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Why Is the Affect Heuristic Significant?

Why does it matter whether or not we use the Affect Heuristic? According to its defenders, it has implications for the foundations of ethics.

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Two Implications of the Affect Heuristic for Ethics

First implication: ‘if moral intuitions result from heuristics, [… philosophers] must stop claiming direct insight into moral properties’ (Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman, 2010, p. 268).1

Second implication: ‘Just as non-moral heuristics lack reliability in unusual situations, so do moral intuitions’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010, p. 268).

The second implication is relevant to evaluating objections to consequentialism:

‘Critics often argue that consequentialism can’t be accurate, because it implies moral judgments that are counter-intuitive, such as that we are morally permitted to punish an innocent person in the well-known example where this is necessary to stop riots and prevent deaths. With the heuristic model in hand, consequentialists can respond that the target attribute is having the best consequences, and any intuitions to the contrary result from substituting a heuristic attribute’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010, p. 269).

Wilson (who does not explicitly endorse the hypothesis that moral intuitions are a consequence of reliance on the Affect Hypothesis) makes an even stronger claim:

‘ethical philosophers intuit the deontological canons of morality by consulting the emotive centers of their own hypothalamic-limbic system … Only by interpreting the activity of the emotive centers as a biological adaptation can the meaning of the canons be deciphered’ (Wilson, 1975, p. 563 quoted in Haidt, 2008, p. 68).

If this is right, you cannot understand ethics at all without knowledge of emotional processes. Wilson links this claim to a strong form of ethical pluralism:

‘a schedule of sex- and age-depend­ent ethics can impart higher genetic fitness than a single moral code which is applied uniformly to all sex-age groups. […] no single set of moral standards can be applied to all human populations, let alone all sex-age classes within each population. To impose a uniform code is therefore to create complex, intractable moral dilemmas—these, of course, are the cur­rent condition of mankind’ (Wilson, 1975, pp. 563–4).

But should we accept any of these claims? Are they supported by evidence (or argument)?


Affect Heuristic : In the context of moral psychology, the Affect Heuristic is this principle: ‘if thinking about an act [...] makes you feel bad [...], then judge that it is morally wrong’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010). These authors hypothesise that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions.
A different (but related) Affect Heurstic has also be postulated to explain how people make judgements about risky things are: The more dread you feel when imagining an event, the more risky you should judge it is (see Pachur, Hertwig, & Steinmann, 2012, which is discussed in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study).
unfamiliar problem : An unfamiliar problem (or situation) is one ’with which we have inadequate evolutionary, cultural, or personal experience’ (Greene, 2014, p. 714).


Audi, R. (2019). Understanding, Self-Evidence, and Justification. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 99(2), 358–381.
Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 65–72.
Pachur, T., Hertwig, R., & Steinmann, F. (2012). How Do People Judge Risks: Availability Heuristic, Affect Heuristic, or Both? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18(3), 314–330.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.
Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  1. In Moral Attributes Are Inaccessible we will see reason to doubt that this really is an implication. Note also that these philosophers’ claim is quite narrow and does not bear directly on the view that ethical propositions may be self-evident if self-evidence is understood along the lines of Audi (2019). (Thanks to Paul Theo here.)