Moral Heuristics

I’m tired of seeing people elevate moral heuristics (rules of thumb) to the status of General Moral Principle. Things like racial segregation and military intervention are bad for *reasons.* Reasons deeper than “they are intrinsically bad.” Racial segregation tends to lead to unequal treatment and intergroup hostility and contempt. It tends to strengthen broader patterns of racial inequality. I see people moving subtly but surely from “segregation is bad for specific reasons” to “segregation is bad” to “segregation is intrinsically bad.”

A lot of conservatives believe that we a have a right to own guns. Many Founding Fathers argued that the right to own guns was essential for defending ourselves against government oppression. If you lose sight of this deeper goal and elevate gun ownership to an “intrinsic right,” you will be less open to alternative, potentially better strategies for preventing government oppression.

Here’s an analogy: When you work out, you are often doing so to build a strong, attractive, and healthy body. Working out, e.g., moving heavy objects around, is not *intrinsically* a good thing to do. It’s a good thing to do insofar as it promotes strength and health and beauty, but if you could get those things in easier, less time-consuming ways, there’d be no reason to continue to move around said heavy objects. We shouldn’t confuse the means to an end, with the end in itself.

This “moral heuristic elevation” is exactly the same. And it creates problems. We want to avoid condemning scenarios that superficially look like ones addressed by our moral heuristics, but which share none of the deeper features that actually make the thing bad. (Black people using the N-word might look superficially similar to non-black people using the N-word, but debatably the things that make using the N-word bad aren’t present.) Also, when we encounter novel moral scenarios, it’s good to keep in mind what our principles *actually* are so that we can wisely appraise the situation.

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