Intuition versus Utility

by Benjamin Studebaker

A lot of people in politics, particularly political theory, have used the objection “this doesn’t feel right” as a counter to logical arguments. The primary victims of this line of emotion-led reacting have been the utilitarian and consequentialist moral theorists. “This is conducive to the general welfare for reasons X, Y, Z” is often met with “well sure, but I just don’t like that”. This sort of reaction is typically treated as a legitimate argument, but does it deserve this level of standing? Today, I intend to argue that it does not.

This emotional response is a form of intuitionism, the notion that you can just sense what’s morally right or wrong independent of logical or rational arguments on the subject. The discussion, to this point, has been rather abstract, so let’s use a case:

One common objection to utilitarianism is the notion that it places unrealistic demands on moral agents. For instance, it is socially utile for every person to give up a kidney to someone else who needs one, assuming that everyone can live with one kidney just as effectively as with two. Many people are not comfortable with doing that, and it’s certainly unrealistic to expect everyone to give up a kidney.

However, is there any logical moral reason to not give up one’s kidney? Sure, giving up a kidney is time consuming and an inconvenience, but in doing so a life is saved–surely that’s a much greater utility gain than any utility lost by the person donating? Some of us have an emotional, intuition-based reaction to the idea of allowing surgeons to remove parts of our bodies for other people’s use, but this is grounded in primal emotions, like the instinct for survival and self-preservation. Those emotions do not reflect reality–in our thought experiment, there are no negative consequences to the health of the individual donating the kidney (I do not know enough about medicine to know whether or not that is the case in the empirical world–thankfully, philosophy allows us to make such assumptions in our thought experiments to serve our intellectual purposes). There is still no logical reason not to get up out of your chair right now and give your kidney up, given our parameters. But you’re not doing it, are you? You aren’t even getting up out of your chair to donate blood, which you certainly could do without causing yourself long-term harm. You’re (hopefully) enjoying yourself reading some political theory, and you cannot be bothered to go donate a kidney or some blood right now. People may very well die because of that, but you don’t really care. Your self-interest has primacy for you–these people are at a distance, their deaths do not impact you. Perhaps if one of your family members waltzed in and cried out for a kidney, you’d consider it, but for someone at random? It just is not worth it to you.

The intuitionists see the fact that you aren’t feeling compelled to donate a kidney or some blood as evidence that there is something wrong with utilitarianism. I contend that this is an example of the is-ought fallacy. Intuitionists notice that people do not act in accordance with the principle of utility, and therefore make the leap that they ought not to, that the principle of utility is an incorrect moral principle.

Intuitionists are making this fallacy because they have made a bad assumption–they are assuming that our moral philosophy is about revealing the way in which human beings act in a morally just manner. There is some pre-existing belief that people are naturally good and naturally moral, so if a moral theory contradicts what people naturally do, it cannot be correct. This assumption is, in turn, another example of the is-ought fallacy. Just because people behave in a variety of ways does not mean that those behaviours are moral. The intuitionists are assuming a human nature that is generally moral when in fact what we may have–and what utilitarianism suggests–is a human nature that is generally immoral. You and I do not donate our kidneys because there’s some reason we morally shouldn’t bother, we don’t do it because we’re self-obsessed and not particularly nice or good.

This isn’t our fault–we are not wired to be good in the first place. There is evidence of something called “Dunbar’s Number“, the maximum number of people with whom one of us can individually form social relationships with, usually thought to be between 100 and 230, with the number 150 having been made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping PointOne of the consequences of this limit to our ability to have social relationships with large numbers of people is that we do not conceive of strangers in the same way that we conceive of people who are inside our social circle. Importantly, this is not because we are choosing not to, but because it is physically and intellectually impossible for us to do so.

One of the common observations made in modern society is that man’s intellectual and reasoning capabilities have outrun man’s emotional and moral capabilities. This is a key manifestation of the principle–if we are all free and equal people whose individual quality of life matters just as much to the total social good as that of everyone else, then we should all give up our kidneys and blood to each other freely whenever they are needed. No one should ever die from the lack of a working kidney ever again. Logically, we can see how this is true, but we don’t accept and implement the results of this logic because emotionally and morally we are backward.

Armed with this knowledge that our intellectual and reasoning capabilities dwarf our emotional and moral capabilities, the rational thing to do is to subjugate our emotional and moral intuitions wherever possible to ethical principles grounded in our reasoning. “This feels wrong” should lose to “I think this is right” every time. The very fact that we still have these primitive emotional and moral reactions that contradict our reasoning means that we will struggle perpetually to do the right thing and overcome our inherent self-focus and inward moral attitudes, but this is no reason that we should not put forth a concerted effort. Just because utilitarianism sometimes “doesn’t feel right” doesn’t mean it isn’t right. It means we’re letting the primitive elements of our being defeat the developed elements in the great internal battle over what to do. Our developed traits won’t always win, but we should always fight for them as best we can. This doesn’t merely apply to utilitarianism, but to all elements of philosophy and politics in which a visceral emotional or intuitive reaction is used to dismiss what our brains rationally understand to be the correct course of action.