Much of everyday morality consists of simple, highly intuitive rules that generally make sense but that fail in certain cases. In this essay I will identify a set of heuristics that now influence factual and moral judgments in the domain of risk, and to try to make plausible the claim that some widely held practices and beliefs are a product of those heuristics. Often moral heuristics represent generalizations from a range of problems for which they are indeed well-suited, and hence most of the time, such heuristics work well. The problem comes when the generalizations are wrenched out of context and treated as freestanding or universal principles, applicable to situations in which their justifications no longer operate. There is nothing obtuse, or monstrous, about refusing to apply a generalization in contexts in which its rationale is absent. In the moral and political domains, it is hard to come up with unambiguous cases where the error is both highly intuitive and on reflection uncontroversial – where people can ultimately be embarrassed about their own intuitions. Nonetheless, I hope to show that whatever one’s moral commitments, moral heuristics exist and indeed are omnipresent, adversely affecting our reactions to social risks.
- Moral Judgment
- Emission Trading
- Moral Intuition
- Smoke Alarm
- Intuitive Rule
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In January 2009, Sunstein began work in the Obama Administration, later to be confirmed by the United States Senate as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. No work was done on this essay after Sunstein began government employment, and nothing said here represents an official position of the United States in any way.
On a widely held view, a primary task of ethics is to identify the proper general theory and to use it to correct intuitions in cases in which they go wrong (Hooker 2000). Consider here the provocative claim that much of everyday morality, nominally concerned with fairness, should be seen as a set of heuristics for the real issue, which is how to promote utility (see Baron 1998; to the same general effect, with numerous examples from law, see Kaplow and Shavell 2003).
Here too the frame may indicate something about the speaker’s intentions, and subjects may be sensitive to the degree of certainty in the scenario (assuming, for example, that future deaths may not actually occur). While strongly suspecting that these explanations are not complete (see Frederick 2003), I mean not to reject them, but only to suggest the susceptibility of intuitions to frames (for skeptical remarks, see Kamm 1998).
I am grateful to Jonathan Haidt for this suggestion.
I put to one side cases in which those who enjoy the benefits are wealthy and those who incur the costs are poor; in some situations, distributional considerations will justify a departure from what would otherwise be compelled by cost-benefit analysis (on this and other problems with cost-benefit analysis, see Sunstein 2002).
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I am grateful to Daniel Kahneman and Martha Nussbaum for valuable discussions. For helpful comments on a previous draft, I also thank participants in a seminar at Cambridge University, Jonathan Baron, Mary Anne Case, Elizabeth Emens, Robert Frank, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Goodin, Steven Pinker, Edward Stein, and Peter Singer. Some of the discussion here draws on Moral Heuristics, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28: 531–546 (2005)
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Sunstein, C.R. (2010). Moral Heuristics and Risk. In: Roeser, S. (eds) Emotions and Risky Technologies. The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-8647-1_1
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