Since Plato, intuitions have played considerable evidentiary roles in shaping philosophical discourse. Yet, given the gender imbalance in professional academic philosophy today, intuitions imported from the armchair mostly belong to a bunch of men. But do the epistemic intuitions of male philosophy professors represent consensus? A growing body of empirical evidence suggests they don’t.
In a new paper [Gender and Epistemic Intuition], I present a series of experimental studies showing that men and women intuit about important epistemological thought experiments in surprisingly different ways:
Epistemological Purism. As many may recall, the Epistemic Side-Effect Effect (Beebe and Buckwalter forthcoming) is an extension of the original side-effect effect for folk knowledge attribution. We found that participants were significantly less likely to say an agent knows an action will bring about a certain side effect when the outcome is good, and more likely to attribute knowledge when that outcome happens to be bad. This effect was highly variable to the factor of gender, whereby women were significantly less likely than men to ascribe knowledge to a subject just because the outcome was good.
Gettier Cases. While there has been some experimental evidence that the Gettier intuition varies among and between cultures (Weinberg et al. 2001), another groundbreaking study has shown that men and women also reason very differently about these kinds of cases. Starmans & Friedman (2009) report that, pace professional philosophical intuition, women are far more likely than men to deny the so-called Gettier intuition, and attribute knowledge to a putative knower in the particular Gettier vignettes tested.
In the paper, I develop and test a hypothesis that explains these differences under a single mechanism. I argue for what I call the normative evaluation hypothesis, or the idea that the gender differences in epistemic intuition arise as a result of the way men and women consult normative factors in formulating their intuitive judgments across domain. My aim is to show that such demographic variation in intuition seriously undermines an extensive group of epistemological projects that rely on intuitional evidence. For on what grounds is an intuition characteristic of one group (men) more privileged than another group (women) in that it counts as better evidence to support certain analyses of knowledge?
Additionally, these data may also help explain one factor that contributes to the discrimination against women in philosophy (see Haslanger 2008), as well as the alienation that women sometimes feel in the classroom. For instance, imagine being a young female philosophy student, presented with the scenario of a famous thought experiment like Gettier, and then asked a question designed to reveal a particular philosophical intuition. Now imagine that your intuition does not agree with not only the males in the class, but also with the male philosophical majority. When you try to express that intuition, your professor insists that you are wrong. It is not hard to understand why any person in this situation would feel alienated. But why think that the professor’s intuitions about knowledge are better? In other words, what possible reason could there be to suppose that the content of men’s epistemic intuitions are any more likely to be true than women’s?
Since intuitions from thought experiments are relied on so heavily in professional analytic epistemology, could the lack of tolerance for different intuitions than the ones men tend to have—even if perhaps ever so slight in some cases—be a factor that continually discourages women from entering professional philosophy today?