Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?[1]

Now, I suspect those in league with The Inkling might not find this particular pill too hard to swallow—but a grand majority, when faced with this case, have an immediate reaction that that is wrong. Yet, as they scrabble to find a reason for this repulsion, all the avenues seem blocked: no-one is hurt, no-one knows, no baby is born. There emerges, then, a moment of ‘moral dumbfoundment’ where the subject must say—‘ I don’t know why X is wrong, but it is wrong’. This befuddlement exposes the essential significance of one’s intuition. Intuition is the first shot, and our reasoning process is enlisted to justify it.

The cold-blooded philosopher assumes, as s/he has done for centuries, that reason is somehow elevated, abstracted from the emotional melee. However, a new breed of cagoule-clad, achingly ‘down-to-earth’ neural philosophers beg to differ. Reason, they claim, should be treated as a press-secretary, Tony Blair’s Alistair Campbell; attempting to build a case to defend the effortless intuition, rather than searching for the truth beyond the Intuition. Bluntly, they claim, we have an automatic reaction to an action, provoking a feeling of approval or disapproval. When confronted with the need to defend one’s intuition to others, we then feel pressed to rationalise post-hoc. Our judgment, scandalously, often precedes our rationale—as we work backwards from the conclusion. Reasoning is rarely used to question one’s beliefs, more to protect them.

We are more lawyers than we are judges.

The Wunderkind Joshua Greene, begins a talk to Google by saying innocently, ‘(S)o, I wanted to find out what Utilitarianism meant’ His voice more Prince than Princeton, he is the unlikely figurehead of the neural philosophy movement and his innocuous opening remark nevertheless strikes right at the heart of moral philosophy. Using fMRI scans, he has tested people’s neural responses to different ethical dilemmas, the results of which have proved fascinating to some philosophers, and irritating to others. He asserts that intuitions are not simply in debt to one’s enculturation – although that is significant – but have been percolating for millions of years. Our primate predecessors, for example, tended towards small groups, with violence only presenting itself in an up-close and personal way. That is why, they claim, we have an innate fear of up-close and personal violence (or certainly more of a fear of it than other forms of violence- like ‘flick the switch’ violence), we have a loyalty to our in-groups, a sense of justice/fairness, and so on. Our cognitive processes have developed to preserve and protect us. From this perspective, our intuitions necessarily have had to be somewhat feline with reality. Consider the disastrous effects of having a moral judgment that was truly accurate- that had no partiality to one’s friends or society, that rubbed up to one’s enemies. We have developed ‘partial’ intuitions, in essence, that we often depend on, that are occasionally wrong. Or occasionally less right than they perhaps could be.

Peter Singer presents a, now famous, hypothetical of a Drowning Child. Imagine you are close to a pond, and you see a child who has fallen, and is in danger of drowning. There is no-one else around, and so your first thought presumably is to jump in and save the child, at no risk to your life. You remember, though, that today you happen to be wearing your best, most expensive clothes—they will be ruined if you take the plunge. Should it be okay to not save the child? After all, you are not responsible for putting the child in this precarious situation, could you just amble passed and be on your way? Of course, the notion that the price of your clothes might be a suitable preventative to stop you from saving a child’s life is preposterous. Clearly the correct thing to do is to jump in and save the child—not doing so is counterintuitive. And yet, across the world there are children dying, that any of us could save, at the mere expense of a simple suit. If we are to condemn the individual who does not save the drowning child, should we not also condemn the majority of us, who choose to buy clothes with money that could be used to save starving children? There seems to be little ethical difference, and yet our intuitive reaction to global poverty is by no means equivalent to our intuitive reaction to a drowning child.[2]

There are elements of ethical life for which evolution simply hasn’t prepared our mind. Joshua Greene’s research (alongside Jonathan Haidt and Peter Singer) has helped question our intuitions; their power, but also their problems. The study of Ethics, as Peter Singer points out, has been too accommodating toward them. What feels right, isn’t necessarily right. The political process has often neglected them. What one presents as right, may simply be what one feels is right (that is an important distinction). We must understand the essential status of intuition, and acknowledge its evolutionary shortcomings.

It is important, moreover, to realise one’s intuitions are not simply one’s own. Whether it be starving children in faraway worlds, or experimental siblings in the room next door, we must do more than merely be led by our intuition. Moreover, if you can accept that to an extent your ‘reasoning’ is largely emotional you become more aware of yourself in the argument. The veil of impartiality in which reason likes to cloak itself is lifted—and the confidence that one might have in the ‘objectivity’ of one’s judgment might decline. David Hume, the fire-starter in all of this, wrote that one’s judgment was constantly “gilding and staining all natural objects with the colours borrowed from internal sentiment”[3]. He, of all previous philosophers, was acutely aware of the importance of sentiment in one’s rationale. He understood that instead of truly thinking, as William James wrote, we mostly are merely rearranging our prejudices. This is most evident, perhaps in the Fanatical realms of Fox News, the SWP and The Sun,but you can see it too when most people speak about abortion, drugs, privatisation, page 3 and police brutality, bankers and benefit scroungers, and so on. Certain ‘rational’ political debates, that have the luxury of drawing out our emotions, conceal a tangled wrestle between competing intuitions. Often, I think, these have nothing at all to do with the issue itself.

This strikes me as a problem. But then that’s just my intuition.



[1] Haidt, Jonathan. ‘The Emotional Dog and it Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment’ (2001): 814

[2] Singer, Peter. ‘The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle’. New Internationalist. (1997)

[3] Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals  [1751]