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Moral Attributes Are Inaccessible

Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. §2.1) argue that moral attributes are inaccessible. What is their argument, and does it work?

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The canonical argument for the hypothesis that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions depends on the premise that moral attributes are inaccessible (see The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study).

Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010, p. 257) are blunt:

‘Inaccessibility creates the need for a heuristic attribute’

These authors therefore claim to show (in Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010, p. §2.1) that:

‘no plausible theory [of in what moral attributes consist] will make moral wrongness accessible’ Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010, p. 257).

Aside on Implications of the Affect Heuristic

In Why Is the Affect Heuristic Significant?, I noted this claim:

‘if moral intuitions result from heuristics, [… philosophers] must stop claiming direct insight into moral properties’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010, p. 268).

But we have seen (in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study) that the only available strategy for establishing for hypothesis that moral intuitions result from heuristics requires, as a premise or lemma, that moral attributes are inaccessible. We cannot, therefore, regard this as an implication of that hypothesis. At least not unless we can find some further, as yet unknown, route to establishing it.


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).
inaccessible : An attribute is inaccessible in a context just if it is difficult or impossible, in that context, to discern substantive truths about that attribute. For example, in ordinary life and for most people the attribute being further from Kilmery (in Wales) than Steve’s brother Matt is would be inaccessible.
See Kahneman & Frederick (2005, p. 271): ‘We adopt the term accessibility to refer to the ease (or effort) with which particular mental contents come to mind.’


Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2005). A model of heuristic judgment. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), The cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 267–293). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.