Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Intuition vs. Rationalization and the Reflective Equilibrium of Ethics


The following is an essay I penned for my Introduction to Ethics class offered by Rutgers University, conducted by Professor Beth Henzel.

The question of whether ethics and moral judgment be based upon reason or intuition is a subject of debate as indicated in the dialogue between Joakim Sandberg, Niklas Juth and Peter Singer. The text in consideration is a response to one of Peter Singer’s papers where he argues that some interesting new findings in the field of experimental moral psychology confirms his thesis of contention that intuition should play a negligible role in adequate justifications of normative ethical positions.

Sandberg and Juth argue that even though basing ethics solely on certain kinds of intuition can be problematic, basing ethics off the standpoint of pure reason can be similarly troublesome. Instead, Sandberg and Juth suggest a more nuanced and sensible methodology to derive moral positions. They coin this methodology “reflective equilibrium” which, as the name suggests, travels the middlep path between reason and intuition taking into account both sides of the coin before settling on a decision. This is the most fair and equitable position.

In this essay I will attempt to argue on the side of Joakim Sandberg and Niklas Juth by first presenting a summary of Peter Singer’s paper and the summary of arguments against Singer raised by Sandberg and Niklas on their response to him, then providing my own argument by drawing a comparison between moral decision-making and cognitive psychological findings on how best to deal with situations that induce an emotional and a rational response.

Singer begins his paper by stating the views of moral philosopher Jim Rachel who argues that ethicists in general should not base their comments on tragic events and their moral ramifications on pure intuition subject to the orthodox view of what is right and what is wrong. Singer then goes on to say that this is a view he shares with Rachel and proceeds to explain his own standpoint by starting off with a history of moral philosophy recalling popular myths of mankind being bestowed moral guidance from a divine origin and then moving on to names of other philosophers such as David Hume and Niccolo Machiavelli. He then goes on to explanations of post-Darwinian understanding of ethics in relation to genes and reciprocity.

Following this, Singer explains the difference between “personal” and “impersonal” moral reasoning, that is, he uses the example of the “trolley problem” to show how people are quick to make personal moral decisions over impersonal ones, namely, that if a group of people are asked, assuming an empty train trolley is rolling towards a group of five and flipping a switch will save four of them but kill the fifth by diverting the path of the trolley, whether they want to flip the switch or not, majority would answer in the affirmative. However, if the group is then asked whether they want to push a large heavy man into the pathway of the trolley thus stopping the trolley at the cost of that man most would answer in the negative. Singer explains how neuroscientists have discovered that this is the case because in the latter scenario pushing the large man causes the agent to be personally involved in killing him thus stimulating more areas of the brain making the intuition against it stronger than if the agent is not personally responsible for killing one man by flipping the switch. Afterwards, Singer goes on to talk about Rawls and his analogy of normative moral theories being similar to scientific theories where he says that like scientific theories that may be best explained by plausible scenarios even if those scenarios do not comply with all the data, in which case we assume the data to be flawed and seek a balance between it and the result, moral theories have our base intuitions as raw data and we are to regulate our intuitions and our judgments until there is reconciliation between the two. Singer finds this analogy erroneous.

Singer explains the difference between a scientific theory and a theory of normative morality by expounding on their definitions. He states that a scientific theory attempts to explain why certain things happen the way they happen while normative morality does not explain why do we react the way we react to things such as abortion and voluntary euthanasia but rather what we are ought to do and how we are to react in such circumstances. This difference between the two should account for the error in Rawls’ analogy by contrasting the two.

In conclusion, Singer states that human beings may always be subject to intuition and, just like the tampering or dismissal of data to fit a plausible scientific theory, we rationalize our arguments to fit the intuition for morality. Nonetheless, Singers says there is a difference between this intuition and the base intuition that cannot be rationalized where a person says they do not know why something is wrong but they just know it is, as they did in Haidt’s experiment that Singer uses to support his paper. Singer calls the former rational intuition and concludes that this should be our methodology to arrive at moral judgments.

Sandberg and Juth start their paper off by outlining Singer’s arguments along with the experiments mentioned in his paper. They move on to explaining the two types of intuitions in Singer’s paper, namely practical and theoretical, and mentioning how Singer concludes we should derive moral codes off the latter instead of the former. Sandberg and Juth argues that Singer’s notion that practical intuitions are products of our evolutionary lineage whereas theoretical intuitions are more rationally grounded is false since the latter can be just as evolution-based as the former, also adding in the fact that for most people theoretical intuitions could be just as spontaneous as their practical ones. The gist of Sandberg Juth’s paper is basically this that both methodologies are prone to the same cons as each other.

Personally, I agree with Sandberg and Juth’s view and do believe that the reflective equilibrium approach is the best approach to arrive at moral conclusions. In the field of cognitive behavioral psychology the human mind is divided into three separated dimensions: the emotional mind, rational mind, and wise mind. The emotional mind is the loci of decisions based on emotions, intuitions, and feelings, while the rational mind is the loci of decisions derived off pure logical reasoning. The wise mind is the balance in between and, psychologists confirm, is the correct source to base our decisions off in real-life. The wise mind is the balance between validating our emotions and judging a situation properly off sound logical reasoning. Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to teach patients to base their decisions and tackle everyday problems using the wise mind. This largely mimics the methodology of reflective equilibrium for moral reasoning.

A good example to demonstrate the contrast between the thought processes of the emotional mind, the rational mind and the wise mind is to think of a girl who walks into her room which is extremely untidy and disorganized. Looking at the room makes her feel like that there is no way she can clean up the room given how messy it is. This is the emotional mind talking. The rational mind says that just because she feels like it cannot be done does not mean it cannot realistically be done. The job is not impossible. Rationally speaking, it is, in fact, possible. The wise mind strikes a balance between the two and says that yes it is possible but it is going to be difficult which is why the first emotional instinct of the girl was to feel like it could not be done. This validates her initial emotions as well as present the reality of the situation that cleaning up the room is something that is not impossible to achieve but it is going to be a tiresome task, preparing the girl to tackle with the problem as required.

The aforementioned example can then be applied for a moral decision. Let us assume that the woman somewhere in the world is undergoing labor and her husband is frantically pleading for help. He calls the emergency unit of the closest hospital and they inform him that all their ambulances are currently engaged. Distraught, the man decides to drive his wife to the hospital himself. Rationally, at this point, the moral thing to do would probably be to follow all the driving laws for the safety of everyone on the road. However, the first intuition of the man would be to rather ignore all the laws and speed limits, and make sure that his wife is in the hospital under immediate medical attention. Nonetheless, it is morally wrong to push away the safety of everyone else on the road for the well-being of just one person, namely this man’s wife, if one were to weigh the situation logically. The best thing to do at this point would be to strike a balance and drive ignoring a few traffic rules without being too reckless while upholding a minimal level of road safety and not harm anyone else. Balance is the key.

Now, it is important to note here that just because some answers are neither black nor white, it does not mean that no answers are black or white. In other words, there can be a situation where acting upon one’s intuition is “wrong” and the rational answer is “right” or vice versa. Once again, reflective equilibrium maintains the balance by reconciling one and the other.

It can be argued that an area so gray does not provide us with a concrete understanding of what is right and what is wrong. The answers derived off such a methodology is too subjective and it does not allow us to lay down a consolidated set of ethical laws and codes of conduct for all to follow since intuition will differ from person to person and thus what may seem right to one person may be branded as ethically wrong by another. Rationally arrived codes of ethics may be more compact and therefore give us something corporeal to follow. This argument can be broken down into premises surrounding the idea that ethical codes of conduct are nomic necessary truths which can be arrived at using pure logical reasoning alone. However, this is not the case in a practical scenario, as, by pure logical reasoning alone, a person may arrive at an entirely different conclusion than another regarding the question of what is right and what is wrong. Therefore, reasoning can be just as subjective as intuition.

Also, let us assume for the sake of argument that ethical codes of conduct are nomic necessary truths that can be reached at through solely using reason. This leaves us with another problem, namely that the capability of the mental faculties of the one doing the reasoning is subject to differ from one person to another thus two people may arrive at two completely different conclusions on the matter of what is right and what is wrong due to the varying levels of their intelligence and other mental abilities.

Hence, taking all of the presented viewpoints into account it would be safest to conclude that Sandberg and Juth’s argument that rationalization is prone to similar flaws as intuition in the topic of ethics and morality, and thus, a balance between the two utilizing the methodology of reflective equilibrium is the most sound approach for an ethicist.



— Fahim Ferdous Promi

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