Philosophical Intuitions and Demographic Differences

Philosophers are disagreeing over what lessons should be learned from the growing body of work on the interplay between demographics and philosophical intuitions.

Jarke van Wijk – Myriahedral Polyconic Projection Map

In a recent article in Epistemology & Philosophy of Science, Joshua Knobe (Yale) argues that philosophical intuitions are “robust across demographic differences”:

Work in experimental philosophy is often concerned with intuitions about seemingly abstruse issues, such as the nature of the true self or whether the universe is governed by deterministic laws. There was every reason to expect that such intuitions would differ radically between demographic groups. Yet actual research on the topic has yielded a surprising result. Again and again, studies find that effects observed within one demographic group can also be found in a variety of others.

He acknowledges that some differences of philosophical intuitions have been shown across different demographic groups, but then goes over some of the studies to show “the shocking degree to which demographic factors do not impact people’s philosophical intuitions.”

Edouard Machery (Pittsburgh) and Stephen Stich (Rutgers), who are co-principal investigators (with H. Clark Barrett of UCLA) of the Geography of Philosophy Project, have written a reply to Professor Knobe. They argue, among other things, that his conclusion is based on a selective sample of the existing literature, and that a look at more studies shows that the main lesson of them is that there is significant variation in philosophical intuitions across different demographic groups.

What follows are brief presentations of their views by the principals in this dispute. First, we hear from Professors Machery and Stich:

What if philosophical intuitions (however those are characterized) depend on who you are? if men and women tend to have different moral intuitions? if people in East Asia assign free will and responsibility differently from anyone else in the world? if Americans and East Asians have robustly different semantic intuitions? if epistemic intuitions vary systematically between philosophers and non-philosophers?  if people with different personality traits have different intuitions about who has free will?

For more than fifteen years experimental philosophers have examined these possibilities empirically, and have argued that if actual such differences would have dramatic implications for the practice of philosophy (see, e.g., Machery’s Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds).

But not all experimental philosophers agree about the extent to which philosophical intuitions vary across demographic groups. In “Philosophical Intuitions Are Surprisingly Robust Across Demographic Differences” Joshua Knobe has argued that there is surprisingly little variation in philosophical intuitions across demographic groups. He goes on to suggest that many of these philosophical intuitions may be innate.

We disagree vigorously! In our opinion, there is already substantial, if still incomplete, evidence that philosophical intuitions vary across demographic groups. In our response, we identify 90 studies, with more than 75,000 participants, reporting demographic differences in philosophical intuitions!

In our current project, the Geography of Philosophy, we are also investigating the existence of deep, systematic differences in intuitions about knowledge, understanding, and wisdom all over the world, in both industrialized and small-scale societies.

More important, we believe that it would be a disaster if Knobe’s well-justified reputation as the leading experimental philosopher convinced philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists that OUR intuitions (i.e., the intuitions of educated, white, wealthy, western people) are human intuitions. 

Our full response can be found here, and the list of studies it’s based on here.

Here is Professor Knobe’s reply:

I am grateful to Machery and Stich for their very helpful paper—definitely an extremely valuable contribution to the literature on this topic—and I’m delighted to have an opportunity to continue the conversation here.  

The basic form of the claim I am defending is not that experimental philosophy has failed to find evidence of something (e.g., that it has failed to find evidence of differences between demographic groups). Rather, the claim is that experimental philosophy successfully has found evidence for something genuinely striking and important. It has found evidence that philosophical intuitions are surprisingly robust across demographic groups. 

My defense of this claim consists of two parts.

First, I review the evidence for robustness. In studies on Western adults, experimental philosophy research has uncovered various intricate, quirky and highly unexpected patterns in people’s intuitions. Experimental philosophers have then asked whether those same patterns also arise in people from other cultures and in very young children. Again and again, the answer has turned out to be yes. The very same patterns that experimental philosophy research has uncovered in Western adults also emerge in these other populations. This is an extremely surprising result, which clearly cries out for explanation.

Second, I look at the studies Machery and Stich cite as evidence of differences in philosophical intuition between demographic groups. Many of these studies are not concerned with demographic differences in the usual sense (culture, age, gender, etc.) but rather with individual differences in personality or cognitive style. Machery and Stich are completely right to say that philosophical intuition are affected by these other individual differences, but I had never meant to call that claim into question. Other studies do in fact show statistically significant differences in intuition between participants from different cultures. These are exactly the right studies to be considering, and I am grateful to Machery and Stich for drawing attention to them. I argue that a closer examination of those studies reveals that, despite the statistically significant differences, those very studies actually provide evidence of an extremely surprising degree robustness across cultures.

At this point, there is really a lot of evidence for robustness. Readers may disagree with some of the claims I make in this paper, but clearly, we are now very far past the point where it could make sense just to ignore the evidence of robustness and focus only on evidence of difference.

My paper is here. Looking forward to continuing the discussion!

Thanks to Professors Knobe, Machery, and Stich for their remarks.

Discussion welcome.

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Thomas Mulligan
4 years ago

I can only speak to the empirical work on economic justice–which is not generally done by experimental philosophers but rather experimental economists, social psychologists, and others. But within that context, Prof. Knobe has the better side of things. It is surprising how little demographic differences (including race and gender), class, and culture affect what we think is just and unjust in distribution.

It is known, for example, that egalitarianism (including Rawlsian, Difference Principle-based distribution) is roundly rejected. As is Nozickian libertarianism. Despite the many differences between us, desert appears to carry the day.

Edouard Machery
Reply to  Thomas Mulligan
4 years ago


Undoubtedly, some judgments will be universal, particularly negative judgments of the form you described. The question, however, is how many? What should we expect?

In addition, cross-cultural research on fairness expectations in small scale societies has, as you might know, found substantial variation. Henrich and colleagues’ decade-old research is the classic reference: see, e.g.,

Ashton T. Sperry
Ashton T. Sperry
Reply to  Thomas Mulligan
4 years ago

Is there a paper you could recommend on the topic?

Thomas Mulligan
Reply to  Ashton T. Sperry
4 years ago

I would start with the work of James Konow, who has done extensive research on empirical justice. Perhaps his “Fair and Square: the Four Sides of Distributive Justice”. Also relevant here is his “A Positive Theory of Economic Fairness” (“the striking similarity of responses to fairness survey questions among subjects in different countries . . . suggests little variation in notions of fairness across this contextual dimension, the one across which it would be perhaps most expected” (p. 15)).

If you’re interested in tests of Rawls’s theory, Frohlich and Oppenheimer have a book and several papers which cover this. On class and judgments about justice, you could see Christina Fong’s “Social Preferences, Self-interest, and the Demand for Redistribution” and Alesina & Angeletos’s “Fairness and Redistribution”. These are just examples; there’s a lot out there. Plus, there’s relevant literature in other fields, including evolutionary psychology, neuroeconomics, and child development. . . . If you have a specific interest, send me an e-mail and perhaps I can suggest something.

I am not aware of any comprehensive literature review that covers the diverse fields which study empirical justice. I provide a limited survey in Chapter 3 of my book, Justice and the Meritocratic State.

jonathan (not justin) weinberg
jonathan (not justin) weinberg
4 years ago

As one might expect, I’m generally on the Machery and Stich side of things here. But I was surprised to see this in the list of complaints: that Knobe “goes on to suggest that many of these philosophical intuitions may be innate.” But didn’t the authors of “Normativity & Epistemic Intuitions” make just such a conjecture themselves? Something something “universal core to ‘folk epistemology’”, if I recall correctly? So, seriously, what’s supposed to be so bad about this particular element of Knobe’s suggestion)? I would have thought it a legit conjecture even under a fairly strongly “negative program” orientation here.

Edouard Machery
Reply to  jonathan (not justin) weinberg
4 years ago


I can’t speak for the authors of “Normativity & Epistemic Intuitions” … I am myself sympathetic to the notion of a core folk epistemology, probably more sympathetic than Steve, keeping in mind the obvious point that a universal epistemology leaves a lot of room for culturally transmitted epistemological concepts, beliefs or norms.

In any case, what we are reacting is the speculation that many of our philosophical judgments might be innate rather than socially transmitted.

Joshua Knobe
4 years ago

Hi Edouard and Steve,

Thanks so much for participating in this discussion. I definitely learned a lot from your paper, and I hope we can continue this dialogue.

In my own paper, I suggest that one helpful way to explore the robustness of philosophical intuitions across cultures is to ask whether correlations with personality and individual difference variables are themselves robust across cultures. For example, suppose we find in one culture that people who tend to give answers based on immediate gut feelings usually have one intuition while those who tend to give answers based on careful reflection tend to give another. We can then ask whether that very same correlation arises in other cultures.

I wanted to ask about a way of addressing this issue using some of your own data. In your amazing paper about the Gettier intuition in 23 countries (Machery et al., 2017), you find a robust tendency across cultures whereby the majority of participants do indeed have the orthodox Gettier intuition. Then you also find a correlation whereby participants who are higher in a dispositional tendency toward reflectiveness are more likely to have the orthodox Gettier intuition.

My question is whether that correlation is itself robust across cultures. For example, if you split the data into Western and non-Western cultures, do you find the same correlation in both groups? Or, going in the opposite direction, do you find that the correlation is itself significantly different across cultures?

Just to be clear, it’s not as though I already know how this is going to come out or anything like that. I was just thinking that the answer to this question, whatever it turns out to be, will be informative and help shed light on the question we’ve been discussing.

Thanks in advance!

Carsten Bergenholtz
Carsten Bergenholtz
4 years ago

Thank you for a fascinating discussion. I won’t try to assess the evidence one way or another, but would like to make a suggestion that might help set the standard for how to declare if an answer is the same or different across demographics. Currently the potential differences are characterized as dramatic, small, robust and so forth. I think clearer quantitative criteria could advance the debate. If we flip a fair coin 1000 times, getting 52% heads is, statistically speaking (p-value 0.05), still not odd enough to allow us to say for certain that the coin is not fair. But if a coin has a 51% likelihood of landing on “heads”, we would think this difference is substantial and noteworthy.
Now, what is a reasonable cut-off point when comparing answers to philosophical questions across samples. Is the difference between 53% saying yes to a question something really different from 57%? (cf. the free will example that Knobe refers to on p. 17). Or even different from a random, uninformed answer? It might be significant, but it might not be important. Importantly, if our sample size is big enough, a difference between 53.3% and 53.2% could turn out to be very significant, yet we might also agree that it is the “same” percentage and such a tiny difference is not noteworthy.
Hence, discussing how big a difference should be, in order for it to be a difference would be relevant. It would also ensure that each reader doesn’t have to, independently, look at a number of figure and make up their own interpretation of if the difference is “big” (whatever that means), but that we follow standards that we – hopefully – can agree upon. These standards need not be equal across all areas. Maybe (!) it turns out that a difference of 2% in answering the Trolley question is different and more important (might impact how a self-driving car is to be programmed in different countries) than a 2% difference in an epistemological question.

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Carsten Bergenholtz
4 years ago

Hi Carsten,

Thanks so much for writing. This is an important point in general, but in this specific case, I wouldn’t say that the debate comes down to a disagreement about what effect size is required for a demographic difference to be philosophically important. It is not as though we are all looking at an effect of a given size (say, d=.25) and then disagreeing about whether that size should be called “small.” Instead, the issues under debate seem to have a different character.

For example, I point to studies showing that, across many different cultures, stakes do not impact knowledge attributions (Rose et al., 2019) and that, across many different cultures, people think that when there is disagreement about aesthetic questions, It is not the case that one party is right and the other is wrong (Cova et al., 2019). Machery and Stich respond that these findings themselves indicate that folk intuitions are departing from the intuitions of philosophers, thus providing evidence for an effect of another demographic variable (namely, the difference between the folk and the philosophers).

In this case, there is no real debate about how to interpret effect sizes. We all agree that the difference between cultures within folk intuitions is small and that the difference between the intuitions of the folk and the intuitions of the philosophers is large. The only question is about how to understand the larger theoretical significance of those facts.

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Carsten Bergenholtz
4 years ago

Just a quick note of clarification: In the final paragraph of my previous comment, when I say “In this case,” I just mean the specific case of the findings from Rose et al. (2019) and Cova et al. (2019).