When should we use our moral intuitions?

by lukasberglund2 min read26th Jul 20192 comments



Effective Altruism is built on the idea of using evidence and reason to estimate the best thing to do. Most of the time the reasoning is a sort of utility calculus in which an action’s potential negative consequences are weighed up against its positive consequences. Many of the results of this reasoning, such as the positive impacts of vegetarianism and how to have an impactful career, are applicable to daily life. However, I think there are times when it is better to rely on one’s intuitions or principles than to use calculations.

The first issue with utility calculus is that it’s slow. For example, let’s say my friend buys a new hat that she really likes and asks me what I think of it. I find the hat hideous. Should I tell her the truth? The answer is not obvious to a utilitarian.

I could reason that my friend would want to know if the hat doesn’t look good. However, she does really like it, so she might just keep wearing the hat regardless of what people say. However, if I’m honest with her now, she would know that I am blunt and in the future would only ask me for fashion advice when she really wants it. However, telling her the truth would make me feel really uncomfortable. However, … At this point, my friend is annoyed because I’m staring off into the distance instead of answering her question.

Of course, utility calculus can lead to some important and counterintuitive insights. For example, I have decided to reduce my meat consumption and donate 10 percent of my income to charity. What these two decisions have in common is that they both have large effects that are not directly visible. They are the type of decisions that I should make by calculating.

But here I run into the problem: How can I know which types of decisions have large, but hard to see effects? If I tried to figure out whether a decision had hard to see effects, I might as well just do a full utility calculation. Instead, I think my metric for when to do utility calculus should be (a) whether I even have enough time and (b) whether this decision seems to be a big one. How I want to spend my money and my diet both fall into this category.

There are also a few types of situations where I think we are almost always better served by following our intuitions:

The first is when we have a moral urge to help someone in a harmless way. If I see a beggar on the street I want to help him. Sure, my dollar might be more effective if given to, say, a deworming charity (provided I would actually donate that dollar). But by walking by the homeless person I am suppressing my natural urges to help people and I might even be reducing my empathy. These are the things that make me want to do good in the first place. I shouldn’t be fighting them.

Second are social situations. Social interactions are complex and it is hard to reason about how people will react to your decisions. We evolved as social creatures, so we likely have brain mechanisms specifically designed to navigate social situations. As a result, our intuitions are often far better and quicker judges of the right way to act socially than our reasoning selves are. Additionally, using utility calculus can be very off-putting to people. If I knew somebody who did a cost-benefit analysis every time he decided whether to help me I would be very suspicious of that person.

These are just my thoughts on the topic. Any input would be appreciated.



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These issues are often addressed within philosophy under the label of "two-level utilitarianism."

Thanks for pointing that out!