Against Intuition

Larry Temkin, the noted philosopher, was trying to convince Robin Hanson and I that some moral values should not be traded.  He posed the following question:

Suppose that you had a million children and you could give each of them a better life but only if one of them had a very, very terrible life.  Would you do it?

"Of course," I answered.  "You would be crazy not to," said Robin.  I could tell by the look on Larry’s face that this was not the answer that he had expected.   "But, but," he stammered, "almost all philosophers would tell you that that is wrong."  "So much the worse for almost all philosophers," I replied.

My response to Tyler’s post on animal welfare is similar.  Tyler wants to find a theory that both rationalizes and is consistent with our intuitions.  But that is a fool’s game.  Our intuitions are inconsistent.  Our moral intuitions are heuristics produced by blind evolution operating in a world totally different than our own.  Why would we expect them to be consistent?  Our intuitions provide no more guidance to sound ethics than our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition.  (Which is to say, they are not without function but don’t expect to be healthy on a yummy diet of sugar and fat.)

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. 


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