Bryan Caplan  

Inescapable Intuition

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Mike Huemer replies to his critics on Cato Unbound.  My favorite part is his common-sense defense of common sense.  His begins by methodically laying out the problem:

[T]he recommendation to "rely on common sense morality" is just another way of saying: "start from normative premises that seem obviously right to almost everyone." What is controversial about that? What else could someone say we should do? It seems to me that there are the following possible alternative views:

  1. It is better to start from normative premises that seem doubtful or false, rather than ones that seem obviously correct.
  2. It is better to start from normative premises that seem true only to some smaller number of people, such as perhaps the partisans of a particular ideology, rather than premises that seem true to almost everyone.
  3. We may only use normative premises that seemed true to almost everyone throughout history, or across all human cultures.
  4. We may only use normative premises that seem true to absolutely everyone.
  5. We should start from no normative premises at all.

He then considers all five alternatives:

Alternatives (1) and (2) seem, well, obviously wrong.

Option (3) has one obvious problem: it leaves us with virtually nothing to work with. Or more precisely, those who object to my common sense moral premises on the grounds that they are not universal across cultures and times would have to say that almost nothing, perhaps nothing at all, is universal across cultures and times. So if (3) is to be a genuine alternative to my own methodology, (3) will have to be a methodology that is extremely unpromising, in the sense that it is extremely unlikely that any political philosophy could be supported using only the meager materials that this methodology sanctions. A defender of (3) might claim that the justified conclusion here is one of skepticism, rather than a rejection of the methodology. But let's be concrete here. I rely on premises such as "One should not physically attack, rob, kidnap, imprison, or enslave people, without having a good reason." Now, it might be objected that people in some cultures and some historical time periods in fact attacked, robbed, kidnapped, imprisoned, and/or enslaved people without having any good reason for doing so. Therefore, ... what? We don't know whether any of those practices were good or bad? It's illegitimate in a political argument to assume that attacking people for no reason is bad? It seems to me that if someone draws those conclusions, that person must be a moral skeptic, or close enough as makes no difference.

As I have suggested, option (3) is in danger of collapsing into (5). Option (4) collapses into (5) immediately: there is no moral premise that seems true to absolutely everyone, including psychopaths, the mentally disabled, primitive tribes, and Adolf Hitler.

So we come to option (5): use no moral premises. Since it is not possible to (correctly) infer moral conclusions entirely from non-moral premises,[4] this option simply entails moral skepticism - we draw no moral conclusions at all. Now, some people think that is the correct result. But it is not my job to refute moral skepticism in a book about political philosophy,[5] any more than it is the job of an author to refute skepticism about the external world in a book about physics. Political philosophy books are for people who accept that it is sometimes possible to say that something should or should not be done. If you reject that, then you don't have a problem with my book. You have a problem with the entire field of social and political philosophy.

Hasn't common sense been wrong before?  Of course.  But how do people show that a common sense view is wrong?  By demonstrating a conflict with other views even more firmly grounded in common sense.  The strongest scientific evidence can always be rejected if you're willing to say, "Our senses deceive us" or "Memory is never reliable" or "All the scientists have conspired to trick us."  The only problem with these foolproof intellectual defenses is... that... they're... absurd.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Will writes:

Common sense can be criminally wrong- the most commonly cited evidence of this is quantum mechanics. A mechanical theory built on common sense principles will invariably lead to classical mechanics which is refuted not by common sense but by checking against reality.

How do we check Huemer's theory against reality in a similar fashion?

Finally, I think all sort of work (for instance Kahneman's work on framing) shows that human moral intuitions are generally contradictory.

This means that from subset of "common sense" moral intuition, a decent logician can prove literally anything. To paraphrase Pauli, such an approach isn't even wrong.

AS writes:

While I generally like Huemer's work, this argument is invalid. It implicitly assumes that whether a normative judgment is "common sense" or generally accepted is significant.

"Hasn't common sense been wrong before? Of course. But how do people show that a common sense view is wrong? By demonstrating a conflict with other views even more firmly grounded in common sense."

I think this is wrong as well. Consider mathematics as an example: we can show demonstrate that a "common sense" view is wrong (all real numbers--where reals are defined as a complete Archimedean ordered field--are associated to some algorithm that can compute their decimal expansion to any desired accuracy) by showing it leads to a contradiction or proving its negation (see this example).

Tracy W writes:

Will, AS, mathematics and physics aren't morality.

Jason Brennan writes:

To the commentators above:

Huemer is not making the crazy assertion that commonsense moral thinking is always correct. He would also agree that we have contradictory moral ideas. His point is that in order for it to be rational to give up strongly held, seemingly obvious moral ideas, such as "It's wrong to rape babies for fun," you'd need to show that these claims contradict other claims that we have even stronger grounds to accept. All Huemer needs here is for us to be generally reliable at making certain sorts of day-to-day moral judgments. He wrote an entire book on this topic. As someone who knows the literature on moral psych quite well and as someone who knows Huemer's work, I don't see the moral psych as a threat to Huemer, unless you want to go for total moral nihilism.

jure writes:

I like Huemer's arguments. But if he defines common sense as morality held by most people- does this mean that the moral majority defines right and wrong for moral minority? And since he says that common sense is not universal through time- he is than actually a moral relativist, isn't he? What is right is defined when we check the morality of majority. Is this argument a proper way for libertarians to debate with it? According to this kind of logic, everyone should accept libertarianism cause majority holds such view. And another repercussion is that libertarianism is good only because nowaday moral majority says so. And doesn't this then becomes contradictory, since libertarianism says that nobody has a right to impose his morality on others- but in huemer's case, majority holds proper morality and they must impose it on minority. What do you think?

RPLong writes:

I'd ask: What is common sense? It seems everyone has a different idea of what common sense actually is.

Common sense is one of those fuzzy concepts that people invoke to buttress their arguments without providing additional facts or reasoning. I consider appeals to common sense to be a lot like saying "very, very, very..." That is, appealing to common sense provides more verbiage without providing any additional substance.

It's a waste of time. Unless we can actually show with facts and reasoning that our position is the more sensible, there is no use discussing that which appears most "commonly" to be sensible. If you have the more convincing position, then you can certainly demonstrate how much more convincing it is.

Greg G writes:

Common sense moral premises are indeed a fine place to start such an inquiry. The problem is, they are not such a good place to finish it.

Different common sense intuitions can, and do, conflict with one another. Huemer wants to ask why we should be willing to grant the state power that we would not be willing to grant to an individual. Well, one of our common sense intuitions is that a solid majority of citizens are less likely to make a bad moral judgment than an individual.

Huemer rightly says that it is unfair to compare the worst form of anarchy to the best form of government. Fair enough. Let's compare the best form of anarchy that has existed for long in human history. Oh... wait a minute. What is that exactly?

My common sense tells me that if we are looking for the "best feasible" arrangement for government we should question the feasibility of a system that has never flourished in all of recorded history.

Hazel Meade writes:

Sometimes it's better to stop using terms like "common sense", and start being explicit about what you mean. Normative moral intuitions held by the vast majority of humans. The project, of course, is to find a core set of moral norms that can be applied in a universal non-conflicting manner. Sometimes that means discarding a few along the way. The conflict is really over which ones to discard when they come into conflict.

Brian writes:

Similar to Greg G's comment, there's nothing wrong with starting with common sense ethics and working from there. That's a good way to engage people on a simple level and get them to consider the not-so-obvious points you want to make.

The problem is that such a starting point is like standing on shifting sand--you never know when your support is going to move out from under you. Once you arrive at some of those not-so-obvious points, people begin to push back and try to undercut the results by attacking the starting premises. If those premises have no more support than "common sense," they are easily dismissed and your argument topples.

It seems to me that the better approach is to propose a few simple, non-obvious principles that are capable of replicating most of common sense ethics. Once it's clear that these principles give reasonable results, they can then be used to argue for non-obvious aspects of political economy. Such principles are harder to attack as long as they are simple, clear, and cohesive (logically compatible), characteristics that common sense ethics can never have.

Trespassers W writes:

There's another option, which is "don't start from normative premises". Normative premises have to be argued for at some point if ethics is to be rooted in reality and the nature of man.

I understand if you want to start from "common sense" if your purpose is polemical, i.e. to convince a large number of people to come around to your point of view, but that can't be the end of it.

Honestly, the more Bryan pushes Huemer, the less interested I get.

DougT writes:

"Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

-- David Hume, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" XII.iii

Ted Levy writes:

RP Long: have you read Huemer's book on moral intuitionism?

RPLong writes:

@ Ted Levy

I have not read it. My comments should be understood as pertaining only to Caplan's post here. I fully confess to ignorance of the broader context. :) I probably should read the book, though, because this discussion is very interesting to me.

NJH writes:

I'm not sure that there is an inherent problem in relying on "common sense" morality, but, in my experience, most people who claim to do so are often falling victim to alternative 2 themselves. That is, each person's implicit biases about "common sense" make this a tenuous starting point. To not recognize the difficulty of this initial position (or to willfully ignore it) seems to presage more specious arguments.

john hare writes:

A very high percentage of people that demonstrably don't have "common sense" think they do. That is my problem with almost any premise that involves common sense.

Michael P. writes:

Common sense is a collection of misconceptions passed down by previous generations. It offers no substance to any real thinker, is deeply rooted in bias, and mostly serves to puff up ones prejudicial arguments.

Ryan writes:

Isn't one possible problem that moral language is not composed of such propositions as "Kicking puppies is wrong", but "Kicking puppies, yuck!". Or perhaps we don't even have to go full non-cognitivist and simply say that what is being expressed by moral propositions is "I do not like when people kick puppies"

Chris writes:

There is a big difference between the physics example and the moral example. Denying the evidence of the defenses is self-defeating because one depends on the senses to know or prove anything, including the proposition that there is no external world.

Denying the existence of morals, or requiring proof of their existence, does not contradict itself.

Chris writes:

Another thing. Common sense is that feeling something doesn't make it real. Feeling that raping babies is wrong doesn't mean there is any "real" moral code making it wrong; it only means that it feels wrong.

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