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May 16, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 12


Philosophy tests

These thinkers take philosophy to the ­streets

By David Menconi
Published in the May 16, 2012, issue

Joshua Knobe *06 is one of experimental philosophy’s leading lights
Joshua Knobe *06 is one of experimental philosophy’s leading lights

Imagine a particularly horrific wartime dilemma. You’re a doctor tending to people in the squalid Jewish ghetto of a Nazi-occupied town, where several of your patients have come down with typhoid fever. The expedient thing would be to report that to the authorities, even though the patients face certain execution. If you don’t report it, you’re risking an outbreak that would result in the Nazis executing everyone in the ghetto (including you) and burning it to the ground. So what is the ethically and morally “right” thing to do?

This scenario happened in Kovno, Lithuania, during World War II — the doctor kept quiet and, with others, quelled the outbreak. It’s the sort of moral question that philosophers regularly grapple with. For most of the past century, the time-honored method for philosophical consideration of such questions was to sit and ponder them alone. Those trained in philosophical thinking should arrive at intuitions about right and wrong that are defensible as universal and true.

Except that in the real world, there’s not much consensus about anything. That especially goes for questions of morality, where one person’s obligation to act in a way that yields the utilitarian greater good is another’s unconscionable assumption of the role of God. Enter “experimental philosophy” — or “x-phi” — a method that brings ordinary folks into the process.

Where traditional philosophers try to deduce what everyone else thinks by intuition, experimental philosophers ask everyone else what they think directly. X-phi data can take the form of everything from opinion surveys to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Then, applying a philosophical mindset to the research data, experimental philosophers seek to arrive at universal insights into free will, intentionality, the existence of objective moral truth, and other age-old questions. Among other things, experimental philosophers have discovered that there is far less unanimity of opinion out there than traditional philosophy has maintained.

“The terrific thing about experimental philosophy is that, before it happened, philosophers would say, ‘This is intuitively the right answer,’” says Princeton philosophy professor Gilbert Harman. “Then they’d try to develop a theory accounting for that intuition. If you did not share that intuition, you were out of luck.”

Princeton is ground zero for experimental philosophy, and Harman its father — even though Harman describes his relationship with x-phi as “complicated” because he ­doesn’t do philosophy experiments himself. But some of the field’s leading figures have passed through Harman’s classrooms over the last decade, where they heard questions like those he recently was asking 200 undergraduates in an “Introduction to Moral Philosophy” class.

“Is morality something you can get into disagreements over?” Harman asked. “About who is right and who is wrong? And if so, is there a way of finding out the answer? Are there ways of testing one moral theory against another in the world? Is there observational evidence to gather?”

Not so long ago, the vast majority of Western philosophers would have answered that last question with a resounding no. Philosophical common wisdom dominating the field for most of the 20th century held that ruminating in isolation was the one true way to test moral theories. Along about the turn of the 21st century, however, some philosophers began venturing outside the discipline’s ivory tower to canvas population samples, then using that data to draw philosophical conclusions.

In contrast to 20th-century philosophy’s solitary bent, experimental philosophy lends itself to collaboration — with other disciplines as well as among philosophers. Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who this year won a National Humanities Medal, is not an experimental philosopher himself, but watched the discipline’s development at Princeton from close range and wrote a book about it, 2008’s Experiments in Ethics.

“Experimental philosophy is an interface between philosophy and computer science, psychology, mathematics, economics, the descriptive social sciences,” Appiah explains in an interview. “Previous generations of philosophers would have been delighted to have access to these tools. It never would have occurred to them to say ‘that’s not philosophy.’ ”

Excerpt: Gilbert Harman discusses morality
Philosophy professor Gilbert Harman discusses morality with Daisy Radevsky ’13 of the
Princeton Philosophy Review. For the full interview, visit
Post Comments
2 Responses to Philosophy tests

Edward C. Mendler '47 Says:

2012-05-14 12:33:15

A worthwhile (if superficial) beginning. I am writing a book that broaches some aspects of the subject.

Justin Schwartz '79 Says:

2012-05-22 09:22:52

I just concluded a philosophy of law class that featured many of the usual suspects -- Mill, Rawls, Nozick, etc. -- with a unit on experimental studies of justice, both U.S. and cross-national. Two tendencies emerged from the studies we studied: 1) common-sense views about justice are incredibly confused and incoherent, and 2) interestingly, Rawls' difference principle is about the least-preferred option by almost anyone anywhere, gathering about 2 percent support at most. I thought that 2) was pretty interesting as a result. Gil, glad to hear you are looking at the data now. High time philosophers did.
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