It kicked off when Alex said: “Our intuitions provide no more guidance to sound ethics than our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition.”
We could push this analogy further. In pretty much all activities – sport, music, investing or almost any intellectual discipline – progress consists in restraining our intuitions. The lesson of Kahneman and Tversky’s work, surely, is that our intuitive judgments are horribly unreliable.
However, Will replies, validly I think, that, although our intuitions may be faulty, “there is also no way to completely "overcome" or "give up on" them.”
This raises the question: what are the distinctive features of ethics that makes intuition important here when it is less important and unreliable in so many other fields?
Will's addressed one - that all thinking must derive from some intuition. But I suspect intuition matters for other reasons. Here are three:
1. The ethical puzzles we are confronted with are often merely hypothetical. Take Larry Temkin’s question that kicked off the debate:
Suppose that you had a million children and you could give each of them a better life but only if one of them had a very, very terrible life. Would you do it?
None of us has been in this position. We can’t, therefore, bring practical experience to bear on the question. That means intuitions play a big role simply because other forms of knowledge play a smaller one.
This raises the question: how useful are such hypothetical questions? Shouldn’t we instead look at our actual behaviour – such as spending more on pets than on aid to Africa – and ask what (if any) moral beliefs are consistent with this?
2. Lower pay-offs. In music or sport, there’s an obvious – if hard-won – gain from restraining our intuitions; we bat better* or play our instrument better. In ethics, the pay-off is much less obvious. It may even be negative, if we suffer a dissonance between our gut feelings and our more “sophisticated” thoughts.
3. Our moral judgments aren’t just a matter of being right intellectually. We also want to feel right. Mere logic and reasoning therefore – even if it could begin from self-evidently true principles (which it can’t) wouldn’t satisfy us.
Maybe, then, moral thinking is a more unusual activity than many people suppose – which is one reason why I’m so wary of anyone who claims to have strong views.
* Note to American readers: I’m thinking of cricket here, not baseball. I don’t know if the analogy translates.