Intuiting Too Much

We need principles by which to choose what degree of paternalism is appropriate in what context. … Any analysis based on the idea that folks can be irrationally deaf to advice is an intellectual sham if it doesn’t consider similar deafness by organization decision makers.

That was me. This is Bryan:

[In] debate, Robin kept replying, “If Group A wants to paternalistically stop Group B from doing X, why should we trust the judgments of the A’s instead of the B’s?”  Then Balan would reply something like, “Do you deny that using cocaine is a dumb thing to do?,” … This is a meta excess.  I oppose paternalism, but I’ll still grant that smart paternalists consider “similar deafness by organization decision makers.”  They don’t do it at the level Robin wants.  But for any specific thing they want to ban, smart paternalists at least briefly consider whether it’s worth banning. … If you ask, “Should we let Group A stop Group B from doing X if the A’s think this is for B’s own good,” no one answers with a blanket Yes.  Actual paternalists will only answer after they know some details abut A, B, and X.  I don’t blame them.

Let me illustrate:

“Cocaine users seem to hurt themselves; we must stop them!”
“But they don’t think so; have you considered you might be wrong?”
“Hmm, I don’t feel wrong, so I must not be wrong.  There, considered.”

Bryan trusts his intuition.  A lot. If Bryan’s intuition told him people on net hurt themselves greatly with cocaine, and that it was morally right to prevent such hurt, then Bryan would favor cocaine paternalism.  Same if he had explicit reasons, and his intuition said his reasons were solid.  As long as his intuition was strong, it wouldn’t bother him that others disagreed.  He might be curious to hear their reasons, but the mere fact that they had unknown reasons wouldn’t bother him much.  Nor would their having strong opposing intuitions; in a conflict between his intuitions and theirs, he knows to trust his.  Why?  Because his intuition says so.

Faith simplifies much.  With faith, what need principles?  Only those lacking faith in their divinely reliable intuition need to wonder what those who disagree with them might know that they do not, and seek principles to help avoid the bias of too easily assuming they are right and others wrong.

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  • The question should be, do you have a better tool than intuition to offer? Can you prove it’s better than intuition (in the particular class of cases)? Substituting intuition by arbitrarily chosen principles will only make things worse. Of course, one shouldn’t be content with intuitive answers, but that applies to almost any tool you could offer as well, it is not a problem characteristic of intuition in particular.

  • Nick

    A lot of folks think that “intuitions” are just kind of belief or inclination to believe, typically a belief or inclination that one has difficulty defending in a precisely articulated way. The force of your “just intuition” argument seems to turn largely on the suggestion that intuitions are the deliverance of some occult faculty, or the idea that the reason to believe a particular intuitive judgment is that it is an intuition.

    If this other view about “intuitions” is right, then the reason to believe a particular intuition is not “that it is intuitive” but whatever facts one’s subconscious reasoning was sensitive to. Now, it could turn out that what your subconscious reasoning was sensitive to isn’t any good, but I don’t see that we’ve been given reasons to think that’s the case for the particular “intuitions” under discussion. (not that we’ve been given reason to think that they’re good either)

  • burger flipper

    I have always found it interesting that Cowen considers Roissy evil but considers Caplan a compatriot

  • cournot

    There are not many (if any) general principles that are going to useful for all possible groups of people. That’s why you have to use values and beliefs and faiths (what Robin subsumes under intuition). At some point you have to say We believe X. If you believe Y and Y is sufficiently exclusive of X, we either find some way to reconcile these differences. If not, we have to a) live apart or b) force one or the other to conform. Robin seems to think some meta rules will fix this. Nonsense. At some point if a plausible meta rule conflicts with a strong enough intuition I say dump the stupid rule. And if our intuitions are important and different enough,… Well, that’s what political conflict is all about.

  • Bill

    This is a take off of a Cato piece trying to challenge nudging towards individual or societal goals. Given that there is so much in the popular culture that supports, for example, achohol consumption, weed, etc., a nudge that is better than “brain fried on egg” is not so bad. It’s just that one group likes one set of controllers over another; but the nudge folks aren’t even controllers!
    Here is Richard Thaler’s criticism of the Cato piece:

  • Mario

    This argument boils down to the same problem that every government has to deal with eventually and repeatedly — codified vs. discretionary power. There are good points to make for both, depending on the circumstances, but I have a rule (see what I did there?) that says to never put a person who resists limits on power in a position to use any.

    I think the important thing to note is that it really is possible to come up with some nice, well-thought out rules to govern paternalistic impulses. For instance, you could point to the addictive nature of cocaine as the reason why access should be regulated, further point out the psychotropic effects as evidence that there need to be additional controls, etc. These would work fine as long as you are willing to apply them universally (i.e. if your rule would ban caffeine and you do not wish to, you need to change the rule rather than make an exception). You don’t need intuition to tell you when the government needs to get involved, the negative effects should be proof enough, and focusing on those negative effects alone is a good way to judge good legislation (which would aim to control those effects while causing minimal disruption) from bad.

    Except for when it comes to gay marriage; I just know there’s something wrong with that.

  • Ian

    Imposing one’s preferred lifestyle onto others is beneficial. Don’t bother dissecting rationalisations, let alone intuitive ones.

    • Chris Hancy

      Ian please note sarcasm does not actually translate to viewers of this written medium as you intended

      Ian i greatly appreciate your humour.

      “The reliability of one’s intuition depends greatly on past knowledge and occurrences in a specific area. For example, someone who has had more experiences with children will tend to have a better instinct or intuition about what they should do in certain situations with them. This is not to say that one with a great amount of experience is always going to have an accurate intuition (because some can be biased); however, the chances of it being more reliable are definitely amplified”
      – Eugene Sadler-Smith. Inside Intuition. 2008.

      skatter plots anyone?

      argument supporting concious or unconcious scientific process to “gut feeling” or intuitive thought processes
      Intuition without previous experiences is probably less “reliable” than those with previous experiences

      same function as sample sizes in scientific method – pretty simple stuff

      • Ian

        Ian i greatly appreciate your humour.

        Sarcasm? 😉

  • Aaron

    What about cases where we have strong scientific evidence that group B is operating on mistaken beliefs.

    What about parents in group B wanting to treat their children’s cancer with prayer or homoeopathy?

    Or group B smoking because they don’t think it causes cancer?

    Now my only concern is deciding in principal which group has scientific evidence on its side. For instance the US public isn’t a good candidate to declare the inefficacy of prayer, but I’m sceptical about throwing away paternalism just because the crazies might gain power.

  • Unnamed

    The word “intuition” seems to be doing a lot of work here. Why not just talk about Bryan believing that cocaine users are harmed on net by cocaine, instead of saying that his intuition tells him this and he has faith in his intuition? Do you think that this belief is especially uninformed, rash, or resistant to evidence? Why is it “intuition” and “faith” rather than a conclusion based on evidence?

    I’d bet that most people share this belief in the harmfulness of cocaine, including many who have used cocaine and most who study cocaine use, and information about the physiological effects of cocaine and the lives of cocaine users seems consistent with it, so simply asserting that you disagree or citing the familiar generalization that people usually don’t harm themselves is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

  • Lo Statuz

    I thought Robin Hanson’s one principle is economic efficiency. I’d expect him to be arguing for efficient paternalism (and the efficient amount of cocaine consumption).

  • Unnamed, Bryan is quite explicit about his heavy reliance on intuition. He thinks the Austrians don’t introspect enough!

    Lo Statuz: Yes, Hanson is not a deontological libertarian and Caplan is to some extent (I suspect Caplan doesn’t believe it’s morally right to prevent people from hurting themselves in violation of their freedom). He is saying that if Caplan did not have that strongly libertarian intuition, he would let his (also assumed) intuition about the harms of some choice override the beliefs of consumers that the product is not so harmful as to outweigh presumed benefits. Hanson is saying we should not think our own priors/intuition are so much more special* than others that someone disagreeing with us must be wrong. Rather, we must have principles that can suggest when one person’s intuition (possibly our own) is likely wrong.

    *Caplan calls this his “anti-Hansonian heuristic”.