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Two Questions about Moral Intuitions

Moral intuitions are unreflective ethical judgements. Do emotions influence moral intutions? And what do adult humans compute that enables their unreflective judgements to track moral attributes (such as wrongness)?

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Our long term aim is to answer this question: [Question 1] Do emotions influence moral intuitions?

What are moral intuitions?

According to this lecturer: moral intuitions are unreflective ethical judgements.

According to Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 256): ‘When we refer to moral intuitions, we mean strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’

As well as moral intuitions, humans have linguistic intuitions and mathematical intuitions. Mathematical intuitions appear to be underpinned by relatively automatic processes which are independent of other mathematical abilities and may also be domain specific. It is possible that the same is true of moral intuitions. But note that we have not assumed this in characterising them as unreflective ethical judgements.

Note that moral intuitions are not to be conflated with what philosophers call intuitions.1

Question 2

What do adult humans compute that enables their unreflective judgements to track moral attributes (such as wrongness)?

To illustrate the distinction between tracking and computing: a motion detector tracks the presence of people by computing patterns of infrared energy.

The Affect Heuristic

The Affect Heuristic offers an answer to Questions 1 and 2.

The Affect Heuristic: ‘if thinking about an act […] makes you feel bad […], then judge that it is morally wrong’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010).

Why is this an answer to Question 2? Because it says that humans compute how an act makes them feel in order to track whether it is morally wrong.

Compare: humans track the toxicity of potential foods by computing how smelling or tasting the potential food makes them feel.

What about Question 1? If the Affect Heuristic is a true answer to Question 2, then the answer to Question 1 is yes, emotions do influence moral intuitions. For it is by computing emotions that our moral intuitions track moral attributes. (This assumes that feeling bad is an emotion, of course.)

Note that we have not yet considered whether the Affect Hypothesis is true.


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).
heuristic : A heuristic links an inaccessible attribute to an accessible attribute such that, within a limited but useful range of situations, someone could track the inaccessible attribute by computing the accessible attribute.
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, moral intuitions are unreflective ethical judgements.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’
tracking an attribute : For a process to track an attribute is for the presence or absence of the attribute to make a difference to how the process unfolds, where this is not an accident. (And for a system or device to track an attribute is for some process in that system or device to track it.)
Tracking an attribute is contrasted with computing it. Unlike tracking, computing typically requires that the attribute be represented. (The distinction between tracking and computing is a topic of Two Questions about Moral Intuitions.)


Bedke, M. S. (2008). Ethical Intuitions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Justify. American Philosophical Quarterly, 45(3), 253–269.
Nadelhoffer, T., Nahmias, E., & Nichols, S. (2010). Moral psychology: Historical and contemporary readings. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.
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.
  1. For example, Bedke (2008, p. 253) offers two ways of characterising what philosophers call intuitions: ’intuitions are understandings of self-evident propositions, where such understanding alone is sufficient for justification’ and ‘intuitions are sui generis seeming states […] which are like [..] seemings based on sensory experience […] in the way they justify’. Neither of these is a moral intuition for the purposes of this couse.