Can we trust our intuitions?

December 22, 2017

Einstein said, "The only real valuable thing is intuition." Likewise, my mom said, "Always follow your intuition!" Well, if Einstein and my mom said it, it must have a ring of truth. But what actually are intuitions - are my mom and Einstein talking about the same thing? - and why should we trust them? Within philosophy nowadays, these questions have triggered a lot of discussion. 

 

When I use the word 'intuition', you most likely have some idea of what I mean. But what is it exactly?Is it a specific type of judgment or belief? To some it is almost like a sense experience, to have an intuition about something is as instantaneous as seeing something. To others, it is a belief or judgment that is not related to any other judgments or beliefs, but does not have to occur instantaneously. Along these lines, an intuition that friendship is good, is thus different from a judgment that friendship is good because love is good.

 

To me, moral intuitions are the most intriguing. Some philosophers think moral intuitions are special, which seems plausible because injustice or wrongdoing you can feel so strongly. So many ethical theories are founded on what "we"* find intuitive, and so many were discarded for not matching any of our intuitions. Many people find it intuitive that utilitarianism** requires you steer a plane in such a way that one person dies to save five, but not many people find it intuitive to kill one person with your own bare hands to save five. Some philosophers argue that it can be a dangerous business to base whole ethical theories on intuitions, if we do not have a clear basis why we are justified in using these intuitions. Indeed, they argue that intuitions come from old religious systems, or that they are influenced through evolution or by emotions.*** Experimental philosophers argue that intuitions about cases are influenced by the order in which you present the cases to people, or on whether or not the room they find themselves in smells nice, and that intuitions are dependent on where you come from. Of course, if this were true, it could damage the credibility of intuitions considerably.

 

But, unlike in the sciences, where we have raw data and empirical testing, in ethics we don't have a lot of "evidence". Philosophy comes from yourself, your thoughts and ideas, and if we cannot use intuitions to test theories, what do we have to go on in ethics? And what about the conviction within each of us - like my mom, and Einstein - that intuitions are important? Does that count for nothing at all? I think it does count for something, but whoever wishes to defend intuitions needs to do better than: "I intuitively feel that intuitions are important, so they are important".

 

What do you think about intuitions? Do you think philosophy can do without relying on them, or do you see no harm in using intuitions? Or can this be a death sentence to philosophy or ethics? What role do intuitions play in your life, in your decision-making?

 

Intuitively, I'd recommend a spicy hot glass of gluhwein, with an extra shot of rum, as the threat that intuitions cannot be trusted might be a hard pill to swallow!

 

* But who is 'we'? We, philosophers? We, Westeners? We, humans? 

 

** An ethical theory stating that the best action is the one that maximizes utility. There are many variations of the theory, and of the meaning of 'utility'. 

 

*** It is not obvious that intuitions being influenced by evolution or emotions is a bad thing, or is an argument against the validity of intuitions.

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