Edward Cokely

Science of Virtues 2012




Edward Cokely
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Cognitive Psychology
Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition
Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Germany

The Heuristics of Virtue: Integrating Virtue Ethics and the Science of Heuristics
Since 1955, some 50,000 U.S. citizens have died waiting for an organ. Although most Americans say they approve of organ donation, only 28% have agreed to donate while nearly 99.9% of the French are donors. Rather than simply reflecting crosscultural differences in virtues and moral intuitions, the large difference in the availability of organs seems to result from the way that Americans and French alike rely on the same simple heuristic: if there is a default, do nothing about it (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003). United States law requires one to opt-in (i.e., take action) to donate organs while in France one must optout (i.e., take action not to donate). Indeed, research from the science of heuristics (Gigerenzer, 2007, 2008b) has demonstrated that many seemingly small changes in environmental context—such as the setting of defaults—can have profound effects (see also Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). This proposal details a test of a radical interdisciplinary vision of the nature of virtue and morality— one where moral behavior often involves heuristic processes. In real world situations, strict limits (e.g., time, uncertainty, cognitive capacities) constrain people’s ability to deliberately reason about what actions to perform. Elaborate ethical theories attempt to explain why an action may be right, wrong, or permissible. However, most ordinary folk’s moral experiences are not likely to be captured by complex decision procedures that value only consequences or weighing of duties. One branch of ethics is qualitatively different. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of deep-seated virtuous dispositions and intuitive practical wisdom (Aristotle, 1984; Anscombe, 1958; Foot, 1994; Nussbaum, 1988), and thus is theoretically compatible with key findings from the science of heuristics—e.g., that important decisions often involve and benefit from fast and frugal decision processes. Accordingly, the following objectives are proposed: (I) measure the extent to which people from around the world see virtues as essential and valuable parts of our moral experience, (II) demonstrate how a scientific understanding of the integration between virtue ethics and heuristics can have important social, economic, and public policy implications, and (III) provide a computationally precise foundation for the study of the heuristics of virtue.

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