Does intuition or logic govern ethics?

I’ve written about intuition and AI before.   Just the other day, I was forced to think the matter through still more thoroughly.

It happened this way.

I was driving down Miller’s Road towards Ulsoor Lake when, on the left hand side, I saw a drunken man slumped on the pavement.  He had passed out completely and his right leg was stretched out a few feet into the road.  I was horrified.  His foot was so far out in the road that he was in grave danger of having his foot run over and crushed by a passing vehicle.  It could happen at any time.

But I absolutely didn’t want to stop and pick up a drunken man.  I felt an incredible reluctance to touch a guy who was dead drunk.  I swerved around the outstretched leg, and then drove past him and away down the road.

Once I had passed the man, it became very very difficult to turn around.

Surely somebody behind me will stop and help the guy.  I’ve gotten past him already.  I will be late if I turn back.  It will be a kilometer’s drive to go back to get to where that man is now.  There’s no easy way to turn around and go back.  Why should I be the one to go all the way back?  It’s too late now.  Maybe a car’s driven over his foot already.   Maybe someone has helped him by now.  I’ll write about this in a blog post, and let everyone know how pathetic I was (we are).  Finally, I thought, if no one else stops to help him, this country deserves to go to hell and it won’t be my fault that it did.

The shocking thing to me was that my intuition said, “Don’t go back.”  So, I began to ask myself what intuition really is.  I had reached Ulsoor Lake and saw the Battle Tank monument on the left.  I passed the gate of the Madras Engineering Group barracks.  Then I stopped my motorbike and thought about it.

Are there times in our lives when we should rely on our intuition less than on logic?

For certain problems in AI,  the best AI algorithms are those that can automatically learn to combine a vast amount of evidence in an ‘intuitive’ manner, without performing explicit logical inference to arrive at the answer.

One example of such a problem is hearing.  We usually manage to recognize words that are spoken to us without really performing logical inference.  Another human endeavor in which intuition might dominate is sports.  Another might be love.

But, when it comes to routine choices, for example, the choice between two modes of transportation to reach a destination, how would a person choose one mode of transportation over the other?  It is to be expected that logical reasoning would be used to pick the alternative that represents the best value in terms of time, cost and convenience.

What about ethical choices?  I recently came across a post on this topic by a blogger friend entitled “What has logic got to do with it” in which the author argues that ethical choices are mere intuition couched in logic (a very Zen perspective on ethics).

But here I was with every nerve in my body telling me to drive away.  What was even more troubling was that just a few years earlier, when I was living in Raleigh, had I seen someone in danger, I would have immediately gone to help.

Anyone would have done the same.

That’s when it struck me that intuition might really be nothing more than your expectation of what anyone in your position might do.  If you expected everyone around you to abandon a man in need, your intuition would dictate that you do the very same thing.  Which brings us to the crux of the problem.  If everyone followed their intuition, everyone would act like the majority and consequently, the majority intuition would become the norm – the only surviving response to a situation.

In this particular situation, that meant that if my intuitive understanding of the situation lead me to drive away, then I could expect everybody else to do exactly the same thing.  If everyone kept driving away, the man could have his leg crushed by a heavy transport vehicle before long.

The danger would increase once darkness fell, and the time was 5 pm.

So, I turned the bike around and drove back the way I had come.  I looked for the man and saw him lying exactly where he had fallen.

No one had stopped to move him.

I was on the other side of the road median (which in Bangalore is a concrete barrier separating the two halves of the road) driving back, when I saw a man on a moped drive right past the drunken man.  It was interesting to see how the moped rider reacted because it was like watching a replay of what I must have done fifteen minutes before.  I saw the moped rider stare at the man lying on the road.  The rider look horrified, swerved to avoid the outstretched leg, and then drove past and away, with not a look backward thereafter.

I drove around the barrier, stopped the motorbike, went up to the fallen man and gently woke him up.  I explained to him slowly that his leg was sticking out in the road, and could get run over.   He seemed to understand, but he couldn’t move.

I told him what I was going to have to do, then put my arms under his arm-pits and pulled him up off the ground and back a few feet away from the road.

When I put him down again, he said, “Thank you, Sir”, and he seemed fully bewildered and surprised.  Then he signed to me that he had had too much to drink and that he had to go to sleep.  He rolled back, his eyes closed and he became oblivious of everything around him once more.  He was just a young lad, probably from Kerala.

When solving simple problems in AI, the kind of things humans solve without thinking, we can use algorithms based on intuition.

Once we start dealing with more complex problems, it appears we need to use more complicated algorithms based on logic, planning and inference.

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2 thoughts on “Does intuition or logic govern ethics?

  1. Wow! That was so insightful! Indeed, I have been thinking of the very same thing lately – how “intuition” is not always the best way to take decisions – it is subject to a lot of random influences, and does not always lead to the best choice.

    I am so glad you went back and moved that guy.

  2. Lovely introspection, Cohan. I suggest reading “thinking fast and slow” by kahneman. That is a quantum leap in western understanding of the mind. In his lingo, u did system 1 thinking when u drove on. U did system 2 when u came back. System 2 is much much harder work than system 1.

    Vivekananda calls intuition involved reason, accumulated after lots of repetitive action.

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