"Thinking About Cases" by Shelly Kagan

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In "Thinking About Cases," Shelly Kagan discusses moral philosophy's reliance on cases that appeal to our intuition to support moral arguments, however, Kagan maintains that there is no established reason for believing that moral intuitions should even be trusted. Kagan says that moral arguments often rely on our intuitions about real life or hypothetical cases, such as Thomson's "Trolley Case" that I discussed in a previous post. The justification for relying on intuitions is often its analogy to empirical observation, and thus we can rely on intuitions for the same reasoning that we can rely on observations in empirical theory: because they both seem to be reliable, there is no reason to doubt them, and they offer predictions about future cases. However, Kagan's argument takes this apparent analogy one step further and can be summed up as follows:

P1. Moral intuitions are analogous to empirical observations.
P2. We take ourselves to be justified in trusting our empirical observations by virtue of having an explanatorily adequate empirical theory that endorses our empirical observations.
P3. Constructing a moral theory that would endorse our case specific intuitions as being accurate would be difficult and likely impossible.
C. Therefore, moral intuitions are not analogous to empirical observations.

Kagan reasons that since moral intuitions cannot be justified in the same way as empirical observations, that "the appropriate stance to take toward moral intuitions would be to develop and accept an error theory, according to which at least many of our case specific moral intuitions are mistaken". He further says that this is likely to be the case that moral intuitions only seem to be accurate and justified because they are not universal as many people's immediate moral intuition on a case often differ. He provides 'evidence' of this disagreement of moral intuitions based on his experience as a professor and talking to many students. Although I agree that moral intuitions are not universal, I don't think that there is as much disagreement as Kagan maintains. In my own personal experience in taking philosophy courses I have seen that when cases are presented there is often quite a bit of differing responses, however, once the case is explained more in depth, there is an overall consensus. I think that many people have a particular intuition at the beginning, but they don't understand the case and once they do their intuition often changes. However, both my personal experiences and Kagan's are simply hearsay and thus it would be more interesting and relevant if studies could confirm to what extent most people's intuitions agree and disagree. Overall, though, I definitely agree that moral 'observations' are not the same as scientific ones, and I think this is further evidence that ethics cannot be treated as a natural science, which I discussed previously with Gilbert Harman's article "Ethics and Observation".


Kagan, Shelly. "Thinking about Cases." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 82-93. Print.

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This page contains a single entry by puch0022 published on November 11, 2012 6:44 PM.

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