Wednesday, February 09, 2005
The experimental method in philosophy
Applied ethics is a field that has grown up in analytic philosophy over the last 35 or 40 years. It's main concern is to apply rigorous philosophical reasoning to the sorts of ethical problems and dilemmas encountered in everyday modern life. So, those who work in applied ethics consider such things as the allocation of scarce medical resources, the permissibility of abortion, and the justification of self-defense. Importantly, applied ethics is meant to be independent of any prior theoretical framework. That is, rather than taking a developed moral theory (like, say, utilitarianism) and then analyzing cases according to its tenets, the applied ethicist begins with the cases and only endorses principles which arise endogenously from judgments about those cases.
In practice this means that those who work in applied ethics are constantly appealing to moral intuitions. So, for example, it might be said that scarce intinsive care unit beds should be reserved for patients with a reasonable chance at surviving to live a reasonably full life, and that this fits our intuition that not every life is equally worth living. What's going on here is that the approach taken by applied ethicists prevents them from taking any moral theory as licensing their judgments, and so they look elsewhere, to intuitions, for some kind of foundation.
The problem, as David notes, is that the intuitions of philosophers are not always in agreement. Experimental philosophy attempts to correct for this deficiency by widening the sample to include ordinary folk. It goes like this:
(Note - a "1 2 3 problem" is just a situation where there are three mutually incompatible explanations of a case, each of which is thought to be intuitively appealing by some group of philosophers)
To approach a solution to the "1 2 3 problem," an experimental philosopher might present versions of claims 1, 2 and 3 to a group of ordinary people and ask each subject whether she finds any of the claims difficult to reject. It might turn out that although ordinary people find it very difficult to reject claims 1 and 3, claim 2 doesn't have any intuitive appeal at all to them. If this happens, then the case for anti-2ism will become quite strong. Progress will have been made on a problem which philosophers have long been unable to solve.
One thing to consider here is that the explanation for differences in intuitive judgments can have causes that don't seem to have much to do with the substance of the cases. For example, studies have shown that moral intuitions are sensitive to differences in socio-economic status. I've blogged about this before, though my focus was different.
David's critique is methodological and practical. There is no reason to expect that non-philosophers will display unanimity in their opinions. This means that the best case scenario is that some large number of non-philosophers will agree, but that not all will. There is then a practical question of deciding what amount of agreement is dispositive, and there seems to be no principled reason for choosing one standard rather than another. Moreover, if there were a principled reason, one wonders why it wouldn't make just as much sense to apply that standard within the discipline.
It seems to me that David is right to think that this is a serious problem, but I want to suggest two further worries.
First, something I gestured at earlier. The whole project gets off the ground because (some of) those working in applied ethics have been half-hearted in their rejection of foundational approaches to moral problem solving. That is, they reject the idea that progress can be made by starting with an account of the basic structure of morality, but then, at the end of the day, they look to moral intuitions to play the very same role in moral justifications that used to be played by comprehensive theoretical accounts. To see just how futile this is, consider where we would stand if experimental philosophy succeeded. We would know of some judgment that it accorded with the moral intuitions of a vast majority of people. But that doesn't tell us much at all unless we have some reason for thinking that those moral intuitions are an adequate foundation for moral justification. And since there seems to be no good reason to think so, we end up replacing one inadequate foundation with another. We would do better, I think, to stick to our anti-theoretical guns.
This brings me to my second worry. This kicks in for anyone who isn't thoroughly committed to an anti-theoretical approach to ethics. Suppose, again, the success of experimental philosophy. Suppose, further, that agreement among intuitions does reveal that the correct moral result has been reached. It seems to me that we face a version of the euthyphro problem. The problem is that we didn't get an answer to the question we really cared about. That is, we might have found out that a particular action is morally required, but we didn't find out why.