You might be familiar with what philosophers call an “appeal to nature“. It is a claim that something is good or right because it’s natural. Sometimes an appeal to nature is a fallacy. In this post, I discuss the possibility that an appeal to intuition is that kind of fallacy.
1. Different Brain, Different Intuition
First, imagine that your brain and my brain are radically different from one another. If this were the case, then it would be unsurprising to find that your intuitions were different than mine. Indeed, evidence suggests that even minor differences between brains are linked to differences in intuition (Amodio et al 2007, Kanai et al 2011).
This implies that our appeals to intuition (etc.) might be contingent upon brains being a certain way. In other words, differences in intuitions seem to be the result of differences in natural properties.†
2. The Appeal To Nature
It is not difficult to find an appeal to intuition in philosophy. For example,
The idea that [P] is so intuitive that most will need no more proof than its statement (Wenar 2008, 10).
But what is going on when philosophers appeal to intuition? What makes something intuitive? Does intuition track truth or reliability or something like that? Or does it track something else?
If it tracks something other than truth or reliability, then our intuitions will change even if the truth or reliability does not. But, like I mentioned last week, some of our intuitions seem to change when our brains change. And changing our brains doesn’t seem to change what is true or reliable. So some of our intuitions do not necessarily track truth or reliability. They seem to track something else — something about the nature of our brains.
So widespread moral intuitions might not track truth. They might only track features of our brains. For instance, most people have an intuition that it is bad to harm people when the harm can be avoided. But if this intuition is merely the result of our having certain neural properties, then it is not clear that the intuition is true. Just because the intuition is widely shared doesn’t mean it’s correct. After all, if we changed everyone’s brains in a certain way, then maybe we would change our intuitions about harm (Crockett et al 2010; Crockett et al 2016).
3. Explanation ≠ Justification
While natural properties can help us explain our intuitions, they do not justify them.†† This becomes more clear when we consider counterintuitive claims.
Some people try to show that utilitarianism is counterintuitive by pointing out that psychopaths are more likely to make utilitarian judgments (Bartels and Pizarro 2011).††† But it’s not clear how that amounts to an argument against utilitarianism. After all, the difference between our moral intuitions and a psychopath’s moral intuitions might be just a difference in brains (Glenn et al 2009, see also a response from Koenigs et al). So contrasting our intuitions with psychopaths’ intuitions ends up looking a bit like an appeal to nature. It appeals to the nature of neurotypical brains.
“Not so fast!” you might say. “Why should we think that the difference between me and a psychopaths’ intuitions is only a difference in brains? There are other differences. Namely, there are arguments that undermine psychopaths’ intuitions more than my intuitions” (this kind of response can be found in Deutsch 2015).
There are a couple claims here so let’s take them one at a time.
First, a concession. Neuroscience is far from fully explaining the differences in our intuitions. So it wouldn’t be surprising if there is more to our intuitions than what neuroscience tells us. Also, it’s not even clear that neuroscience can fully explain our intuitions.
Second, let’s think about those arguments against the psychopaths’ intuitions. What makes these arguments compelling? Is it similar to what makes something intuitive? What if the appeal of arguments — like intuition — can be explained by natural properties of our brains? If this is the case, then the mere existence of compelling arguments for an intuition doesn’t necessarily justify the intuition. It might only provide a post hoc rationalization of the intuition (Schwitzgebel and Ellis 2016).
It’s not obvious why one set of intuitions are supposed to be better than another set. Science reveals only that certain brains (normal brains, philosophers’ brains, etc.) produce certain intuitions (Kahane et al 2012). But that does not necessarily justify intuition. And it doesn’t debunk intuition either.
4. So Is An Appeal To Intuition A Fallacy?
It seems pretty clear that our intuitions can depend on nature — e.g., on our brains being a certain way. So an appeal to intuition can be an appeal to nature. And an appeal to nature can be a fallacy. But that’s not enough to conclude that every appeal to intuition is a fallacy.
So the short answer to our question is this: not necessarily.
Longer answers will fall into at least three categories
- The necessary justification category: “No. Intuitions are justified because they are intuitions (and not because they are ubiquitous, reliable, useful, etc.). That is intuitions are — necessarily — justified.”
- The contingent justification category: “No. Intuitions are justified because of some accidental feature of intuitions (e.g., their ubiquity, reliability, utility, etc.). So intuitions can be justified, but they aren’t necessarily justified.”
- The unjustified category. “Yes. An appeal to intuition is a fallacy because intuitions are not justified. They are only apparently justified. But when we study intuitions, we find that intuitions are the result of natural (neural) properties — nothing more.”
I haven’t argued for any of these answers. I have merely tried to show that it’s not obvious how our intuitions can be justified. So you might wonder how you can argue for some of these answers.
5. The Self-Defeat Argument
The Self-Defeat Argument might be the easiest way to argue that intuitions can be justified. It’s pretty simple. The most important premise is this: if intuitions aren’t justified, then nothing is justified (Huemer 2001, 107-8). The full argument goes like this:
…the rejection of [intuition] is self-defeating, roughly, because one who rejected [intuition] would inevitably do so on the basis of [intuition]. […] Therefore, if this opponent of [intuition] were right, his [rejection of intuition] would itself be unjustified. (Huemer 2007, 39)
Sounds intuitive, right? 🥁💥
Well, before you get too comfortable with the Self-Defeat Argument, you should know that some philosophers don’t buy it (DePoe 2011; Mizrahi 2014). So if you want to accept the Self-Defeat Argument, then you might want to see how you can respond to those philosophers (Huemer 2011; Huemer 2014). And then you might want to see a counter-response (Mizrahi 2014).
So what do you think? Are intuitions justified? How? Why? How can science help us answer that question?
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† Notice that I did not say “only the result of natural properties.”
†† Notice how I didn’t say “fully explain our intuitions”.
††† I’m not saying that Bartels & Pizzaro do this. I’m saying that people appeal to Bartels & Pizzaro’s study to do this. Ibid.
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