From Intuitionism to Contrarianism: A Case Study
By Bryan Caplan
As an undergraduate, I spent hundreds of hours pondering the foundations of morality, also known as “meta-ethics.” In the end, the young Michael Huemer converted me to ethical intuitionism, a view I’ve held ever since. (BTW, a decade or so later, Huemer literally wrote the book on the subject).
Here’s how I explained my intuitionism in the Caplan-Hanson debate:
Sensible moral reasoning begins with concrete, specific cases. For example: It would be wrong for me to walk
over to Robin right now and punch him.
From there, we can start to generalize.
It would probably be wrong for me to walk over and punch any of the people in this room. At the same time, we can note
exceptions. If Robin had consented to
box me, then punching him would be
OK. In fact, it would probably be wrong not to try to punch him, because I’d be
cheating you, the audience.
Based on this passage, you would conclude that my moral views are extremely mainstream. But they’re not. Indeed, I often think that conventional “morality” is evil. Question: How do you get from intuitionist meta-ethics to contrarian ethical conclusions? That seems like quite a trick.
The answer: You have to show that seemingly plausible ethical views conflict with other, even more plausible views.
Take for example the view that employers should not be allowed to discriminate. I’ll admit that this conventional view is somewhat plausible. To rebut it, you would need to show that it conflicts with a more plausible principle. Like what? There are many possibilities, but Steve Landsburg provides one in his latest book. He points out that almost everyone thinks that employees should be allowed to discriminate against employers. The two cases seem very similar, and the second intuition is much stronger than the first. So it looks like the first intuition has to go.
Of course, this isn’t absolute proof – which frankly is so rarely obtained that it isn’t even worth looking for it. But is Landsburg’s argument any good at all? Justin Martyr, who largely agrees with my meta-ethics, isn’t convinced:
The gist of the argument is that we grant whites the freedom not work
for blacks (because whites do not have to apply to firms owned by
blacks) but we don’t grant whites the ability to not hire blacks.
think the distinction is clear. Employers have bargaining power and
employees do not. As long as the market is monopolistically competitive
then employers will have at least some bargaining power. A racist with
bargaining power has the ability to harm the welfare of others; a
racist without bargaining power is merely entertaining his own private
Justin’s trying to bolster the plausibility of the conventional view. I’ve no objection in principle; an honest intuitionist should consider this possibility. Still, I think his effort fails. Yes, in the real world of imperfect competition, employers have some bargaining power. But so do employees! A worker who holds out for a wage 1% above the usual level often manages to find a job anyway.
You could admit that both have bargaining power, but insist that employers have more. Empirically, however, standard tests of race and gender discrimination find little evidence that discrimination reduces wages. Either employers don’t have much bargaining power, or they rarely bother to use it for discriminatory ends.
In any case, even if one side has lots more bargaining power than the other, it is counter-intuitive to claim that a coercive response is justified. Suppose A and B be are dating. A has an equally good outside option. B can’t bear to live without A. A therefore has some bargaining power – vastly more than most employers, in fact. Yet almost everyone thinks it would be wrong to force A to stay with B.
You could say that if two people start with the same meta-ethics yet disagree about a relatively simple issue, this shows that their meta-ethics are wrong. The cheap and easy reply is to point out that the same problem afflicts all meta-ethical theories; intuitionism is no worse on this point than any other view.
But that’s selling my own view short. Intuitionism is better than the competition at handling disagreement. How so? Unlike most other moral theories, intuitionism doesn’t pretend to derive ordinary ethical judgments from some Overarching Indisputable Principle. So when intuitionists disagree about X, they usually try to argue about X, instead of searching for flaws in an obscurantist seventeen-step “proof” that X is wrong. So while I’m not confident that I can change Justin’s mind about employment discrimination, I do think that my chance is a lot better than it would be if we shared some other meta-ethics.