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.


  1. Hey Jonathan,

    You wrote: "Nobody thinks that Dick escapes his moral obligations by failing to have the relevant intuitions, or even by having contrary ones."

    I'm not sure that's right. One of the lessons of Parfit's mineshaft case is supposed to be that what you ought to do is a function of your evidence, not the facts. If you think that all of our moral evidence derives from intuitions, I think there _are_ people who would say just this. (Of course, I think this is just the reductio of their view and proof that people are drawing the wrong lesson from the mineshafty cases).

    On the question of (2), you make some remarks about what's rational and what your rational obligations are. Not sure that these are the same, but I wonder if you think there's any contingent feature of us that determines if there's rational pressure to accept (2).

  2. Elliot Svensson5/13/2011 07:50:00 AM

    Hey Jonathan,

    Thanks for posting this to Buzz! You know I'm no expert on these things, so please bear with me, and there may well be a pat answer to this.

    What kind of moral obligation can one have in the absence of a judge? One big difference between Katie and Dick is that Dick's friend is injured by his immoral action; but Katie's opinion of (2), if she doesn't act on it (i.e. as soon as the opinion is formed), has no consequence with anybody.

    Thus, Katie could be wrong or right but neither will lead to judgment for her--- while for Dick there's judgment the next time he sees his shy friend!

    I think having a judge would also help sort out the question of whether evidence or absolutes determine morality; you know that it hurts more to be slapped than if your friend causes you to break a bone by accident.

    What do you think? Did I really miss the point?


  3. Hi Jonathan,
    one straightforward interpretation of the Crazy case is that Crazy's intuition that (2) is false constitutes a defeater for believing (2) - so, Crazy's rational obligation here is actually to not believe (2). In general, I think it is a very weird view that one should be under any rational obligation to believe some (logical) truth irrespective of what one's other beliefs are. For example, suppose that the law of non-contradiction is true - would even Graham Priest be under the rational obligation to believe it, then, and is he irrational if he doesn't believe it? To answer "yes" here seems at least slightly crazy to me - after all, there is a meaningful distinction between simply being wrong about p and being irrational in believing p. Your view seems to collapse that distinction, at least for logical truths like (2), and prima facie that looks like trouble.