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).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Intuitions and Metaphysical Possibility

In a recent paper, I offered my readers the following thought experiment:

"You are in the kitchen one day with your spouse and, suddenly, everything around you freezes. Your spouse stops moving, the clock stops ticking, the crickets stop chirping, but you continue to move normally. Suddenly, a man walks into the room. He explains to you that he is a time-traveler from the future. He takes you on several time-traveling trips with him and convinces you beyond any doubt that he has the power of time travel he claims to have. When you finally return to the kitchen, he informs you that when he leaves and time begins to move normally for everyone else again, he needs you to kill your spouse. If you do not, he explains, he will travel five years into the past and kill your spouse himself."

The purpose of this thought experiment was to probe my readers' intuitions on this story, with an eye towards making an argument about the unreliability of our intuitions when we are confronted with temporally abnormal situations.

After reading the paper, someone objected that I should not have used this thought experiment because it is not metaphysically possible. When I heard this, I was rather surprised, not because I disagreed about the possibility of this example (though I don't think it is metaphysically impossible as it stands; it is just metaphysically impossible on the most natural reading of it), but because I don't tend to think that it always matters whether or not thought experiments are metaphysically possible. Of course, if the goal of the thought experiment is, for instance, to find out what we should or should not do in a given situation, it is pretty silly to offer a situation that could never happen. But given that the end goal here was somewhat tangential to the intuitions themselves, the question of possibility never occurred to me.

Anyway, the point of this post is to find out what everyone else thinks. Should our thought experiments always be metaphysically possible? If not, is it always preferable that they be so? If not, should I still have used one in this particular instance? Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Coulter and the Moralistic Fallacy

Ann Coulter recently had a moment of rediculousness, and the ensuing controversy has provided an opportunity for philosophers to step in and clear something up.  Whether or not her joke was funny is irrelevant to its morality.  This is D'arms and Jacobson's version of the "moralistic fallacy."  They rightly point out that the "comic moralist" is mistaken when they find a joke objectionable and infer that the joke wasn't funny.  

Many of the commentators who've stepped in to say that Coulter was out of line have simply said that this kind of hateful joke isn't funny, but this is just wrong.  I actually think it was a bit funny.  If Bill Maher had said it about Ken Mehlman (the slightly effeminate former RNC chair) all the liberals would have loved it.  But thinking that it was funny doesn't stop me from thinking that it was a highly innappropriate and obnoxious thing to say given the context and the audience.  

Her defense has basically been to say that all those who've complained just don't have a sense of humor.  But this is even more rediculous!  Just becuase your joke is funny doesn't give you free reign to say it whenever and wherever you want.  I have a sense of humor, and I even think it was funny (if just a little), and I also think she's a hateful witch who shouldn't have said it in public.

So for those who worry that philosophy has nothing to add to the affairs of laypeople, I offer this point.  The moralistic fallacy is pretty common, and recognizing the problem could allow people to debate the actual issues, and not whether or not the joke was funny.