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In this chapter, Appiah presents experimental studies that seem to challenge our use of intuitions. He then outlines some responses to these studies. I shall begin with a summary of the chapter, using Appiah’s subheadings for easy navigation. I shall then offer some commentaries on this chapter.

The Evidence of Self-Evidence
Appiah first notes that many major historical figures in philosophy such as Thomas Reid, William Whewell, Henry Sidgwick, David Ross, John Rawls, Frank Jackson, and so on, have explicitly commented on the importance of intuitions for moral theories. Appiah then identifies what he calls the ‘intuition problem,’ according to which, on the one hand, the plausibility of a moral theory depends on its ability to accommodate many of our common sense intuitions. But, on the other hand, the power of a moral theory depends on its ability to challenge other common sense intuitions (p. 77). Here Appiah offers an interesting observation that Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium – which directs us to adjust our principles to our intuitions and our intuitions to our principles until coherence is achieved – may be another name for the intuition problem rather than a solution to it (p. 78). To see this, Appiah asks us to consider the following: Suppose that there is a theory, T1, which accommodates all our intuitions about a particular matter except for the intuition INT. Next suppose that we construct – as the method of reflective equilibrium might direct us to do – a different theory, T2, that differs from T1 only as much as is necessary to accommodate INT. How should we choose between T1 and T2? According to Appiah, to decide whether to accept T1 or T2, it seems that we would still need to decide between INT and the other intuitions that we must abandon if we accept T2. If this is right, it would appear that the method of reflective equilibrium just restates the problem rather than provide a solution for it.

The Prospects for Common Sense; Trolleyology; A Scanner Darkly
In these three sections, Appiah gives a nice summary of a number of past and recent empirical studies that suggest that our moral intuitions may be quite unreliable. Appiah begins with the classic Asian Flu Case by Kahneman and Tversky, which seems to show that people’s intuitions about moral cases can vary depending on how the options are framed, even when the options are, rationally speaking, equivalent (pp. 82-85). In the same section, Appiah also presents studies by Wheatley and Haidt that seem to show that people’s moral judgments can hypnotically primed to respond to seemingly irrelevant cues (pp. 86-87).

Next, in Trolleyology, Appiah introduces the trolley problems discussed by philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Judith Jarvis Thomson, and many others. For example, in

Original Trolley Problem: There is a runaway trolley on course to kill five people. You can save those five people by hitting a switch that will put the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill one person.


Footbridge Problem: Once again, there is a runaway trolley on course to kill five people. This time you are on a footbridge next to a 300-pound man. You can save those five people by pushing the 300-pound man off the bridge and onto the tracks. His body mass will stop the runaway trolley, but he will be killed in the process.

Appiah notes that our intuitive responses to these trolley problems are taken by some philosophers to be able to justify moral principles such the doctrine of double effect.

Finally, in A Scanner Darkly, Appiah presents neuroscientific findings by Joshua Greene and his colleagues that suggest that our intuitive responses to these trolley problems depend on apparently extraneous factors such as how “personal” or “impersonal” these cases appear to us (pp. 93-96).

Moral Emergencies
Here Appiah pauses to consider how a moral philosopher might respond to these studies. He notes that the original trolley problem and the footbridge problem are both cases of moral emergencies, which have the following features:

1. you have to decide what to do in a very short period of time
2. there is a clear and simple set of options
3. something of great moral significance is at stake
4. no one else is as well placed as you are to intervene.

Appiah then proposes that we can treat our intuitive judgments regarding these cases as heuristics that have gone astray, owing to the fact that these cases are cases of moral emergences. Appiah suggests though that in ordinary, non-emergency cases, heuristics can lead us in the right direction most of the time (p. 98).

Folk Psychology Unplugged
Appiah continues here to present other empirical findings. For example, he cites the studies by Shaun Nichols and Joshua Knobe that suggested that compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions about determinism and moral responsibility can be elicited from the same people depending on whether the scenarios presented to these people were “affect laden” (pp. 101-104). Appiah also discusses Knobe’s studies that suggested that how people’s intuitions about whether an act was intentional seemed to depend on their appraisal of the act rather than the other way around (pp. 104-105). Appiah uses these empirical findings further to support the idea that our intuitive judgments may be some kind of heuristics.

Seeing Reason
Here Appiah considers the idea that intuitive judgments may be more than heuristics, using an analogy with color perception. Suppose that someone were to propose, as a heuristic, a “blue rule”:

If something looks blue and you have no special knowledge about your eyes or the lighting, you should believe that it’s blue.

As Appiah points out, it would seem natural to respond that this is not just a heuristic.

Now consider this rule:

If something seems intuitively wrong (or right) and you have no special knowledge that suggests your moral intuition is distorted, you shouldn’t (or should) do it.

Someone might argue that analogously, this is not a heuristics either.

According to Appiah, the problem with this argument is that our moral intuitions may be unreliable as the empirical studies have suggested. Appiah argues that in the case of perception, we can distinguish the visual properties of things and say that it is our visual awareness of these that give us reasons for perceptual judgment. But, so argues Appiah, we cannot identify the reason-for-action-giving properties of situations by pointing to any organ—and, indeed, moral psychologists are inclined to doubt that there are any such organs.

So Appiah seems to be suggesting here that unlike perceptual judgments, intuitive judgments in fact are just heuristics, because there is not a moral sense organ in the same way that there is a perceptual organ.

Explanations and Reasons
In the concluding section of this chapter, Appiah ends with a cliffhanger. He notes that it might be thought that the psychologist’s concern with naturalistic explanation which underlies the empirical findings and the philosopher’s concern with reasons are just incompatible with one another. But he proposes that they are not rival accounts; rather, they are two perspectives that do not compete in the same explanatory space, and he promises to explore this idea in the remaining chapters.

My commentaries:
1. Regarding Appiah’s argument against the method of reflective equilibrium, I don’t have a firm view regarding the validity of this method. But it seems that there is a more plausible way of understanding this method. To see this consider the following: Suppose that you begin with a theory that says to ‘do no harm.’ Call this T1. T1 accommodates many of your moral intuitions, but then you encounter the following case: Someone, X, is trying to harm you; you have done nothing wrong to X; and the only way to avoid being harmed by X is to harm X. Your intuition in this case, INT, is that you are permitted to defend yourself against X. Given this, should you stick to T1 and do no harm, even though you will then be harmed in such a case; or should you revise your theory to something like T2: ‘do no harm, except in cases of self-defense where you also have done nothing wrong’? Appiah is correct of course that to decide whether to accept T1 or T2, you would still need to decide between INT and the other intuitions that you must abandon if you accept T2. But I take it that the point of the method of reflective equilibrium is that a new intuition such as INT can compel one to revise one’s initial theory such as T1.

Appiah gives the impression that the empirical studies by Kahneman and Tversky, Joshua Greene and his colleagues, and so on, show decisively that our intuitions are unreliable in these cases. It is worthwhile mentioning though that not everyone accepts the purported lessons from these empirical findings. For example, Frances Kamm has argued that Kahneman and Tversky’s experimental data do not help to undermine the possible moral importance of the harming/not-aiding distinction (Frances Kamm, Intricate Ethics, p. 435). See also our Kamm Reading Group’s discussion of Kamm’s Chapter 14 of Intricate Ethics for this point. Or, Marc Hauser and his colleagues have challenged Greene’s distinction between the personal and the impersonal as a way of explaining the trolley problems. See, e.g., Marc Hauser, Fiery Cushman, Liane Young, R. Kang-Xing Jin and John Mikhail. A Dissociation between Moral Judgments and Justifications. Mind & Language, Vol. 22 No. 1 February 2007, pp. 1–21.

I am unsure about Appiah’s argument that intuitive judgments are not analogous to perceptual judgments. His argument, to recall, is that in the case of the latter, there is a perceptual faculty, whereas in the case of the former, there is no such thing as a moral sense faculty. First, Marc Hauser, who is also a moral psychologist, may disagree with Appiah that there could not be a moral sense faculty (see Hauser’s Moral Minds). Secondly, those who believe that intuitive judgments are generally unreliable and that intuitive judgments are not useful heuristics can perhaps deny that there is a moral sense faculty. Nor am I suggesting that there couldn’t be an argument against the idea that there is such a faculty. But given that Appiah believes that intuitive judgments are useful heuristics, it seems that his position requires that there exists a faculty of this sort. Otherwise, how can one be sure that intuitive judgments can be useful heuristics? In other words, once one accepts that intuitive judgments are reliable most of the time, it seems that one has to suppose that there is a reliable mechanism by which these judgments are made reliable. If so, why couldn’t one just call this mechanism a moral sense faculty?


  1. 1. Posted by Constantine Sandis | April 3, 2008 2:12 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful commentary Matthew.

    I was wondering what people make of Appiah’s grouping the philosophers you mention (Reid, Whewell, Sidgwick, Ross, Rawls, Jackson) as all relying on intuition when it is far from clear that they all mean the same thing – or even vaguely similar things – by ‘intuition’.

    Also, many of them reject ‘common-sense philosophy’ (as did the ordinary language philosophers which Appiah mistakenly associates with common-sense philosophy at the start of the chapter), not all of them appeal to faculties, and the meaning of the term ‘intuition’ has changed drastically over the centuries, in both ordinary and technical parlance.

    As Mathew’s analysis demonstrates, Rawls’ reflective equilibrium, for example, is not dissimilar to the Quinean pragmatism/coherentism that Appiah appears to endorse in Ch. 1.

    Is it helpful to lump all these poeple together? Do they all share some common belief that I’ve missed or is it simply that they happen to use similar terms to denote different kinds of beliefs and methodologies?

  2. 2. Posted by Guy Kahane | April 4, 2008 12:09 am

    I myself don’t see a special problem with this grouping. The views of these philosophers are different in all sorts of ways, and that includes their views on moral epistemology. But they all gave a central role to intuition in something like the (not very precise) sense in which ‘intuition’ is used in contemporary ethics. Still, this is a very loose category, and it’s not very helpful unless we are told what exactly it’s supposed to be contrasted with (presumably, not with moral scepticism).

    If talk about ‘heuristics’ is supposed to gesture at such an alternative, I fail to see what it is. To the extent to which the empirical examples Appiah cites are supposed to show that moral intuitions are unreliable, it seems they show this by (implicit) reliance on further moral intuitions (even if very simple and obvious ones). The Asian flu example may be an exception, since it only appeals to a conceptual claim about supervenience, but on itself it shows very little anyway.

    The notion of heuristics is borrowed from work on the psychology of everday probabilistic thinking, but there it at least has a clear sense. We can see, for example, why evolution would select capacities that track certain empirical truths only in certain limited contexts. But it’s very unclear how it’s supposed to apply in the normative domain. It’s not plausible that evolution selects dispositions to, e.g., follow certain rules of thumb that maximise utility only in certain contexts. But if these heuristics weren’t selected by evolution, nor by an secret utilitarian cabal, where exactly are they supposed to come from?

  3. 3. Posted by Jeff Huggins | April 5, 2008 4:17 pm

    Thanks to Appiah for a great chapter and to Matthew for a very helpful commentary.

    As we know, some important schools of thought consider human intuition as the main, most powerful, and most grounded fount of moral understanding. As Appiah observes, this raises the issue of “The Evidence of Self-Evidence.” Such schools of thought are subject, of course, to key questions: Where does intuition come from? How does it arise? Why (for what purpose) do humans have intuition and its enabling mechanisms in the first place?

    Today, these questions can all be addressed, of course. And, they encompass others. For example: What is the linked path between nature’s foundational dynamics and our evolved intuitions? Indeed, understanding this pathway sheds light on the very relationship between “is” and “ought” and, when combined with our reasoning abilities, builds a stereoscopic picture (to use Appiah’s term) that can encompass both explanation and justification. Put another way, we can look beneath intuition, to its roots, and put intuition into its deeper and broader context.

    On page 79, Appiah writes, “The point is that the standard reflective-equilibrium approach is going to help us deal with conflicting intuitions only if we have some independent ideas about the shape of ethical theory as well.” I completely agree. And, these “independent ideas about the shape of ethical theory” can be gained in the way discussed above and in earlier posts.

    On page 119, Appiah hits a nail on the head: “In ethics as in optics, we need stereoscopy to see the world in all its dimensions.” But, I would add, we don’t need just any-old stereoscopy. If you imagine a pair of glasses, the two lenses share in common the frame and are linked via the nose-bridge. And in important senses, they view the same scene but from different (though ultimately related) perspectives.

    Such a stereoscopic view not only encompasses both explanation and justification: It can do so within a grounded context and can link (and find the common ground between) the two.

    The view I mention also sheds much light on the trolley cases, the question of invariance, and other matters explored in the final 40 pages of the chapter. And, it fits with and supports Appiah’s discussion of heuristics.

    I hope this post is helpful. Thanks again to both Appiah and Matthew.

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