that motivate them. Once this happens, future generations will remember these papers as many treat medieval theology now: perhaps of some intellectual, but mostly antiquarian interest.

Look at the greats in moral philosophy—Locke, Kant, Aristotle, Hume, Nietzsche, and so on. These are not remembered, I think, because of the detailed work they did in mapping out their particular intuitions. Indeed, many of those theorists held seriously lacking, down-right awful, moral judgments about particular cases. We remember those thinkers less for their attempts of “fitting” any particular intuitions, but because of the powerfulness of their theory—theories which cannot be reduced or tested by holding them up to this-or-that thought experiments, but which must be assessed more holistically.

Politics and Intuitions

I’ve been critical of the use of intuitions in moral philosophy, but I still think that the best uses of this method are some of the best the discipline has to offer (for the reasons I mentioned in the beginning). In political philosophy, however, I have become more and more sceptical about the use of the intuitive method. (I have used this method in my own papers, so the following is partially a form of self-criticism.)

There are some important asymmetries between the moral and political case. First, ideologies loom much larger in our political thinking, as most every-day political thinking is ideological in some form. That is, almost everyone’s thinking about politics is to some degree explicitly or implicitly already shaped by various ideological forces. (I talk of ideology here in a very weak sense, just meaning some overarching, normative way of seeing the world.) While there is some hope that we might have genuinely pre-theoretical intuitions about trolley cases, that is much less so about questions regarding (say) the minimum wage or hate speech. Most of us are already committed to some overarching account of politics, however rough and implicit, and such a theory colours almost all our intuitions.

Second, we are subject to much more distorting forces when it comes to intuitions regarding politics. You shouldn’t trust your intuitions if you know they have been meddled with—if you know, for example, that you have been manipulated to hold some belief. In politics, we often have reason to be healthily distrustful on these grounds, much more so than in morality. Some of the distorting forces are political institutions—governments, first and foremost. It is in the implicit interest of governments that we believe, for example, in obligations to obey the law, in a close connection between law and justice, or the impossibility of order in a state of nature. Directly or indirectly, governments will encourage us to form beliefs along such lines.

That doesn’t mean that such principles could not be right—I do believe, for example, along roughly Kantian lines that there is some connection between justice and public institutions. However, we should not start our political theorising from simply retracing our pre-theoretical intuitions regarding such cases. This would at most end up being a defence of the status quo.

But forces which distort our intuitions are not limited to governments; they can also be of a more informal, social nature. As a German, my intuitions are formed around a peculiar, shared collective historical experience. I find it hard, for example, to see much value in patriotism, and I hear the drumbeat of fascism and collectivism in many political proposals where other people won’t. Again, perhaps these are the right beliefs to have. But if I did doing political philosophy with just these as my starting points, it would more resemble an exercise in historical self-understanding than an attempt of serious political theorising. For these reasons, it is often dubious to rely on pre-theoretical intuitions regarding various matters in political philosophy.

(There are lots of serious questions here about how and whether we can escape our particular historical, social and psychological horizon, of course. I’m only here making the weaker point that the matter seems particular egregious in political philosophy, and so that we have a special reason to be careful in this respect.)

Another matter is that most of us have no clear imaginative grip on certain crucial concepts in political philosophy, because they are much further removed from our experience. Few of us, luckily, ever had to face a choice of having to kill or maim strangers. But at least such situations, if not too outrageous, seem within the grasp of our moral imagination. In political philosophy, however, we often need not merely imagine ourselves to be in some unusual situation, but an entire society. What does it mean, for example, to imagine a state of nature? It would require us to mentally subtract from our current experience all political institutions, all legal norms, social conventions formed on the basis of, and implicitly relying on, those institutions, expectations surrounding public order and social cohesion, and so on, and so on.

Except in some extreme cases—if you live in Somalia, say, or grew up in other “failed” states—you have no real experience of what the state of nature is like. (Failed states, moreover, might bear little resemblance for what philosophers mean by a state of nature.) But more importantly, the imaginative distance between the society you live in now, and the state of nature you are asked to imagine is extreme. I don’t want to say it’s unbridgeable. But certainly you should be very doubtful about whatever pre-theoretical intuitions you have about such a case, whether positive or negative.

Politics and Theory

Again, this doesn’t mean that there is no place whatsoever for intuitions in political philosophy. Intuitions will be part of the “back and forth” of theorising here as in other parts of philosophy. Remember also that I have focussed here on intuitions regarding particular thought experiments; intuitions regarding general principles and values—e.g., equality—would need to be obviously treated differently at any rate.

Still, it strikes me that intuitions of the kind I’ve described will play a secondary role in political theorising. Where such intuitions are contradicted by a political principle, I think there is much more often, as compared to moral philosophy, a case to be made for discarding the intuition rather than discarding the principle. While there is some plausibility in thinking that our considered moral principles should never be wholly or extremely revisionary of our moral intuitions, I am not sure this is true in the political case—at least where we know that our pre-theoretical intuitions are systematically unreliable.

On the other hand, the upshot of this discussion isn’t that we should go “all in” for abstract political theorising. There are many modes of political reasoning that are neither appeal to case intuitions nor abstract theory construction. One such mode, for example, combines theory-building with economic theory, social-scientific evidence, and historical analysis. Such a method is very broadly the PPE method.

Edit: Minor edits (23/4/2018).

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