Survey of Philosophers’ normative intuitions

This request is up at Experimental Philosophy:

Dear Colleagues,

In collaboration with Joe Henrich and Taylor Davis at the University of British Columbia, I’m conducting a study on philosophers’ views about normative judgments.  Joe, Taylor and I would be very grateful if you would participate in our study.

Participation should take 30 minutes or less, and it involves responding to a 20-item questionnaire.  In developing the questionnaire, we found that many respondents find consideration of the issues involved interesting and engaging.  The research has been approved by UBC’s Behavioral Research Ethics Board and is open to all faculty and graduate students in philosophy.

Here’s a link to the test: 

We encourage you to forward this notice to other philosophers you think might be interested. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at or Taylor Davis at

Many thanks for whatever assistance you can provide.

With best wishes,

Stephen Stich

Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy & Cognitive Science Rutgers University


Joe Henrich: Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition & Evolution, Departments of Psychology & Economics, University of British Columbia

Taylor Davis: Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

*Here is the link to the official letter/invitation.

9 thoughts on “Survey of Philosophers’ normative intuitions

  1. This survey confuses me. Am I being asked whether “it is not the case that people should perform A” or whether people “should not perform A”? It’s impossible for me to tell. I also have no idea how I’m supposed to read the “shoulds” and “oughts” in the questions. I could read them all morally, if I liked. This is too puzzling for me to do anything with, sadly.

  2. Yep. If I don’t think it matters whether people do X, does that mean I disagree with “People should do X” or neither agree nor disagree (I’d think the former). Likewise, what is a moral judgment, and is ‘moral’ a synonym for ‘ethical’ or is there a distinction between them? And if I don’t think that people doing X is a moral issue at all, nevertheless my judgment that I disagree with “People should do X” might be moral, if I were a liberal, for example (i.e. doing X might not be a moral issue, but being allowed to do X might be). I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to answer about. So I was too confused to do the whole thing.

  3. Yeah, I had the same problem with whether to say “disagree” or “neither agree nor disagree”. If I don’t think there’s any requirement to do x, does that mean I disagree with the statement “people should do x”, or that I neither agree nor disagree? Plus, I don’t thinks it’s easy to separate moral from other judgments. Even prudential actions (their example was putting on sunscreen) have moral components (you’re setting an example for your kids, your skin cancer would affect many people). Same with matters of etiquette (impolite actions may show disrespect, etc.) But I guess that’s one of the things they’re testing. I’d be curious to know whether people who identify as Kantians versus utilitarians differ on that issue, but they didn’t ask about that.

  4. I just took the test, thanks to you all. I don’t think it is sloppy.

    It is testing for different reactions to different kinds of judgments: ethical or moral, etiquette, prudential and perhaps something like conventional. I don’t think there is an simple rubric that takes from from disagreement to which box to pick. That’s one interesting fact about it.

    For example, if you don’t agree with chopping off robbers’ hand and with parents choosing marriage partners, you might much more strongly disagree with the first than with the second. For myself, I don’t care how deep the first is in the culture of a country, I think it is wrong. But the second seems to me less so; if it is working in a country or for a cultural group, then I’m not going to try to organize a protest against it, though some instances might end up being protest-worthy.

    Equally, there are interesting question about whether disagreement with a cultural practice is a moral disagreement or more like a disagreement over etiquette, prudence, etc. I again don’t think there’s necessarily any simple rubric here.

    I’m wondering what the test is looking for. Philosophy professors tend not to be relativists, and one thing it might be looking at is whether that’s a product of philosophical training. Hence, the questions about how much training one has.

    Another question is whether philosophers see just about everything in moral terms. That has seemed to many to be a feature of the profession, and an unpleasant one at that. Many of us find it very easy to judge our colleagues as morally defective or even evil. Furthermore, too many are so certain in their condemnations that they don’t even bother to ask how the accused viewed the situation. That can make philosophy departments very unpleasant or even somewhat insane. (Hopefully, over all people’s experiences vary here.)

  5. Another thing it might be looking at is the effect of philosophical training on taking tests like that. These sorts of tests tend to figure in a lot of experimental philosophy, and there might be interesting features that vary generally with philosophical training.

  6. Good point about philosophers seeing everything in moral terms. I think it’s a natural outcome of studying ethical theories, and of being careful about our terminology. If all actions can be divided into the morally required, the morally forbidden, and the morally permissible, then all actions have a moral component. Permissible actions are up to individual choice, but you still have to make the moral judgment first that the action is permissible and thus up to individual choice. So, when I say that it’s a matter of choice whether to wear bright colors on holidays, I first judge that the action would not violate any rights either way. And *that* is a moral judgment. So, in this survey, I think I ended up calling all my judgments moral judgments. Does this mean I moralize too much, or just that I’m careful with my terminology?

  7. Amy, that’s so interesting. And very plausible. And perhaps worrying.

    I don’t think the fact that we’ll look at most questions about assessing actions in terms of obligation, permissibility, etc, itself means we moralize too much as I meant it. E.g., it doesn’t mean we’ll take an interest in an area of philosophy we don’t like to be morally reprehensible. However, that kind of moralizing might be a common effect. (Interestingly enough, a biologist recently remarked to me that researchers working on the cellular level tend to judge those working on systems as morally suspect, but then just such people tell me my discipline is really shocking in its moralizing. Carole Lee’s work, which I mentioned in the first hypatia conference post, seems to show philosophers really stand out in their as**ole negativity, which may be related.)

    I think your response shows the situation is very complex.

    If you’re interested in following up at all on the thought, you might write Steve Stich.

  8. That’s hilarious about biologists — as someone who knows nothing about it, it’s hard for me to imagine what moral component there could be to cells versus systems.

    I’ve often thought that philosophers are unusually arrogant and insular, and I’m glad to know somebody has done work to confirm this. Sometimes I get really embarrassed in mixed groups, such as when people from several depts. get together for lunch. The philosophers are so dismissive of other disciplines, while at the same time knowing very little about them. I’ve been impressed and humbled by the knowledge people in other disciplines show about philosophy. A person in English was asking me about Hursthouse and virtue theory, someone in Architecture was talking to me about his work on Aristotle, etc. Of course, lots of philosophers do read broadly and aren’t arrogant, but there are enough a-holes to give the profession a definite negative tone. APAs are the worst!

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