Friday, May 13, 2011

Rationality, Morality, and Intuition

Suppose that Katie is sitting out in the sun. Here are two propositions:

(1) It is sunny.

(2) Jonathan is wearing glasses or Jonathan is not wearing glasses.

It's pretty plausible to develop the case in such a way that each of (1) and (2) would be rational for Katie to believe, and irrational for her to disbelieve. Why is it rational for Katie to believe (1), and irrational for her to disbelieve it? Because of various experiences she is having, like the way the sky looks, and the way her skin feels. (Obviously.) Why is it rational for her to believe (2), and irrational for her to disbelieve it? Now that's a more interesting question. (Under some circumstances, Katie might be rational in accepting (2) in part because of her perceptual experience -- for instance, if she can see that I am wearing glasses. We stipulate that she doesn't know, or have any reason to believe, that I am or am not.) One answer that seems to be reasonably widely held is that, in just the same way that the rationality of (1) is explained by Katie's perceptual experience, the rationality of (2) is explained by her intuitive experience. I think that this is a very bad answer, and in this post, I'll press an analogy that I hope will make you think this answer very bad too.

If the rationality of (2) depends on Katie's intuitions, then, if she lacked the relevant intuitions, she would no longer suffer rational pressure to accept (2). But that's crazy. Imagine Katie's stupid counterpart, Dummy, who does not have any intuitions about (2). It's rational for Dummy to accept (2), and irrational for her to reject it, just like it is for Katie. The difference between Katie and Dummy is, Katie's intuitions help her to see what she has reason to accept. Dummy is blind to her rational obligations. Dummy doesn't escape rational obligations just by lacking intuitions. We can take it a step further, and imagine yet another counterpart, Crazy, who has the intuition that (2) is false, or even necessarily false. Would it be rational for Crazy to deny (2)? Definitely not. The rational thing for Crazy to do would be to reject her crazy intuition and accept (2). So the fact that (2) is rational for Katie does not depend on her intuitions.

This point is very obvious in the moral domain.

Dick has promised his shy friend to speak on his behalf to the woman he loves, but breaks the promise, deciding instead to woo the woman in question for himself. Our confident judgment that Dick acts immorally does not depend in any way on our assessment of his moral sensibilities. Dick may be a moral imbecile, who lacks sensitivity, even at the intuitive level, to his moral requirements. His failure to intuit in accordance with his duties to his friend constitute a moral shortcoming, and they do not by any means exempt him from said duties. Dick may even have had the intuition that betraying his friend was the correct action; still, that don’t make it right!

Nobody thinks that Dick escapes his moral obligations by failing to have the relevant intuitions, or even by having contrary ones. So nobody should think that of Katie, either.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Scorekeeping in a Football Game

According to David Lewis's classic paper, "Scorekeeping in a Language Game," conversations, like sporting matches, have scores, which characterize the current situation, and rules, which interact with scores to determine what is permissible. The score of a baseball game includes the number of runs scored, an indication of which team is batting, the number of outs, balls, strikes, etc. (Lewis characterizes baseball scores as ordered septuples; in fact, they're more complicated. Lewis's baseball scores leave out, e.g., the batting order, which pitchers have already appeared in the game, and perhaps most egregiously, who is on which bases.) An example of a baseball rule, in Lewis's sense, is that if a the score includes three balls, if the pitcher throws a ball, the score is updated by resetting the count, putting the batter on first base, updating other runners and the run total as necessary, as making the next member of the lineup the batter. This is a rule that tells you what happens to the score when a particular event occurs; there are also rules that tell you what is permissible, given the score. You may not come up to bat if you're in the lineup and it is not your turn.

In a language games, scores will include contextual parameters like who is speaking, what is presupposed, what is salient, etc. There are rules that tell you what is permissible, given the score, and there are rules that govern the updating of scores. These sometimes interact, as when the score is accommodated to permit a conversational move. For example, there's a rule that say I'm only allowed to use the definite article "the cat" when there is a uniquely salient cat. But if there's not one that was already salient -- if the score didn't already indicate a uniquely salient cat -- my utterance can cause an updating of the score, to make it permissible. If I say "I'd better go home because the cat is hungry," the score is updated to make my cat at home the uniquely salient one.

This feature of conversational games, Lewis says, marks a difference between conversations and sporting events.
There is one big difference between baseball score and conversational score. Suppose the batter walks to first base after only three balls. His behavior would be correct play if there were four balls rather than three. That’s just too bad - his behavior does not at all make it the case that there were four balls and his behavior is correct. Baseball has no rule of accommodation to the effect that if a fourth ball is required to make correct the play that occurs, then that very fact suffices to change the score so that straightway there are four balls.

I'm not sure Lewis is right about this. Of course he's right that you don't get a walk just by trotting along to first base, but I'm not sure that's because there's no accommodation in play. What, plausibly, would happen in a Major League game where a batter tossed his bat aside and jogged to first base after ball three? The umpire would call him back. That's a baseball move too; that's what the umpire is supposed to do, and it's surely what he would do. And there's plausibly a baseball rule that says that when the umpire says you're still at bat and have three balls, the score is updated to make that the case. If the umpire stood idly by and let the batter take first base, I think that might well make it the case that he got a walk. That's part of why bad calls suck so much; they make themselves true. After this play, there were only two outs in the inning, even though, had the umpire performed correctly, there would have been three. (To deny this would be to say that there were four outs in that inning -- or that Melky Cabrera's subsequent apparent plate appearance was illusory, and that his turn was skipped in the lineup.)

This happened pretty dramatically in an infamous college football game between Colorado and Missouri. The football score, in Lewis's sense, will include what down it is. And failure to convert on fourth down means you lose possession. But in this game, the officials miscounted the downs, and nobody noticed until afterward, when Colorado scored a touchdown on 'fifth down', which had been described by the officials as fourth down. The officials got it wrong, obviously. But, I think, they didn't get it wrong in the sense of saying something false; they got it wrong by making the wrong thing the case. It really was fourth down, and there really was a touchdown.

So I think, contra Lewis, that football scores and baseball scores can accommodate, in more or less the same way that conversational scores can. (There's no doubt it's easier to do in the case of conversational scores.)