In the previous post, I argued for a minimalist characterization of the method of cases, which I share with some of the most well-known critics of experimental philosophy. In this post, I want to present the two arguments against the method of cases, developed in Chapter 3 and 4 of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds.
First, however, I must say a few things about experimental philosophers’ and psychologists’ findings about the judgments elicited by philosophical cases. Chapter 2 of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds is, to date, the most extensive literature review of demographic and presentation effects (respectively, variation across demographic groups and variation across different presentations of the same case). The research on the cross-cultural variation of judgments elicited by the Gödel case illustrates the first kind of effects; the research on order effects in the judgments elicited by the trolley cases the second kind of effects. Not all cases give rise to demographic effects: The Gettier case does not seem to elicit different intuitions across demographic groups, gender, SES groups, etc. But there seems to be only very few cases that are immune to demographic andpresentation effects. Admittedly, the size of these effects is rarely very large, but because they can combine such effects can result in philosophically significant variation in how people judge in response to cases.
Chapter 3 of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds builds on presentation and demographic effects to present the first argument, Unreliability, against the method of cases. The gist of this argument is straightforward: Because the judgments elicited by philosophical cases are influenced by demographic and presentation effects, they are unreliable, and philosophers ought to suspend judgment when presented with a philosophical case. Unreliability is presented as follows in Chapter 3:
- Unreliable judgments are severely deficient from an epistemic point of view.
- Judgments elicited by most of the philosophical cases that have been examined by experimental philosophers are unreliable.
- If the judgments elicited by most of the philosophical cases that have been examined by experimental philosophers are unreliable, then the judgments elicited by most philosophical cases are plausibly unreliable.
- We ought to refrain from making a judgment of a particular kind K (i.e., we ought to suspend judgment of kind K) when most judgments of this kind are plausibly severely deficient from an epistemic point of view, except when this judgment is known to be an exception.
- Hence, except when a philosophical case is known to elicit a reliable judgment, philosophers ought to suspend judgment
Each of the premises of Unreliability is defended at great length in Chapter 3. The epistemic significance of reliability is defended against the generality problem, and the superiority of Unreliability over previous arguments against the method of cases is argued for. The conclusion of Unreliability is radical: It is not simply that philosophers should be cautious when they consider philosophical cases or that they should appeal to experimental findings to remedy the frailties of their judgments, as some experimental philosophers have proposed (Alexander, Weinberg); rather, we should set aside most philosophical cases.
One may wonder why philosophical cases elicit unreliable judgments. It isn’t because they are texts: Most judgments about situations that are described (by newspapers, novels, etc.) are reliable. It isn’t because they usually are about merely possible situations: Counterfactual judgments are typically reliable. It isn’t because they are about knowledge, causation, permanence, permissibility: I am no skeptic about these matters; in usual circumstances, we are indeed pretty good at distinguishing knowledge from ignorance, causation from absence of causation, the right from the wrong. Rather, philosophical cases tend to have some properties that prevent the application of our usually reliable competencies. I call them the “disturbing properties” of philosophical cases and I speculate about their nature in Chapter 3. These disturbing properties include the unusual nature of philosophical cases, the fact that philosophical cases pull apart the properties that go together in usual circumstances (e.g., a Gettier case pulls apart justification, truth, and getting it right by reliable means), and the entanglement of superficial and target content.
Chapter 4 ofPhilosophy Within Its Proper Bounds builds on demographic effects to present the second argument against the method of cases. Demographic effects can be understood in two different ways: Either people who react differently to philosophical cases really disagree or their disagreement is purely verbal. Philosophers who embrace the first option have to address an argument I call “Dogmatism”; those who embrace the second option an argument I call “Parochialism.” Dogmatism and Parochialism are the two horns of a dilemma for the conclusion that philosophers ought to suspend judgment when presented with philosophical cases.
The gist of Dogmatism is straightforward: When people disagree about the situation described by a philosophical case, they ought to suspend judgment because the disagreeing parties are on an equal epistemic footing. Dogmatism is presented as follows in Chapter 4:
- Most of the philosophical cases examined by experimental philosophers elicit disagreement.
- This disagreement takes place among epistemic peers.
- If most of the philosophical cases examined by experimental philosophers elicit disagreement among peers, then most philosophical cases would plausibly elicit disagreement among peers.
- If epistemic peers are likely to disagree about a philosophical case, they ought to suspend judgment about it.
- Hence, except for those philosophical cases known not to elicit disagreement among peers, philosophers ought to suspend judgment about the situations described by philosophical cases.
The premises of Dogmatism are defended at length in Chapter 4, with the exception of Premise 2, which is defended in Chapter 5. To establish Premise 2, I show that philosophers have no special expertise when it comes to judging about the situations described by philosophical cases. (Naturally, they are genuine experts in other respects.) Premise 4 may be surprising since many epistemologists working on peer disagreement embrace steadfast views of disagreement, according to which one can stick to one’s opinion even in situations of peer disagreement. However, steadfast theories of peer disagreement too agree that in some circumstances one ought to suspend judgment. I show that the type of disagreement elicited by philosophical cases is one of these situations.
The gist of Parochialism is more intricate: When people merely verbally disagree about the situation described by a philosophical case, they are talking about different subjects matters. A disagreeing party may be talking about causation, while the other may be talking about causation*. Parochialism argues that we are not justified in theorizing about causation instead of causation*, and concludes that we ought get acquainted with these alternative subject matters (i.e., causation *) rather than using the method of cases to theorize about what we accidentally happen to theorize about (i.e., causation). Chapter 4 presents Parochialism as follows:
- When people respond differently to the philosophical cases examined by experimental philosophers, it is because they refer to different (epistemic, moral, etc.) properties.
- If people refer to different (epistemic, moral, etc.) properties when they respond differently to the philosophical cases examined by experimental philosophers, they would plausibly do so in response to most philosophical cases.
- Philosophers are not justified in believing that theorizing about the (epistemic, moral, etc.) properties they refer to will allow them to achieve their philosophical goals.
- You ought not to decide to φ in order to ψ if you believe you are not justified to believe that φ-ing is likely to bring about ψ.
- Hence, philosophers ought to focus on determining whether theorizing about the (epistemic, moral, etc.) properties they refer to or about the (epistemic, moral, etc.) properties others refer to will allow them to reach their philosophical goals, stopping for the time being their theorizing about the (epistemic, moral, etc.) properties they refer to.
- Hence, for the time being, philosophers should not appeal to the method of cases.
Again, the premises of Parochialism are defended at great length in Chapter 4. I distinguish the philosophically familiar from the philosophically unfamiliar (Flikschuh). The former consists of the subject matters (e.g., causation) we are used to theorize about; the latter whatever it is others are referring to (e.g., causation*). I argue that we are not justified in theorizing about the philosophically familiar rather than the philosophically unfamiliar. This argument should be reminiscent of similar arguments made by feminist philosophers and comparative philosophers.
Parochialism and Dogmatism are obviously very different, but they lead to the same conclusion: We ought to stop using the method of cases.