Ethical heuristics

Cross posted from Overcoming Bias. Comments there.


I would like to think I wouldn’t have been friends with slave owners, anti-semites or wife-beaters, but then again most of my friends couldn’t give a damn about the suffering of animals, so I guess I would have been. – Robert Wiblin

I expect the same friends would have been any of those things too, given the right place and period of history. The same ‘faults’ appear to be responsible for most old fashioned or foreign moral failings: not believing that anything bad is happening if you don’t feel bad about it, and not feeling bad about anything unless there is a social norm of feeling bad about it.

People here and now are no different in these regards, as far as I can tell. We may think we have better social norms, but the average person has little more reason to believe this than the average person five hundred years ago did. People are perhaps freer here and now to follow their own hearts on many moral issues, but that can’t make much difference to issues where the problem is that people’s hearts don’t automatically register a problem. So even if you aren’t a slave-owner, I claim you are probably using a similar decision procedure to that which would lead you to be one in different circumstances.

Are these really bad ways for most people to behave? Or are they pretty good heuristics for non-ethicists? It would be a huge amount of work for everyone to independently figure out for themselves the answer to every ethical question. What heuristics should people use?

2 responses to “Ethical heuristics

  1. I sort of agree with this; for instance I expect people in 200 years to think of at least some of my moral choices as pretty terrible.

    But I don’t think the comparison is meaningful; I think its fundamentally incoherent to try to divorce people as moral agents from their historical contexts. The social norms of 300 years ago were better than the ones of 3000 years ago, when for instance human sacrifice was still a common practice in various places. The people from 1700 were right to view their norms as better than those of their ancestors, just as we are right to view our norms as better than theirs. As *individuals*, yes, we are better “merely” because wider society’s norms are better; on average people aren’t significantly better morally that society as a whole, by, uh, definition. But fundamentally: human behaviour = genes + memes. If we do see moral progress, and I say we do, of course its in our memes; its hardly happening on historical timescales because of evolution! Rejecting society as a “legitimate” source of what makes us better people ultimately contains some weird kind of implicit dualism – I’m moral because of my DNA, the society I grew up in, and, uh, magic moral pixie dust, and its the latter I identify with. Ahem……

    That’s NOT to say that its not really virtuous to look to challenge and reform the slavery-of-today stuff. Far from it. People who do that are being more moral than the people going along with the crowd; but both groups are still better than slave owners.

  2. Pingback: Moral progress enhancement | Meteuphoric


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