Moral Heuristics

In my last post I claimed intuitions are often used (or should be used) like heuristic devices. As shortcuts of cognition, intuitions function as intellectual seemings that quickly move the agent from perception to judgment. This leap occurs without explicit analysis or sifting through evidence; instead, the agent references a rule of thumb. A rule of thumb is a generalization about what to do, think or feel in a certain situation. These generalizations are often highly intuitive and have the attractiveness of being common sense. The problem is that intuitions generated by and used like heuristics often reflect errors and biases.

My research is primarily in the area of reflective equilibrium. This method of moral justification is often charged with being intuition-laden, so the growing literature on experimental philosophy and intuition is of sincere interest. In the journal Behavior and Brain Sciences I came across an article about moral heuristics. It includes a primary article by Cass R. Sunstein and an extensive peer commentary on his article. Sunstein discusses heuristics and reflective equilibrium. Commentary related to this topic include: Peter Singer’s “Intuitions, Heuristics, and Utilitarianism,”  Edward Stein’s “Wide Reflective Equilibrium as an Answer to an Objection to Moral Heuristics,” and Philip Tetlock’s “Gauging the Heuristic Value of Heuristics.” In discussing the link between heuristics and morality Sunstein states:

Much of everyday morality consists of simple, highly intuitive rules that generally make sense, but that fail in certain cases. It is wrong to lie or steal, but if a lie or a theft would save a human life, lying or stealing is probably obligatory. Not all promises should be kept. It is wrong to try to get out of a longstanding professional commitment at the last minute, but if your child is in the hospital, you may be morally required to do exactly that (p. 531).

I plan on posting on this article in the future, but for now I wanted to bring it to your attention. The article can be found at the following site within Cambridge journals.

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