Moral Theorizing and Intuition Pumps; or, Should We Worry about People's Everyday Intuitions regarding Ethical Issues?

By McBain, James | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Moral Theorizing and Intuition Pumps; or, Should We Worry about People's Everyday Intuitions regarding Ethical Issues?


McBain, James, The Midwest Quarterly


INTUITIONS ARE FUNNY things. Intuitions would seem to be these fluid, temporary mental states that we form minute by minute. On the face of it, they would seem to have no real value. But, when we ask whether a particular theory is true, we usually turn to our intuitions. This is nowhere more prevalent than in moral theorizing. When we attempt to show that a particular moral theory is mistaken, we usually present eases that yield counterintuitive results for the theory. For example, take the famous Trolley Car example. Suppose a trolley ear is traveling down a steep street and is heading straight for a child. Suppose further that you have the means to push a button that will divert the trolley car to a different track thereby missing the child. But, if you push the button to save the one child, you will kill five other children standing on the other track to which the trolley ear will be diverted. So the choice is do not push the button and let one child die, or push the button, saving, the one child, but killing five other children. What do you do? Such eases are common in moral theorizing and our intuitions concerning what we would do in such eases are usually taken as evidence for or against a moral theory. In the Trolley Car ease, a utilitarian would say, ceteris paribus, you should not push the button diverting the trolley ear. Since an action is morally fight if and only if it produces more net good (say, pleasure), diverting the trolley ear would result in more pain in the world and hence be the wrong action. But how do our intuitions evidentially fit into the case? Since our goal is to have a moral theory that coincides with our intuitions about cases, if our intuitions fit with the theory, then we have prima facie evidence for the theory. If our intuitions do not fit, then we have prima facie evidence against the theory. Concerning the Trolley Car case, if our intuitions are that we should not push the button, thus letting the single child die, then our intuitions count as evidence for the correctness of utilitarian moral theory. If we do not share the intuitions of the utilitarians, then it is said to count as evidence against the correctness of utilitarian moral theory. Thus, it is our intuitions that carry the evidential burden.

Since most agents take their intuitions to have significant evidential weight, such cases usually indicate something problematic with the theory in question. Yet, there has been considerable interest lately in the status of such a practice. This interest has in part surrounded the issue of whether the cases themselves pose a problem for moral theorizing. Such cases are sometimes called intuition pumps. These thought experiment-style cases are usually taken to elicit intuitions that count for or against a moral theory. But many have claimed that the reliance upon such intuition pumps in moral theorizing is unjustified. In this paper I will investigate this claim. First, I will lay out what I take to be the problem of intuition pumps. In particular, the problem will surround (1) there always being the possibility of constructing new cases that "pump" people's intuitions to the other side of a moral debate and (2) there being systematic and patterned disagreement as to what the "correct" intuitive response for a given case is. Next, I will give an account of the structure and evidence-conferring status of intuitions. Then, given this account, I will illustrate how we can and why we should appeal to the intuitions of experts to solve the problem of intuition pumps. Thus, I hope to show that the problem of intuition pumps is not a problem for moral theorizing. That is, the use of intuition pump-style cases in moral theorizing is prima facie justified.

The Problem of Intuition Pumps

What are intuition pumps? At base, intuition pumps are thought experiments that are to elicit some response or 'intuition' from the respondent. That is, someone constructs a ease that addresses some issue. …

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