Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three ways of rejecting moral intutions

People often assume that there's a basic difference in philosophical-methodological temperament between (say) utilitarians and "common-sense" deontologists.  Deontologists, it is said, feel strongly constrained by their intuitions about particular cases, whereas utilitarians are more wedded to theoretical virtues of simplicity and parsimony, and hence are willing to endorse their theory despite its counterintuitive implications.

I'm somewhat resistant to this characterization.  My own (roughly) utilitarian views are, I think, more driven by intuition than by concern for parsimony or the like.  (I don't think that parsimony really counts for very much at all in philosophy.  Though avoiding ad hoc or unmotivated distinctions certainly does.)  I think it's important to accommodate common sense, though this needn't involve just taking common sense at face value.  Thinking more about this, I figure there are three importantly different ways of rejecting a prima facie intuition that goes against your view.  In order of decreasing palatability, they are:

(1) Show that the intuition is merely prima facie, and can be satisfactorily explained away on closer reflection.  I think that this is the case for the standard counterexamples to consequentialism, for example.

(2) Show that a compelling intuition is outweighed by an even more compelling competing intuition. I think this is how utilitarians need to respond to objections from partiality. (And I'm not confident that it's ultimately successful.)  Yes, it is compelling to think that we've special reason to care more for our loved ones than for total strangers.  On the other hand, the theoretical intuition that all people matter equally and hence merit equal consideration is pretty compelling too.  So there's a real conflict here, and I think people could reasonable go either way on it.  (Many issues in population ethics also fall in this region, I believe.)

(3) Simply reject a compelling intuition on purely formal grounds, such as parsimony (perhaps together with some sort of "debunking" explanation of why people might have the intuition, but not one that makes the intuition seem any less compelling, in contrast to #1 above).  This seems to be what hedonists are forced into, for example, when faced with compelling examples of objective goods such as love and friendship.  This strikes me as a bad move, and not one that I'd want to be associated with.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Richard,

    I tend to agree with your point about the palatability of those options, but I wonder whether there might be (in theory, at least) a different one:

    For example, a moral error theorist might reject moral intuitions because she reckons nothing is (for example) immoral, or morally good, but she comes to that conclusion on the basis of other, non-moral intuitions. If she were making no epistemic error (I think she is), her epistemic intuitions would support the conclusion that the probability that any action is immoral or morally good is negligible, and on that basis, she would be rejecting moral intuitions properly.
    So, it seems to me it's at least in principle possible to reject moral intuitions (not necessarily all of them, but some) on the basis of non-moral epistemic considerations, without rejecting it purely formal grounds. I don't think it's a very promising avenue in practice, though.

    With regard to utilitarianism and the objection from partiality, I wonder whether that limited to the case of loved ones.

    For example, let's consider the case of a bodyguard who agreed to protect the life of a specific person.
    In that case, it seems clear to me that they ought to be partial: if they have to pick between saving the person they agreed protect and a stranger, they should save the person they agreed to protect, all other things equal.

    Granted, it might be argued that that's not an exception, because the theoretical intuition that all people matter equally and hence merit equal consideration only implies that we should treat them equally under the same circumstances, and the fact that a person agreed to protect another person's life changes the circumstances. But then again, if that reply is successful, why would a similar reply not be successful in the case of a person's loved ones?
    After all, the circumstances are different too: In the case of a bodyguard, the difference is a previous agreement to protect a person's life. In the case of friendship, there is no previous agreement, but there is a history of previous friendly interactions, trust, etc.

    So, it seems to me that if the aforementioned reply to the bodyguard objection is successful, then similarly, partiality towards one's friends, spouse, etc., wouldn't be an exception to the theoretical intuition you mention.
    On the other hand, if that reply to the bodyguard objection is not successful, it seems to me that there are plenty of other exceptions - apart from the case of the loved ones.
    What do you think?


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