The Argument against the Data

Before you dive in, here’s your homework: Read the recent NYT article, “The Data Against Kant.”

I found this article fascinating and rather encouraging, but here’s spoiler alert: If you think this article disposes of philosophy as useless, hair-splitting semantics, you may as well stop reading right here, because I’m going to do some philosophy.

Generally, I endorse the use of empirical investigation in philosophical investigation, so long as we are reasonably clear what the question is. We don’t yet have the published paper, and I’m looking forward to a more detailed discussion of the methodology, because, from this general article, it’s not clear what the question actually was, nor is the reasoning of the article quite clear. Nevertheless, here are a few preliminary reflections.

Let’s start with the claim that, contrary to the majority of philosophers, “ordinary” people seem to think that ought does not or need not imply can. I am actually in favor of this interpretation on philosophical grounds, but I’m not sure that people in these surveys are endorsing what I’m endorsing. It may be that people are eliding their assessment that ought need not imply can with their logically prior judgment that the saboteur ought not have sabotaged their agreements in the first place. In other words, the saboteurs ought to follow through on the agreement, simply because that’s what they agreed to do — irrespective of the fact that now they cannot (because of their willful sabotage). A deeper empirical investigation might show a connection between this logically prior ought not and the intuition that ought need not imply can in situations like this, and that, I think, would be reasonable. But in that case, the subjects are confused about what the researchers are asking them (because it is confusing), but they are not confused about their moral intuitions about sabotaging agreements.

One of the aims of philosophy is to unveil and correct intuitively appealing but mistaken beliefs and principles that people nevertheless employ in navigating in the world. Consider this argument:

If you wash my car, I’ll give you twenty dollars.

I am giving you twenty dollars,

So, you will wash my car.

Tenses aside, this is an example of the logical fallacy of Affirming the Consequent. In empirical studies, it turns out that a significant number of people think this argument is convincing (and binding). However, a first-semester logic student can show that this argument is not valid and therefore not binding. It’s intuitive appeal (and widespread appearance, even in faculty meetings) explains why it is among those fallacies that have been given their Own Names.

Now, does it follow from empirical studies of the prevalence of bad reasoning that we should rewrite our logic textbooks to incorporate the ways in which people actually think? Or might we want to consider, somewhere along the line, better education in reasoning skills?

Considering these points, while we’re doing empirical studies of philosophical conundrums like the relationship between ought and can, let’s also reflect on the relationship between ought and is. It is easy to glide from generalizations about the way things are to claims about how things should be — so easy, in fact, that this particular piece of bad reasoning also has its Own Name: the Naturalistic Fallacy. (Incidentally, we owe a lot of our clarity on this fallacy to David Hume.)

Consider, for instance this absurd piece of reasoning. Suppose I study volcano eruptions, and I discover that volcano eruptions tend to follow a three-stage pattern. Does it make any sense at all for a community to call me to report that their local volcano is not following the typical pattern and offer me employment as a volcano therapist to make it right?

It does not follow from the fact (the is in this fallacy) that people widely believe something is the case, that it ought to be believed, even if it can.

Even if this research does show that people’s answers in the survey run counter to the majority of philosophers, does it follow that we  ought to take up arms (or at least lock arms) against Kant and Company?

I find this particular move in the article to be a bit of False Dilemma. In my view, there are, in addition to the two possibilities presented (i.e., that philosophers are right and their research subjects wrong, or that their subjects are right and philosophers are wrong), there is at least one other possibility, viz., that the researchers are confused (or at least, confusing).

While I completely agree that “Philosophers ought to pay more attention to their colleagues in the psychology department (even if they can’t),” it wouldn’t hurt for Psychologists to pay some attention to Philosophers (if they can).

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