Bryan Caplan  

Two Intuitionist Insights

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From Mike Huemer's chapter in the new Arguments for Liberty, edited by Aaron Powell and Grant Babcock:
Virtually all nonintuitionists are hypocritical: they adopt and retain ethical beliefs in precisely the way that intuitionists do - namely, they believe what seems right to them, until they have grounds for doubting it - with the sole difference being that they are less self-aware, that is, they don't say that this is what they are doing.  Then they hold forth about how bad it is to do that.
Consequentialists are, as usual, the most egregious offenders.  They scoff at intuition in favor of "arguments," but what's the non-question-begging argument for their view?  After thirty years of philosophy, I'm still waiting.

Huemer also elaborates on the asymmetry between moral and political intuitions:
Even among nonlibertarians, it is not so much that most people have the intuition that the government has authority or that most people believe that government has authority, as that they are habitually disposed to presuppose the government's authority.  Most people, I suspect, have never actually thought about whether or why the government has legitimate authority.  When explicitly confronted with the fact that the government performs many actions that would be considered wrongful for any other agent, very few people say, "Yeah, so what?  It's the government, so it's obviously OK."  Rather, most people can easily be brought to feel that there is a philosophical problem here.

When I present the issue to students, for example, it is very easy to motivate the problem, and no one ever suggests that no reason is needed for why government is special.  By contrast, for instance, when you point out that although it is wrong to destroy a human being, it is not considered similarly wrong to destroy a clod of dirt, no one gets puzzled.
Or as Huemer explains elsewhere:
At first glance, it may seem paradoxical that such radical political conclusions could stem from anything designated as "common sense." I do not, of course, lay claim to common sense political views. I claim that revisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views.
If Huemer's approach is so strong, why is it so unpopular?  I'm tempted to blame people's unphilosophical attitude, but Huemer's approach is also unpopular within philosophy.  A mix of status quo bias and emotional attachment to mainstream political ideologies is the best explanation I can muster.

P.S. Jason Brennan's chapter on moral pluralism is also excellent.




COMMENTS (9 to date)
Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

Actually "Yeah so what" pretty much is the universal response when you bring up the fact that taxation is kinda like theft. The brute fact (as Huemer puts it) is that such a thing as "legitimate authority" exists. If one believes "murder is wrong" for example, then a natural corollary is "someone is legitimately allowed to punish murder". Government is most definitely an intuitive concept the follows directly from moral facts.

People will disagree on whether or not "legitimate authority" means monarchy, or republicanism, or communism, or a Rothbardian anarchy, or whatever - but nobody doubts that *something* has to be legitimate. The great variations on what constitutes a "legitimate" authority leads me down the patch of political skepticism, which follows directly from moral skepticism

Andrew Clough writes:
If Huemer's approach is so strong, why is it so unpopular?

The problem with intuitionism is that people's intuitions vary with how one asks a given question. And of course I include myself with "everyone" here. It's natural to think that security is more important than privacy when it's your security but not your privacy that's on the line. It's natural to feel the other way about the general principle when the shoe is on the other foot. There's no intentional hypocrisy here, just people being flawed. But at the same time people generally have the intuition that unintentional hypocrisy is bad and hence all the various attempts to systematize beyond intuitions.

In general someone saying "The grass is green" and someone saying "I believe the grass is green" are communicating the same thing, just with different degrees of certainty. Likewise someone saying "We should decide between courses of action based on the consequences" is saying the same thing as someone who says "It seems to me that we should decide between courses of action based on the consequences" unless they've explicitly claimed some other source of authority such as God. So it is not hypocrisy but precisely the desire to avoid hypocrisy that prompts us to construct edifices of moral theory that will hopefully remain fixed despite the shifting sands of our intuitions.

Brian Holtz writes:

Anarcholibertarians love to ask that question about the moral authority of the state, but they seem uninterested in passing an ideological turing test for non-anarchists. Benjamin Kennedy sees the answer. My version is at http://libertarianmajority.net/whence-the-authority-of-the-state

blacktrance writes:

The first quote is a significant failure of the Intellectual Turing Test on Huemer's part. It's trivial that people's ethical views seem true to them, so that can't be what anti-intuitionists are objecting to. He's equivocating between "seemings" in general and first-order moral intuitions in particular. There's no contradiction in saying something like "I believe what seems true to me, and first-order moral intuitions, as a class, don't seem to be reliable guides to moral truth". (Richard Joyce makes this point in his excellent review of Huemer's "Moral Intuitionism".)

RPLong writes:
If one believes "murder is wrong" for example, then a natural corollary is "someone is legitimately allowed to punish murder".

I believe that is a "reasonable extension," but I do not believe that is a "natural corollary." One of the strongest aspects of libertarian ethics, in my opinion, is the ability to express an ethical difference of opinion without calling in the storm troopers. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong and probably punishable. But of course the government doesn't stop there. Who would suggest that failing to get a hair braiding license is morally wrong? And under what moral authority does the state derive its licensure of hair braiders?

Even granting your reasonable extension, what makes government the best or most appropriate punisher of every moral problem?

MikeP writes:
Most people, I suspect, have never actually thought about whether or why the government has legitimate authority.

I suspect this is wrong. Or, at least, it is empirically indistinguishable from being wrong.

The difference between never thinking about whether or why the government has legitimate authority and actually thinking about it is approximately 30 seconds. That's about how long it takes a person of average intelligence to reason that government is needed to be the final arbiter of conflict. Most people probably came up with this while waiting for the bus one day when they were 20 years old.

Even Ayn Rand, who spent decades on the question, couldn't come up with anything better.

Intuiting or imagining alternatives to government is hard, and not at all obvious. It doesn't require a philosophical defense to believe that the sky is blue.

MikeP writes:

If one believes "murder is wrong" for example, then a natural corollary is "someone is legitimately allowed to punish murder".

In no way is this a natural corollary.

You might be able to say that a natural corollary is "someone is legitimately allowed to prevent murder" -- i.e., to restrain or harm someone so they do not commit a murder they are obviously going to commit. But it takes a long chain of argument to get to "someone is legitimately allowed to punish murder" after the fact.

To take one example, one possible punishment is to kill the murderer's family. Indeed, this used to be expected as a legitimate possibility. Is "someone is legitimately allowed to punish murder by killing the murderer's family" therefore a natural corollary? Certainly not. Some long chain of argument is needed to get there -- a chain people have followed in the past but which we no longer consider reasonable.

Greg G writes:

>----"Consequentialists are, as usual, the most egregious offenders. They scoff at intuition in favor of "arguments," but what's the non-question-begging argument for their view? "

>---"If Huemer's approach is so strong, why is it so unpopular? "

It's not so strong. Assuming it's so strong is the real question begging here. As several commenters have already pointed out, this post fails the ideological Turing test quite spectacularly.

I am a consequentialist and I don't scoff at intuition. I think intuitions are decisive for all of us in taking a position on these issues. Arguments are the things we use to try and justify our intuitions. Intuitions and arguments are not replacements for one another.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:
Even granting your reasonable extension, what makes government the best or most appropriate punisher of every moral problem?

I never said it was - most people think it is best for parents to discipline children, and referees to discipline players in sporting events. Some people want to leave it all up to the divine. Government is just another implementation of this scheme, and I am not making any claims about it

In no way is this a natural corollary.

Suppose someone gets away with a heinous crime, for example murder. On an emotional level, how does this make you feel? If you are like most people with typical moral plumbing, you feel indignation. The basic moral equation is "transgressions ought to be punished". Most of the arguing in politics is debating the most just way to punish crimes to ensure fair outcomes. Nobody generally takes a philosophical position that there ought to be no punishments

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