Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Expecting Moral Philosophers to be Reliable


This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post he summarises his paper ‘Expecting Moral Philosophers to be Reliable’. You can read the paper in draft form here.

Consider the following case:

A bomb is about to go off. It’s a big one. If this bomb goes off, every single living thing will die instantaneously and painlessly, and the universe will be rendered incapable of ever supporting life again. There is but one way to stop the bomb: pushing a big red button. Pushing the button would stop the bomb from going off. Pushing the button would also cure all disease, eradicate poverty, remove the Tories from government, provide everyone with a free kitten, stop climate change, and bring Duke Ellington back.

Is it morally permissible to push the button?

If you thought of an answer, you just had what philosophers sometimes call an intuition. In a recent paper, ‘Expecting Moral Philosophers to be Reliable’, I try to say something in favour of the idea that philosophers have better intuitions than ordinary people when it comes to cases like these. (The argument is a bit more subtle than that and you should read the paper for the full story. But that is the gist.)

The idea that experts in a field have more reliable intuitions than those with no experience in the field is not generally very controversial. Mathematicians have better intuitions than me about proof strategies. Chess grandmasters have better intuitions than me about which moves are good moves.


But, the analogy between expertise in other fields and expertise in philosophy (especially ethics) has recently been claimed to break down in two ways.

  1. It only makes sense to expect experts to have better intuitions if their experience in their field changes their intuitions. Experts in maths and chess have different intuitions than a novice like me. However, philosophical training does not change what intuitions philosophers have.
  2. It only makes sense to expect experts to have better intuitions if their experience in their field improves their intuitions. Training in maths and chess involves lots of feedback on the quality of one’s intuitions. However, there is no such feedback available for philosophers.
I won’t bore you with the whole argument. However, my point in the paper is to show that the analogy actually holds up pretty well. I think it is pretty plausible that philosophers’ intuitions are a causal product of their experience in the field (even if some other factors, e.g., genetics, play a role as well). Moreover, I argue that philosophers get quite enough feedback on the quality of their intuitions from indirect sources that we should expect their intuitions to be improved by it. In brief, philosophers can get feedback from (i) the successful or unsuccessful application of their theories in other fields, (ii) their greater sensitivity to when intuitions are more and less reliable, and (iii) careful consideration of how intuitions are generated.

(As I say, the argument is a little more subtle than that, and, in the end, my defence of the superiority of philosophers’ intuitions is a pretty limited one. But, if you want to cast doubt on the idea that experts in philosophy have more reliable intuitions, you need to do more than argue that the analogy breaks down in these ways.)

(By the way, if you think that pushing the button is probably the way to go, then you should probably reject a theory called negative utilitarianism. That is… so long as your intuitions are reliable.)

1 comment:

  1. http://justmorephilosophy.blogspot.com/2015/10/should-we-democratize-philosophy.html

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