Can We Trust Our Intuition? A Q&A with Daniel Kahneman

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

BW: This proposed solution seems to treat people’s emotions and judgments as simply given, when they are not. As you said, moral emotions like outrage are judgment-sensitive; how outraged we are depends on how awful we consider the wrongdoing to be. So if people’s sense of outrage is based on a mistaken judgment of the turpitude of the crime, then that judgment needs to be corrected rather than accommodated.

DK: I think that is an excellent point, and I think that intuitions are indeed malleable to some extent and in some cases can change through education. Here’s a nice example. We did a survey once in Canada where we found that people are truly offended by the fact that car accident insurance rates are determined by where they live, so that if they live in an area where there are many accidents, they pay a high insurance rate. People initially thought that was deeply immoral, because they felt that insurance rates should be determined by the driver’s behavior alone. But this is an intuition you could train people to recognize as mistaken. For they recognized that the insurance rate it is proper for people to pay is proportional to the probability of their being in an accident, even if they don’t cause it, and they saw that the area they lived in affected the probability that they would be in an accident. But not all intuitions are malleable in this way.

BW: Can you give an example of a case in which you think our intuitions are not responsive to reflection?

DK: Take moral philosophers’ favorite pair of so called “trolley cases.” [In which a runaway trolley is headed towards and will kill five people unless a lever is pulled which will divert it onto a dead-end side-track where it will kill one person. Most people intuitively believe it is permissible — and some believe it is obligatory — to divert the trolley in this case. In the contrasting “bridge case,” the trolley will kill the five unless you push a large bystander, whose weight is sufficient to stop the trolley, off a bridge and into its path, thereby killing him. Most people intuitively believe it is impermissible to push the large man in this case. This pair of judgments stands in need of explanation, since both diverting the trolley and pushing the bystander involve taking an action that will kill one and save five.]

The case of the fat man on the bridge is an example where I think it is clear that people’s intuitive judgments follow the rule that using direct physical violence against an innocent person is unacceptable, and the more directly physical the violence is, the more unacceptable it is. Now, on reflection, this looks like a poor rule — it doesn’t seem to pick out a morally relevant factor. But applied to individual cases it is going to be powerful every time. You (or at least I) could blame an individual who did not divert the trolley, but I cannot imagine blaming anyone for not throwing the fat man in front of the trolley.

BW: Are you saying that if we are clearheaded enough to see that there is no uniquely compelling and coherent system of moral thought, we will not be sufficiently confident about the rightness of our more general principles to override strong intuitions that are inconsistent with those general principles? Is that why you could not see yourself as ready to revise your intuitive judgment that pushing the fat man is impermissible in the light of a general principle that it is always better to act in a way that kills one and saves five?

DK: Obviously, I am quite aware that my position is not internally coherent. But I have a reason not to try to achieve coherence: I believe coherence is impossible. Some moral quandaries evoke intuitions that have the form of a sensible rule — the case where you turn the trolley onto a side-track is an instance. Other cases evoke intuitions that do not have the form of a sensible rule but that are easily abandoned when they conflict with sensible rules or with other intuitions. (The grocery store cases are of this kind.)

Cases of a third kind, however, evoke powerful intuitions that do not suggest a sensible rule and that nevertheless do not yield to conflicting rules or intuitions. The fat man scenario is a prime example. I do not believe a sensible rule is generating the intuition that one shouldn’t push the fat man, nor do I believe one could be invented to justify it; nonetheless, I find pushing the fat man deeply repugnant. Because of this third class of cases, our basic intuitions are likely to contain contradictions that cannot be resolved.

I believe that the search for coherence is admirable, and that it should be diligently pursued. But I also believe it is important to remember that it will inevitably fail.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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