What is the most accurate and reliable way for us to recognize those situations in which our intuitions are correct, well founded, and trustworthy? When should we rely on more preconscious and automatic, as opposed to more conscious and deliberative, modes of thinking? What kinds of situations are best approached intuitively rather than analytically?
Intuitions may sometimes be referred to as “instincts,” but they should be distinguished from the latter, insofar as intuitions may be defined as “immediate apprehensions” or “direct perceptions, independent of any reasoning process,” while instincts may be defined as “natural or innate impulses or inclinations” or “inborn tendencies to action common to a given biological species.”1
Intuitions should also be distinguished from “hunches,” “suspicions,” or “gut feelings.” A hunch or suspicion may, in contrast to an intuition, involve deductive reasoning, while a gut feeling may be more generalized and nonspecific and more like an inclination or disposition than an intuition.
Even the most committed intuitionism may recognize that in some cases deliberative decision-making may provide some advantages over intuitive decision-making. Intuition may not be the best means of making all judgments. Some cases of decision-making may require thorough consideration and thoughtful deliberation.
In what kinds of situations then should we rely on our intuitions? Perhaps we can examine the suitability or unsuitability of proposals such as the following for assessing the reliability of cognitive, sensory, and mixed intuitions.
(1) We should trust our intuitions when the rightness or wrongness of actions is self-evident.
However, it may be argued that whatever appears to be self-evident to one person may not be self-evident to another person. People may have varying opinions about the nature of self-evidence. There may be controversy about whether any actions are self-evidently right or wrong, that is to say, right or wrong without any demonstration of their rightness or wrongness, just as there may be controversy about whether any actions are intuitively right or wrong, that is to say, right or wrong without any regard for, or consideration of, their motives or consequences.
(2) We should trust our intuitions when we recognize that we may be receiving misinformation about a situation and that such misinformation may not serve as an adequate and proper foundation for making appropriate deliberative judgments about that situation.
However, the possible unreliability of deliberative decision-making in such a situation does not guarantee the reliability of intuitive decision-making in that situation.
(3) We should trust our intuitions when we are compelled to do so by time constraints that hinder our being able to make decisions more deliberatively.
However, even this modest proposal for assessing the reliability of intuitions does not indicate that we should not subsequently reexamine and review our intuitions or that we should not subject them to further scrutiny when time permits.
(4) We should rely on our intuitions when we are confronted by situations that demand immediate action as opposed to deliberative thought. The readiness and spontaneity provided by intuitive decision-making may be more appropriate to situations demanding immediate action than the reserve and formality provided by careful analysis and painstaking deliberation.
However, this proposal is subject to the same limitations as (3).
(5) We should trust our intuitions when we are presented with the alternative of trusting the intuitions of someone else whom we regard as less informed or less capable of making rational, fair, unbiased, and impartial judgments about the situation at hand.
However, it may be argued that both our intuitions and the intuitions of whomever we regard as untrustworthy may be mistaken. Both of us may be acting intuitively under a veil of ignorance of which we are unaware.
However, a counter-argument to this might be that even if our intuitions are mistaken, if we rely on own intuitions rather than those of someone else whom we regard as untrustworthy, we may at least be able to take comfort in the fact that we made our own mistakes of judgment, rather than having repeated someone else's mistakes of judgment.
(6) We should trust our intuitions when we know by previous experience (and therefore have sufficient evidence) that our intuitions are reliable and trustworthy in situations similar to the present one.
However, the general or overall reliability of our intuitions in situations similar to the present one does not guarantee their reliability in every such situation. Each situation may present unforeseen challenges to our ability to make correct, appropriate, and reliable intuitive judgments.
In some cases, we may find that our intuitions are dead wrong. Further examination may reveal that what we intuitively thought was true is unquestionably false. We may find that in acting intuitively we were simply being naïve, overconfident, rash, or imprudent.
Although intuitive judgments may often be profitably reexamined, to insist that every intuitive judgment undergo rigorous scrutiny and deliberative reevaluation may in some cases amount to a kind of moral, aesthetic, or epistemic obtuseness. To deny that any propositions are obvious or self-evident may in some cases be merely to be obstinate, devious, or willfully blind.
Since intuitive judgments may require less effort on the part of the evaluator than deliberative judgments, it may perhaps be easier to make correct or incorrect intuitive judgments than to make correct or incorrect deliberative judgments.
To trust our intuitions in some cases is not to deny that they may be aided by deliberative thinking. Intuitive thinking and deliberative thinking are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may be combined to produce morally, aesthetically, and epistemically reliable judgments. They may also augment and supplement each other.
1The Random House College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1980).