Phi Beta Cons

More on Experimental Philosophy

Here is an intriguing email from Joshua Knobe, an assistant professor of philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill:

I very much enjoyed your recent post on experimental philosophy, and I was thinking that your readers might be interested in hearing a little bit more about what experimental philosophers have been up to.
The basic idea behind experimental philosophy is that we can make progress in addressing philosophical questions by going out and actually doing experiments to figure out how people ordinarily think and feel about certain issues.  Often, the experiments help to give us a sense for the underlying conflict at the root of philosophical debates.
Anyway, I was thinking that your readers might be especially interested in a recent study by the philosophers Chris Freiman and Shaun Nichols that helped to get at some of the issues at the root of the conflict between liberals and conservatives. (The new study is available here.)
Subjects in the study were randomly assigned to receive either an abstract question or a concrete question.  Subjects who had been assigned to receive an abstract question were asked:
Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages.

Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:- It is fair that those genetically-advantaged people make more money than others.

Meanwhile, subjects who had been assigned to receive a concrete question were asked:Suppose that Amy and Beth both want to be professional jazz singers.  They both practice singing equally hard.  Although jazz singing is the greatest natural talent of both Amy and Beth, Beth’s vocal range and articulation is naturally better than Amy’s because of differences in their genetics.  Solely as a result of this genetic advantage, Beth’s singing is much more impressive. As a result, Beth attracts bigger audiences and hence gets more money than Amy. 
Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:- It is fair that Beth makes more money than Amy.

Surprisingly, subjects who were given the abstract question said that it was not fair, but subjects who were given the concrete question said that it actually was fair!  In other words, people seem to have leftist intuitions when they consider abstract principles but these intuitions evaporate when they turn to concrete cases.  The key question now is why all this is all happening and what it might be telling us about how people come to understand these issues.