Return of the Intuitions

The word “intuition” has been deployed with increasing frequency in philosophy over the past 100 years. This may be owed to an increase in philosophers’ explicit reliance on intuitions, but also to the increasing critical scrutiny that philosophers’ reliance on intuitions has been facing for 3 to 4 decades now. Here’s Richard Brandt in A Theory of the Good and the Right in 1979:

[I]t is puzzling why an intuition—a normative conviction—should be supposed to be a test of anything…Various facts about the genesis of our moral beliefs militate against mere appeal to intuitions in ethics…

Since the 1990s these worries about intuitions have more and more been based on or supplemented with research suggesting that cognitive biases and situational influences render our intuitions unreliable. Now the philosophical atmosphere is suffused with the light social psychology is supposed to have shed on intuitions. But is it enlightening or is it light pollution?

In a new post at Experimental Philosophy (cross-posted at PEA Soup), Joshua Knobe (Yale) says that philosophers have been too receptive to empirical claims made by psychologists that appear to have been shown to be poorly supported or based on unreplicable findings.

As many of you know, one of the most important things going on in psychology these days is the attempt to replicate certain widely-known existing findings. Work in social psychology has led to numerous findings that showed a certain cuteness/flashiness/clickbaitiness. Many of these findings have become highly influential within philosophy. However, in a number of cases, more careful systematic work over the past few years has shown that these findings consistently fail to replicate. It is now widely thought that many of these supposed effects actually don’t exist at all, and that the original findings were instead the result of publication bias or questionable research practices. 

Many researchers now hold precisely this view about the findings philosophers sometimes invoke to demonstrate the instability of moral intuitions.

His main example of this is work that purported to show the effect that feelings of disgust have on people’s moral intuitions:

This work got a lot of attention, and it was widely seen as a challenge to a certain methodology in moral philosophy. But follow-up work now seems to suggest that this effect doesn’t actually exist. I worry that this more recent work is not sufficiently well-known in philosophy.

Knobe also links to work showing that some epistemic intuitions are “shockingly robust across cultural differences.”

To what extent will this nascent skepticism about skepticism about intuitions develop into a fuller defense of intuitions? Probably to the extent to which a collective incremental research program that revisits each of the distinctive psychological mechanisms purported to affect moral intuitions shows that such a defense is warranted.


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