Rule-Following and Heuristics in Ethics


Image: Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text. Source – Wikimedia

A problem with many philosophical approaches to ethics is their assumption that moral decision-making is just a matter of consistently applying rules, such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative or the Utilitarian ‘principle of equal consideration of interests’. When we examine how we actually decide what to do, the conscious application of rules is not what we see. All decisions have multiple moral dimensions, and are therefore ‘moral decisions’. Even choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream has ethical implications, such as the relative benefit or harm to cocoa and vanilla farmers. It follows that we make hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘moral decisions’ a day, if only by default. And each decision is subject to a range of ethical considerations and rules. In the ice-cream example, apart from the farmers, what about the environment? Should I even have ice-cream, would yogurt be healthier? It goes on and on. Yet on most days, no explicit principle comes to our minds as we make decisions.

This is not to suggest that rules don’t play a part in ethics. But so do heuristics, habits of mind that allow us to make quick decisions in real time that will hopefully, in aggregate, maximize returns across all relevant moral considerations and norms. The reason why no rule comes to our minds when we act in most cases is because we are often attempting to maximize returns across a range of moral demands, each with its own set of rules. For example, to be a good mother, daughter, employer, friend and citizen all at once. We don’t usually have time to consciously reflect on every relevant rule as we act. Over time, heuristics become ingrained in our culture and our consciences. Should I give to the poor in my town or to strangers 1,000 miles away? Perhaps in an ideal world I should compare the relative needs of anyone I could possibly help, weighing all relevant moral concerns, but I don’t have time for that. So in general, we help those near us. But at the mall, someone asks me for a donation for disaster victims 1,000 miles away. I give her money because as a rule of thumb, we try to help anyone who asks us for help face-to-face. These heuristic norms cannot be fully captured by any set of strict rules, even though they may include strict rules (such as the taboo on incest in many societies).

Heuristics are far from ideal, but we don’t make decisions in ideal circumstances. Often, heuristics ossify. They are hard habits to change personally and culturally, when no longer relevant to changing circumstances. But they do reflect some semblance of accumulated collective wisdom (mixed in with foolishness) that no single person can untangle without losing some valuable threads. That has not stopped philosophers from trying, but there will always be a gap between any theoretical system of rules and the habits of thought that inform our consciences through individual and collective experience. This is why moral philosophers cannot even agree with one another, because they can always pick out flaws in each other’s moral theories when applied to specific examples. The lack of consensus in moral philosophy dampens the claim of some philosophers to ‘moral expertise’ (on the strength of their philosophical qualifications). Whatever they mean by that term, it does not entail that we can unreflectively entrust our ethical decision-making to them as we would our lives to a doctor. It would be imprudent to seek treatment in a hospital where the doctors can never agree on a diagnosis. In that sense, philosophers cannot relieve us of the burden of individual responsibility for our actions and the justifications we give for them.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of PublishingPublishing Research QuarterlyThe Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of  Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.