Cowen on Moral Intuitionism
By Bryan Caplan
Tyler Cowen writes:
I am a moral realist and intuitionist, as is Bryan, but my view on applications is very different.
…Bryan wants to
“coin” a large number of (non-trivial) moral truths this way, such as
his claim that taxation is morally wrong for violating the precepts of
common sense morality (“don’t take things from other people”). Last I
looked, a lot of common sense people support taxation and the
interpretation of common sense maxims depends very much on context.
I actually don’t disagree with this point. Common sense does both oppose theft and support taxation. My response: Once we recognize the conflict between these two common sense premises, intuition also helps us resolve it.
Our intuition against theft creates a moral presumption against taxation. To defend taxation, you’ve got to point to differences between taxation and ordinary theft that are strong enough to overcome that presumption. Plenty are on the table, from “Society could not otherwise survive” to “People should pay for what benefits them” to “Taxation solves a mild free rider problem.” Once someone advances one or more of these arguments, we can then both (a) intuit whether they would be strong enough to justify ordinary theft, and (b) see how empirically plausible they are.
Since Tyler is an avowed moral intuitionist, I can’t fathom why he is so unwilling to actually play this game. Of course our intuitions often clash; but the wise intuitionist response isn’t to throw up our hands, but use further intuition – and empirical evidence – to reach a consistent and intuitively plausible conclusion.