Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On Intuitions

I had a chat with Faraci recently. His dissertation is all about why intuitions are not so good when it comes to arguments in ethics. David has a few reasons for his position, and I suggested another way of arguing against intuitions.

Here are the important assumptions. Suppose we agree that ethics has all the features that Anscombe and people like her think they do. These include things like overridingness, universal application, and similar things. That is, the truth about ethics is not merely conventional or subjective. It is at least partially objective, or objective in some sense (the details don't matter that much, what matters is the thought that whatever the right ethical view turns out to be, it won't be conventional).

So, yes, we think this. Now we want to see whether or not intuitions are useful for establishing the content of our ethical views.

We know that, for instance, our mathematical and scientific intuitions are not always able to establish or get at the truth of math or science. There are other ways of establishing the truth, and it is curious, but not really useful, to find out that at least some people's intuitions get awfully close to the truth. We have other ways of figuring out what is true when it comes to science and math. Calculators settle the issue of what 12,222 multiplied by 17 is. What you intuit doesn't. Similarly with science.

If ethical intuitions are in the same category as scientific or mathematical intuitions, then this bodes ill for the role of intuitions in ethics. What we would need is an explanation for why ethical intuitions manage to capture "objective" facts, while our scientific and mathematical intuitions do not. We would need to do this while maintaining that intuitions are to ethics what calculators are to (some) math. This is probably a difficult task.

Intuitions, however, seem to be pretty useful when it comes to things like language. Whereas intuitions about math and science tend to fail, intuitions about language often get it right. One explanation for this is that language, unlike math and science, is purely conventional. The truth about what a word means, and what grammatical structure is correct hinges crucially on a complicated story about the in-practice use of language. Languages change, evolve, and are different in different areas. Provided you want to play the communicating game, you had better adhere to the local conventions about meaning.

The trouble for those of us who are keen on ethical intuitions is this:
1. Science and math are objective
2. Intuitions about these things fail
3. Language is conventional
4. Intuitions about language succeed
5. Ethical intuitions either capture the objective truth (and so we need to know why they get this whereas science and math intuitions fail) or;
6. Ethical intuitions capture the truth only if ethics is conventional (and so we have to abandon what we originally agreed to--namely, overridingness and universal applicability).

(A little note of clarification: I don't think that science is entirely objective, I'm just putting myself in the shoes of someone who would. Secondly, I'm not sure whether or not I think ethics is objective, or merely conventional. Probably conventional, but that's not the point of this post).


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  2. I was surfing the internet and ran across this Blogg post. As an undergraduate student currently enrolled in ethics 102, I suppose I have a few questions about the idea of intuitions being the guide for morality.

    I only have a basic understanding of intuitions or rather Hume's idea of intuitions and I just can't wrap my head around it. Now, I'm sure there have been philosophers who have added wonderfully new spins on the idea of intuitions but my questions will center around Hume's version as I understand it.

    First it must be pointed out that I understand intuitions as being related to a feeling of disgust. For example, when we hear or (hopefully not) see murder, rape, torture, or other things of this nature we get the feeling that these things are (for lack of a better word) intuitively wrong. So far so good!

    My problem arises when I try to think about my own intuitions about many things. You mentioned in your article that intuitions about science and math often do not lead us to the correct answer even though sometimes they do. We seem to remember these intuitions only when we're correct. For example if I were answering a multiple choice question on a test and my intuition was correct, I will more than likely pride myself on a job well done and note that my intuition was correct. However if my intuition was incorrect I would disregard it as knowing nothing about the problem. I get the sense that we believe our intuitions are correct only because we remember when they are correct and forget that we even had an intuition when their wrong. I may have an intuition about where I left my car keys but this may have nothing to do with where they actually are.

    But maybe my intuitions just need to be refined! Perhaps it's the simple fact that I haven't trained my intuitions enough to be able to precisely pick out the right from the wrong. But doesn't this seem to be completely counter intuitive to the idea of intuitions? Aren't intuitions supposed to be JUST a gut reaction to a situation? If it is just a gut reaction to a situation AND we need to refine these reactions, aren't we just really talking about virtues? Sure Hume (and other philosophers I'm sure) calls it something else but it would appear to be the same thing, just minus the classifications. For example, instead of defining courage, we just say that you have an intuition about when it's right to be courageous.

    And there's the Idea that what's important is not what is right or wrong but what is good and bad. I fail to see how intuitions tell us anything about what is good or bad. I don't think that I can say that my intuitions were either good or bad and if so, how? Sometimes my intuitions are good, sometimes they're bad! They're intuitions, they're simply starting points, they're not the ending point. And just because I start there, doesn't mean that I am going to end anywhere near there.

    Finally I think this sums up the other main issue I'm having:

    1. Everyone has different intuitions about the same topics (Intuitions are subjective).
    2. Intuitions (Under Hume's theory) provide us with objective ethics.
    3. Nothing can be both true and false at the same time and in the same realtion.
    THEREFORE: What?

    You can't take something subjective and make it objective. Yes, I'm making an assumption here, that intuitions are different for everyone, but I think you'll have a tough time convincing me that this is true. Look at how many ethical issues we face on a daily basis that people have drastically different intuitions about (I.E. Gay marriage). Why doesn't Hume just say he's a relativist?