Ethical Intuitions and the Data/Phenomena Distinction

I learned from Jennifer Zamzow and Shaun Nichols' enlightening "Variations in Ethical Intuitions" that our ethical intuitions vary, depending on various (apparently) non-moral factors, such as order effects, framing effects, and gender (of the responder, or of the characters described in the hypothetical scenario). (Ethical intuitions are, roughly, our knee-jerk reactions to the moral status of specific, concrete scenarios; intuitions do not depend on any "effortful, conscious deliberation.")

 One account of how ethical theorizing proceeds is the following analogy with scientific theorizing:
experimental results : scientific theories :: ethical intuitions : ethical theories
 (Zamzow & Nichols, p. 370).  If this is right, then the above types of variation in intuition seem seriously problematic: it would be like two people looking at the same thermometer, and the woman says "The mercury is at 57 degrees" and the man says "The mercury is at 48 degrees."  Or imagine a thermometer whose current reading depends on what its reading was 5 minutes ago.  In both these cases, we would say that we could not use such 'experimental results' as evidence to decide between competing scientific theories.

But the philosopher of science in me thought: maybe 'experimental results' is too general/ vague.  Bogen and Woodward's data-phenomena distinction might be useful here.  Their idea is roughly as follows: data are the observations scientists record, while phenomena are patterns in the world that scientists infer based on data.  Data can be shot through with experimental noise, and/or have artifacts of the experimental apparatus; the phenomena factor out these biases and noise in the data set.  And, importantly, the phenomena are what theories predict and explain -- not particular data points.

So I am wondering whether we should think about specific ethical intuitions as data.  And then these variations that Zamzow and Nichols list could be thought of as noise and/or bias.  On this view, what an ethical theory like utilitarianism needs to predict/ explain is not particular concrete intuitions, but rather something slightly more general or abstract.  I'm not exactly sure what that 'something' would be -- the moral pattern/feature, whatever it is, that underlies or generates a set of (reliable) intuitions.

I don't know the details and/or further developments of the data/phenomena discussion, and I am not completely up-to-date with debates about variations in ethical intuitions either.  But I thought I would float this idea (namely, ethical intuitions as data B&W's sense) to see if anyone has any reactions to it... or at least let me know whether someone has already pursued this line of thought.


P.D. Magnus said...

In order to work out the suggestion, there would need to be some method for determining the phenomena from the data. In science, this might mean statistical methods for curving. I'm not sure what the analogous method would be for ethics.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Thanks! You are definitely right, and this is why the next-to-last paragraph in the original post is a bit tortured. (I am thinking specifically of "I'm not exactly sure what that 'something' would be -- the moral pattern/feature, whatever it is, that underlies or generates a set of (reliable) intuitions.")

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Some notes to myself:
1. There's nothing about the point in the OP that is specific to ETHICAL intuitions. This would work just as well for other philosophical intuitions; e.g. the study that Truetemp intuitions show order effects too.

2. I still don't know how to give a general characterization of the "something" is that would be (analogous to) the phenomena in the ethical case. But perhaps I can at least make a list of particular candidates for phenomena (i.e. give an extensional (partial?) characterization of phenomena). This list would include the cross-cultural (near-)universals, drawn from the work of large-scale anthropology:
“When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think [1a] it’s bad to harm others and [1b] good to help them. They have [2] a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They [3] value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that [4] it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status.” (Steven Pinker, NYT Magazine, 2008)

3. (Continuing on 2:) If [1-4] really the phenomena, then the analogy works pretty well: they are theoretically couched, and somewhat removed from particular cases; they are definitely abstractions, but without going all the way to full-blown theories like utilitarianism.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

also I obviously need to figure out how this relates to reflective equilibrium if I ever think about this again.