Battlepanda: Questioning your intuition is like eating your vegetables


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Questioning your intuition is like eating your vegetables

Alex Tabarrok came up with a terrific analogy to explain why we have to be wary of intuition when we make moral decisions:

The reason to think deeply about ethical matters is the same reason we should think deeply about nutrition - so that we can overcome our intuitions. Tyler argues that we don't have a good approach to animal welfare only because he is not willing to give up on intuition.

Tyler asks (I paraphrase) 'Would you kill your good friend for the lives of a million cats? What about a billion cats?' He answers, No, but says "Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive."

My answer is not only Yes it is that we do this routinely today. The introduction of "your good friend" (or "children" in Larry's example) engages our primitive intuitions and feelings and that is why Tyler's answer goes awry. But consider, last year Americans spent more than 34 billion dollars on their pets. That money could have saved human lives had it gone to starving Africans.

Similarly, contra Larry, we do make tradeoffs concerning our children and more generally we accept that some people, such as coal miners, risk a much worse life, i.e. death, in order to benefit everyone else just a little bit.

The dilemmas that Larry and Tyler raise tell us that our intuitions, taken as a package, are not rationally derivable from a handful of premises. But that is no reason to abandon reason instead we should happily accept that some of intuitions lead us astray.

A sound mind and a sound body both require that we abandon our gut instincts.

I'd just like to add, just like theories about nutrition comes and go, so does theories about morality. It never pays to completely ignore your instinct, either when it comes to what you eat or what you do. But in general, Alex is right. This is why I don't like bringing highly emotional examples like the holocaust or genital mutilation into conversations where they are not immediately germaine -- the strong intrinsic revulsion people feel for those topics tend to overwhelm all rational discussion.