Bioethics Blogs

In Defense of Intuition- Or, a Lesson for Empirical Bioethics

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

On March 17, 2016 philosopher Peter Railton delivered the Ethics, Politics, and Society lecture at Rice University. Railton is Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and John Stephenson Perrin Professor at The University of Michigan. His talk was titled, “Homo prospectus: A new perspective on the mind.”

Railton’s main aim was to counter a current trend in the social sciences that involves a distrust of our intuitive responses to the world. This skepticism has crept into moral philosophy as the empirical literature showing the effects of various framing effects on moral judgments increases. Philosophical ethics has had a heavy reliance on “thought experiments” whereby agents are posed with a moral dilemma and asked to make a decision about what ought to be done. Consider, for example, the trolley problem posed in part to help us evaluate consequentialism (i.e., a person is faced with a choice of whether to do nothing and allow a train to travel along a track to kill 5 people, or to flip a switch diverting the train onto another track where 1 will be killed). Neuroscience has shown that we prospect by making “mental models” during these judgments (predictive and evaluative models of the options). Of course, we are often not aware of the models themselves; what we are instead aware of is our intuition or “sense” that a certain choice is a good choice or the best option in the situation.

As mentioned, these intuitions are increasingly questioned. Return to the trolley dilemma just posed.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.