A Philosopher's Blog

Appeal to Intuition

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2008

This method is a blend of emotional appeal and logical argumentation.


   One problem in creating moral principles and theories is finding a starting point. A related problem is finding a way to test the results of a principle/theory without creating another principle or theory.

If a person gives a reason for the principle or theory, then it is reasonable to ask why that reason should be accepted. If a reason is given for the reason, then one could still ask for a reason for that reason. This could create an infinite regress.

In addition to finding a starting point for principles and theories, there is also the general problem of settling an issue.

Fortunately, there is a generally accepted method of addressing these problems. This method is that one can begin appealing to our pre-philosophical intuitions.


Intuitions & Arguments

An intuition is typically a blend of how one thinks and feels about a matter prior to reflection. Crudely put, it is sort of a “gut” reaction. Naturally, a “gut” reaction is not an argument for a claim. An argument is when reasons are provided in support of a claim.

In the case of an appeal to intuition, the goal of the argument is to “motivate” the reader’s intuitions so s/he accepts your position on the issue. This makes the argument something of a blend between persuasion and argumentation.

It is an argument in the sense that the goal is to support a position through reason. It is similar to persuasion in that the goal is also to get the audience accept your view because you have presented something that appeals to their intuitions.


Basic Method

The basic method is simple in that it involves just two steps. Its main disadvantage is that it tends to be more in the realm of persuasion than argument.


   Step 1. Show that X violates (or coincides with) our intuitions.

   Step 2. Conclude that X is incorrect/implausible/wrong (or correct/plausible/right).


Story Method

A more complex method has three steps and combines both persuasive and argumentative elements.


Step 1. Present a plausible and appealing story or scenario that aims at motivating the target’s intuitions towards your position on the issue.

Step 2. Present a developed argument that shows the reader why the story or scenario rationally supports your position.

Step3. Conclude that your position is correct.


Weakness and Strength

   A major weak point of this method is that moral intuitions are intuitions and not the result of reflection and argument. Because of that fact, this method is strong and effective with people who share intuitions, but tends to be weak and ineffective with people who do not share the same intuitions.


Testing Theories and Principles

This method is a useful tool in philosophy and is regularly used to check theories, principles, and such. If a theory or principle violates our intuitions, the theory, etc. becomes less plausible unless an adequate reason can be given as to why our intuitions are mistaken in this matter. If a theory or principle matches our intuitions, the theory, principle, etc. is more plausible.


Example #1

In the Bible, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that stubborn and disobedient children should be stoned to death in public. However, this seems to violate our moral intuitions about just grounds for capital punishment. Therefore, the stoning of disobedient children is not acceptable.


Example #2

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost CD at a technology expo. This CD, of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the CD to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.

In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight. In the real world, Polly’s chances of success would be rather low, this showing that her choice is a poor one-even in reality. Given these conditions, it should be clear that Bill’s choice for injustice is preferable to Polly’s choice.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only the top software company but also rightly regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.




There are various ways to respond to this method. Each of which will be considered in turn. First, it can be argued that the intuition is flawed. A way to do this is to present a counter-intuition: an argument by intuition that goes against the original argument. The idea is to show that the opposing intuition is more appealing, thus undercutting the original argument.

For example, one might respond to the argument about stoning children in the following way: While it is believed by some that children should not be stoned to death for being disobedient, my moral intuition tells me that one must obey the will of God. Through the Bible God makes it clear that he wills that disobedient children be stoned to death. Therefore the stoning is right and good.

As another example, in the case of the Polly and Bill example, a story could be told in which the just Polly triumphs over the unjust Bill.

Second, one can present an argument aimed to show that the intuition is mistaken. This is done by showing the case against the position the intuition supports is strong enough to reasonable lead us to abandon the intuition.

In the example involving the stoning of children, one might respond as follows: while our intuition might lead us to believe that stoning disobedient children is wrong, the consequences of doing this shows that it is right. Disobedient children are a great burden on their parents and an annoyance to the rest of society. Disobedient children often turn to crime and some become career criminals. Fear of stoning or actual stoning will drastically cut down the number of disobedient children, thus greatly benefiting society. So, stoning disobedient children is morally acceptable.

As a second example, injustice might be argued against in the following manner: While our intuitions might lead us towards injustice, the consequences of doing this show that it is a mistake. Unjust people do great harm to society and even to themselves. Thus, the life of justice is better because it provides a better existence for everyone.


One Response

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  1. Jack said, on May 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for this! I ended up using a link on my philosophy blog:


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