Phi Beta Cons

Jazzed-Up Philosophy

Candace de Russy quotes Prof. Joshua Knobe on an “experimental philosophy” study demonstrating, he says, that “people seem to have leftist intuitions when they consider abstract principles but these intuitions evaporate when they turn to concrete cases.”  Based on what Knobe says, the study actually just verifies the pollster’s maxim that you can get people to agree or disagree with just about anything, depending on how you phrase it.

The abstract statement (“Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages”) could easily be taken to include any such situation—for example, when physically attractive people, or members of certain racial or gender groups, are given higher salaries.  Most people would consider that unfair.  The concrete statement (two singers, one of whom was born with a better voice) affords no such ambiguity.  So the researchers did not compare the same statement stated abstractly and concretely; they compared two different statements.

To make them comparable, the abstract statement would have to be rephrased as something like, “Suppose that some people produce better work than others, and thus make more money, solely because they have genetic advantages.”  Indeed, you could make a strong argument that the case of the jazz singers actually contradicts the abstract statement. Beth doesn’t make more money than Amy “solely because” of genetic advantages; she makes more money because she sings better.

Pollsters like to do the same thing when they have a slow day.  They’ll ask, “Do you think the government should reduce its expenditures wherever possible?”  Unsurprisingly, most people say yes.  Then they’ll ask, “Are you in favor of taking bread from the mouths of starving children?” and the answer will be no.  Does this prove that the general public is a bunch of hypocrites?  No, it just means that the abstract question was ambiguous; most people would interpret “wherever possible” to exclude survival aid to the desperately poor.