Monday, February 22, 2010

Who's Sitting in the Armchair?

Do intuitions from the armchair depend on who's sitting in it? In a new paper called "Gender and Epistemic Intuition," Wesley Buckwalter presents some interesting findings on exactly this question. Philosphy has traditionally taken for granted the notion that intuitions are unanimous. Turns out, women may beg to differ. 

To explore this novel idea, we'll start with a two-part thought experiment (this one was first constructed by Joshua Knobe, but Buckwalter uses a version of it in his study). 
1. A chairman of a board is asked to approve a certain policy. He is told that it will harm the environment. He replies: " I don't care at all about the environment. I just want to make a profit." He approves the policy, it goes forward, and sure enough, the enviroment is harmed. Does the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

2. Same scenario, only the chairman is told that the policy will help the environment. He responds the same way -- he doesn't care, he only wants the profit. Policy is approved, and environment is helped. Does the chairman intentionally help the environment?
In the original experiment, Knobe wanted to find out what people thought about the chairman’s intentions. Surprisingly, although the two scenarios are identical except for harm/help outcome, participants overwhelmingly (82%) agreed that the chairman intentionally harmed the environment, but only 33% said that he had intentionally helped the environment. This odd asymmetry has since been dubbed the “side-effect effect.” It seems that when the side-effect of an action is bad (in this case, the effect on the environment), people are more likely to say that it was performed intentionally.

In his study, Buckwalter predicted that a similar effect would appear for questions about the chairman's knowledge. He asked people whether the chairman knew that his actions would harm/help the environment. As he expected, more people attributed knowledge to the chairman in the harm case – the asymmetry appeared again. How come? One possibility is that people make a (moral) judgment about the chairman based on the outcome (good or bad), and then attribute knowledge afterwards. In the case of a bad outcome, people will try harder to make the chairman "responsible," by saying that he really did know the outcome. In the case of a good outcome, the chairman’s lack of care about the environment means that he should not get “credit” for really knowing the outcome.

But here’s the twist: women showed this asymmetry to a much greater extent than men. Women were more likely than men to say the chairman knew he would harm but didn’t know he would help. Why? Buckwalter puts forth a theory – what he calls the Normative Evaluation Hypothesis – to explain the gender difference. Essentially, it says that women are more likely to consult their moral judgments (or “normative evaluations”) about a situation before making their decision regarding knowledge. The moral significance of an action, therefore, plays a greater role in shaping women's decisions about knowledge than men's.

Buckwalter then predicts that his theory will also explain women's intuitions about the Gettier cases (see last post for a summary). There doesn’t seem to be an immediate moral dimension to this case (no good or bad outcome), but consider the evaluation of Smith himself. Since he was totally justified in his belief, he seems to have done everything "right,” and is therefore a praiseworthy person. To say he doesn’t really know is to deny him knowledge that seems rightfully his! If women are more likely to consult this moral evaluation of Smith, then they should also be more likely to attribute knowledge. And sure enough, women are much more likely than men to say that in the Gettier case, Smith really knows.

These findings raise several interesting questions. First, does this mean that, in general, women are more influenced by their moral judgments than men are? Second, if confronted with rival intuitions, how should we decide which one to follow? Finally, has much of traditional philosophy to this day been biased toward male intuitions? Clearly, the implications of a gender difference in intuitions are significant. Buckwalter suggests that it may also partly explain the scarcity of women in philosophy departments. After all, if a women's intuitions don't seem to match those of her male counterpart (and tend to go against the traditional "correct" intuition), they may simply be dismissed. And how long would you tolerate being repeatedly told your deeply felt intuitions were “wrong”? It is possible, Buckwalter says, that many women have been discouraged from entering the field of philosophy simply because they do not share the relevant intuitions of the (male) majority.

Buckwalter leaves us with a striking quote from Stephen Stich:  “For 2500 years, philosophers have been relying on appeals to intuition. But the plausibility of this entire tradition rests on an unsubstantiated, and until recently unacknowledged, empirical hypothesis – the hypothesis that the philosophical intuitions of people in different…groups do not disagree.” More and more evidence shows that in fact, they do disagree. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean we should throw out all traditional intuitions for being discriminatory or skewed in some way (for one, what would we replace them with?). It does mean, however, that these intuitions may have profound effects on how we go about (and who goes into) philosophy, and these effects should be taken seriously. As the research comes in, my guess is that it will probably challenge more of the philosophical tradition. Let’s just say I’ve got an intuition about it.*

*sorry, couldn't resist ;)

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