Intuitions and Intervention

[W]e have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. —George Orwell

Many debaters and judges believe that intuitions should carry little to no evidential weight in a debate round. In this post, I discuss some of the most common arguments for this view.

Before I do that, let me clarify what I mean by “intuition.” This term is often used in very different ways. In this post, I use “intuition” to mean any claim that is taken by its proponent to be justified without further argument. This does not mean that further arguments cannot be used to support intuitions, but merely that those arguments are (taken to be) unnecessary. They are strategic assets, not requirements.1

The following are the most common arguments I have heard against the use of intuitions in debate.

Intuitions are just unwarranted claims. Judges should vote on arguments, not on assertions.

There are two senses of “warranted.” One sense, which is most common in debate, has to do with the activity of giving a reason for something, and with the specific reason that is given. In this sense, a claim is warranted just in case one has given an argument for it. Another sense, which is more common in philosophy, has to do with the normative status of a belief or claim—i.e., whether it is sufficiently justified, or whether one ought to believe it. A claim can be warranted in the second sense without being warranted in the first sense.

In debate, we generally care more about the first sense in which a claim can be “warranted.” We know a lot of things that we cannot explain how we know, and so cannot give a warrant in the first sense. In a debate, though, the judge cares only about that which is said and explained. So the judge should care more about whether a claim is warranted in the first sense than whether it is warranted in the second, which has little to do with what is said in the debate round.

It does not follow, though, that a judge should only accept claims that are warranted in the first sense. And there is a simple reason for thinking that judges cannot help but do otherwise, on pain of infinite regress. Arguments have to start somewhere.2 This is true in debate as much as it is elsewhere in life. But the time constraints in debate make it especially clear.

I won’t pretend that this argument is uncontroversial. It has generated a substantial philosophical literature. I invite readers to comment with defenses of their favored responses and applications to debate. The conclusion that I draw, though, is that the question isn’t whether debaters can appeal to intuitions in debate rounds, but which kinds of claims judges should take to be intuitively justified.

What is the proper starting point for debate? I don’t think there is a unique and universal answer to this question. But common sense—what almost everyone intuitively takes and perhaps knows to be true and often obviously so—strikes me as a safe option. If, outside of a competitive context, everyone in the room would admit to knowing p regardless of their stance on the resolution (that is, if they were suitably impartial about the main question of the debate), that strongly recommends p as a good candidate to be taken as true without further argument.3 We all know that feeling when a debater asks a CX question with a blazingly obvious answer: there is, and ought to be, some strategic pressure to answer correctly, rather than to feign ignorance; that strategic pressure comes from a judge’s willingness to accept claims that she and other suitably impartial judges find obvious. Things become more difficult when the participants would disagree even in an impartial and non-competitive context, or when the judge is highly confident in, but does not know, p. I shall simply punt on these more difficult questions for now.

Figuring out the proper starting point for debate is very different from figuring out how far debate can move us from there. My view does not imply that a debater can or should never count as winning a counterintuitive claim. Perhaps philosophical argument and empirical evidence, together with norms for judging debate (e.g., taking conceded claims as true) can take us rationally from obvious premises to crazy conclusions.

Moral intuitions are not acceptable in debate because debaters have to provide moral frameworks or theories to justify their moral claims.

As I have already explained, I see appeals to intuition (as I have defined it) as, to some extent, inevitable in debate. So this objection must be revised in one of two ways.

The first revision says that intuitions with first-order moral content (i.e., claims about what we ought to do, or about what’s right or wrong) are inadmissible, but that non-moral intuitions about philosophical questions, including metaethical ones (e.g., about how we know what’s right or wrong or the semantics for moral language), are fair game. This view simply pushes the appeal to intuitions to a higher level of abstraction. My problems with this move are (a) that it is ad hoc, absent some explanation about what is uniquely problematic about moral intuitions in debate, and (b) that it presupposes a controversial (and, to me, implausible) picture about moral justification—namely, that one can derive moral conclusions from non-moral premises. I think these problems give sufficient reason to make us wary of making this view a rule for debate or even a starting point for a judging paradigm.

The second revision (which I think is more promising than the first) essentially redefines, or at least clarifies, the intuitions that the view dislikes. Many people use “intuition” to refer to a gut reaction about questions of a specific kind—namely, about questions at fairly low levels of generality. This view might classify the following things as undesirable intuitions: that it is wrong to torture children for fun, that the extinction of all life is bad, that no population of lives that are barely worth living could be better than a sufficiently large population of people with an extremely high quality of life, and that systematic, harmful discrimination on the basis of race is unjust. My problems with this view parallel my problems with the one above: (a) it is ad hoc, absent some explanation about what is uniquely problematic about intuitions that are below some threshold of generality, and (b) it presupposes a controversial (and, to me, implausible) picture about moral justification—namely, that it always flows from the general to the particular.4

I’m not saying that these problems are knockdown objections to thinking that moral principles are known by inference from non-moral evidence or that knowledge of moral principles flows from general theories to particular cases. These are extremely complicated questions. But I think our starting point should be to accept moral intuitions at any level of generality as admissible evidence, and not to prefer claims simply in virtue of their level of generality or subject matter, unless a debater argues to the contrary.

Part of my reason for thinking that is that I am inclined to think that this proposed starting point is correct as an epistemological matter. But even if I thought otherwise, I would countenance strong reasons to use this methodology as a starting point. The alternative would make LD framework debates look vastly different from actual debates in moral philosophy. Many philosophers would consider the best arguments for and against their own theories to be appeals to intuition, as I have defined it.5 Other things being equal, debaters and judges should defer to philosophers about philosophical methodology. It would be hubris to assume that the accumulated wisdom of the high-school debate community trumps the insights of the practitioners of the very subject they are debating. We would need a strong debate-specific argument to think otherwise. That is where we turn next.

Appeals to intuition invite judge intervention. Judges should not intervene, and so should not accept appeals to intuition.

This, I think, is the strongest objection to my view. If I were to change my mind about this issue, I expect it would be in response to an improved version of this objection. So I’m all ears for a defense of this objection in discussion!

Intervention is, to some degree, inevitable. Proponents of this objection are aiming not for tabula rasa (which even the most anti-interventionists agree to be impossible), but rather for least intervention.6 Similarly, reliance on intuition in debate is, to some degree, inevitable. Proponents of this objection are aiming not for the elimination of intuitions in debate (which, I think, the most anti-intuitionists agree to be impossible), but rather for minimizing their role in resolving debates. One way to do this is for judges to refuse to resolve disputes that come down to conflicts in intuition, unless absolutely necessary (i.e., because all voting issues in a given debate come down to conflicts in intuition).

Suppose that one debater (call her Liz) makes an argument that relies on some highly abstract metaethical principle p. Another debater (call him Ahmed) responds by giving a persuasive counterexample. Ahmed argues from the intuitive verdict about the example to the falsity of the metaethical principle. Suppose next that Liz responds as follows: “Ahmed’s judgment about the example is just an intuition. It might seem plausible to you. But extend p, which implies that Ahmed’s judgment is false. Ahmed hasn’t given an alternative metaethical principle to support his intuition.”

How should the judge evaluate this dispute? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is some other way to decide the round without resolving the dispute either way, but that both Liz and Ahmed agree that this is the highest layer, and the most important issue in the debate.

The judge who thinks that justification must flow from general to particular should side with Liz. That view makes philosophical debates in LD look like the bizarro world of academic philosophy. I shall set it aside.

My own view is that the judge should side with Ahmed, assuming that she agrees with his intuitive, commonsensical judgment about the case. It is actually more interventionist to resolve the debate on some other issue, given the debaters’ consensus that it is the highest layer. (It’s another thing entirely if the judge doesn’t have an opinion or understand the questions well enough to assert that either side is right. Calling some issue a wash because one doesn’t know enough to decide an issue is very different from calling it a wash because both sides answered each other’s arguments, which is what we should expect rather than discourage in competitive debate.) Let me consider two responses to this view:

Frist, one might object that my view gives judges free reign to intervene against or in favor of claims simply because they agree with them. That’s not so. Suppose Liz’s speech is given as before, but that Ahmed makes no objection. The judge should accept Liz’s argument, even though she disagrees with it (or, if she has never thought about the issue before, would disagree with it if confronted with the example). The judge’s evaluation of competing claims is relevant only when the debaters disagree. That, I think, is the truth behind the ideal of least intervention.

Third, one might argue that the judge should not insert her own opinion about the example because neither debater has given a conceded argument for her claim about it. If Ahmed had relied not only on intuition but had also given an argument for this claim, then, holding Liz’s response fixed—to deny the conclusion of this argument by extending p—Ahmed would have won the issue. This view might be defended on the grounds that it promotes valuable argumentation skills by incentivizing argument over the reliance on a claim’s intuitive support.

This neutral-absent-a-conceded-argument paradigm is in some ways attractive, but it is unnecessary and unfairly manipulatable. It is unnecessary because there are, on the view I have defended, powerful strategic incentives to make arguments rather than rely only on a claim’s intuitiveness, even when the claim seems obvious. First, making arguments increases the probability that those arguments will be conceded, which (in general) grants access to the claim without the judge’s agreement with the conclusion. Second, the judge is not guaranteed to share one’s intuitions. Making additional arguments is a good hedging strategy, in debate as it is elsewhere in life.

The paradigm is unfairly manipulative because it gives a debater too much traction against a claim simply for expressing disagreement. As soon as Ahmed gives an argument for his intuitive judgment, Liz can neutralize it by asserting the negation of the argument’s premises. The judge is then forced to neutrality unless Ahmed gives new arguments for these premises. Once again, Liz can just assert the negations of the premises of these new arguments. The winner would be whoever speaks last, or perhaps the faster debater. Good debating is not about mechanically adding “not” to everything your opponent says, but that is exactly what the neutral-absent-a-conceded-argument paradigm encourages.

Strategic Implications

Let me conclude by mentioning some implications of my view for strategy in LD. If some judge shares my view on these theoretical questions, how should debaters adapt? What does debate look like under this interpretation?

First, once we shed our fear of intuition, debaters can make more use of counterexamples when responding to frameworks. These arguments are underutilized today because there is little strategic incentive to give a counterexample when the judge will refuse to evaluate it on the grounds that it relies on an intuitive judgment. But, like the philosophers who devise these thought experiments, debaters will be more likely to win by running them in tandem with theories that explain the verdicts.

Second, there would be a greater incentive to adopt mid-level moral principles that fall short of comprehensive theories as standards or value criteria. Consider, for example, Peter Singer’s argument for why affluent people should donate much of their income to charities that reduce the harms of global poverty. Although Singer is a utilitarian, he doesn’t assume utilitarianism in his influential paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”7 That is probably for strategic reasons: since utilitarians would likely agree with his conclusion after a little empirical work, why not try to convince non-utilitarians by appealing to principles that even they could accept. Singer argues by presenting a thought experiment in which you can save a small child drowning in a pond at little cost to yourself. Most of us would agree that you ought to save the child. Singer then infers a principle that explains this datum—namely, that if you can save someone from great suffering at a cost that is not of comparable moral significance, then you ought to do so. That mid-level principle is at a level of generality in between the common verdict about Singer’s example and the comprehensive theory of utilitarianism.


  1. My use of the term follows Chalmers, David J., ‘Intuitions in Philosophy: A Minimal Defense’, Philosophical Studies, 2014. Others use “intuition” to refer to the deliverances of some special rational faculty, or to judgments or intellectual “seemings” with a particular phenomenal character, or to judgments about particular cases as opposed to abstract principles or axioms.
  2. For a more thorough version of this argument, see Bealer, George, ‘The Incoherence of Empiricism’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, 66 (1992), 99–138.
  3. Here my views are heavily influenced by Timothy Williamson’s picture of knowledge in Knowledge and Its Limits (Oxford University Press, 2002) and philosophical evidence in The Philosophy of Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007).
  4. On these questions, I recommend Kelly, Thomas, ‘Moorean Facts and Belief Revision, or Can the Skeptic Win?’, Philosophical perspectives, 19 (2005), 179–209, and the section on Moore’s moral methodology in Soames, Scott, Philosophical Analysis, Volume I: The Dawn of Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005).
  5. See Harman, Elizabeth, ‘Is It Reasonable to “Rely on Intuitions” in Ethics?’ http://www.princeton.edu/~eharman/HarmanIntuitions.pdf.
  6. See McGee, Brian, ‘Judgment after Tabula Rasa: Defending “Least Intervention”’, Contemporary Argumentation & Debate, 19 (1998), 40–57.
  7. Singer, Peter, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1972, 229–43.