Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition

Cross posted from Overcoming Bias. Comments there.


Shelly Kagan gave a nice summary of some problems involved in working out whether death is bad for one. I agree with Robin’s response, and have postedbefore about some of the particular issues. Now I’d like to make a more general observation.

First I’ll summarize Kagan’s story. The problems are something like this. It seems like death is pretty bad. Thought experiments suggest that it is bad for the person who dies, not just their friends, and that it is bad even if it is painless. Yet if a person doesn’t exist, how can things be bad for them? Seemingly because they are missing out on good things, rather than because they are suffering anything. But it is hard to say when they bear the cost of missing out, and it seems like things that happen happen at certain times. Or maybe they don’t. But then we’d have to say all the people who don’t exist are missing out, and that would mean a huge tragedy is happening as long as those people go unconceived. We don’t think a huge tragedy is happening, so lets say it isn’t. Also we don’t feel too bad about people not being born earlier, like we do about them dying sooner. How can we distinguish these cases of deprivation from non-existence from the deprivation that happens after death? Not in any satisfactorily non-arbitrary way. So ‘puzzles still remain’.

This follows a pattern common to other philosophical puzzles. Intuitions say X sometimes, and not X other times. But they also claim that one should not care about any of the distinctions that can reasonably be made between the times when they say X is true and the times when they say X is false.

Intuitions say you should save a child dying in front of you. Intuitions say you aren’t obliged to go out of your way to protect a dying child in Africa. Intuitions also say physical proximity, likelihood of being blamed, etc shouldn’t be morally relevant.

Intuitions say you are the same person today as tomorrow. Intuitions say you are not the same person as Napoleon. Intuitions also say that whether you are the same person or not shouldn’t depend on any particular bit of wiring in your head, and that changing a bit of wiring doesn’t make you slightly less you.

Of course not everyone shares all of these intuitions (I don’t). But for those who do, there are problems. These problems can be responded to by trying to think of other distinctions between contexts that do seem intuitively legitimate, reframing an unintuitive conclusion to make it intuitive, or just accepting at least one of the unintuitive conclusions.

The first two solutions – finding more appealing distinctions and framings – seem a lot more popular than the third – biting a bullet. Kagan concludes that ‘puzzles remain’, as if this inconsistency is an apparent mathematical conflict that one can fully expect to eventually see through if we think about it right. And many other people have been working on finding a way to make these intuitions consistent for a while. Yet why expect to find a resolution?

Why not expect this contradiction to be like the one that arises if you claim that you like apples more than pears and also pears more than apples? There is no nuanced way to resolve the issue, except to give up at least one.  You can make up values, but sometimes they are just inconsistent. The same goes for evolved values.

From Kagan’s account of death, it seems likely that our intuitions are just inconsistent. Given natural selection, this is not particularly surprising. It’s no mystery how people could evolve to care about the survival of they and their associates, yet not to care about people who don’t exist. Even if people who don’t exist suffer the same costs from not existing. It’s also not surprising that people would come to believe their care for others is largely about the others’ wellbeing, not their own interests, and so believe that if they don’t care about a tragedy, there isn’t one. There might be some other resolution in the death case, but until we see one, it seems odd to expect one. Especially when we have already looked so hard.

Most likely, if you want a consistent position you will have to bite a bullet. If you are interested in reality, biting a bullet here shouldn’t be a last resort after searching every nook and cranny for a consistent and intuitive position. It is much more likely that humans have inconsistent intuitions about the value of life than that we have so far failed to notice some incredibly important and intuitive distinction in circumstances that drives our different intuitions. Why do people continue to search for intuitive resolutions to such problems? It could be that accepting an unintuitive position is easy, unsophisticated, unappealing to funders and friends, and seems like giving up. Is there something else I’m missing?

One response to “Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition

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