Moral heuristics

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (4):531-542 (2005)
Abstract
With respect to questions of fact, people use heuristics – mental short-cuts, or rules of thumb, that generally work well, but that also lead to systematic errors. People use moral heuristics too – moral short-cuts, or rules of thumb, that lead to mistaken and even absurd moral judgments. These judgments are highly relevant not only to morality, but to law and politics as well. Examples are given from a number of domains, including risk regulation, punishment, reproduction and sexuality, and the act/omission distinction. In all of these contexts, rapid, intuitive judgments make a great deal of sense, but sometimes produce moral mistakes that are replicated in law and policy. One implication is that moral assessments ought not to be made by appealing to intuitions about exotic cases and problems; those intuitions are particularly unlikely to be reliable. Another implication is that some deeply held moral judgments are unsound if they are products of moral heuristics. The idea of error-prone heuristics is especially controversial in the moral domain, where agreement on the correct answer may be hard to elicit; but in many contexts, heuristics are at work and they do real damage. Moral framing effects, including those in the context of obligations to future generations, are also discussed.
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