Sunday, August 22, 2021

 517. Heuristics and virtues

According to Virtue ethics (VE), we are supposed to follow virtuous dispositions in behaviour, but social psychology tells us that our choices are largely ruled by non-reflective and often non-rational decision heuristics, bypassing rational reflection and calculation (Kahneman, Tversky, 1979; Kahneman, Slovic and A. Tversky, 1982). While the heuristics are non-rational, they can be adaptive, assisting survival. That is how we acquired them, in evolution. How do they affect the enactment of virtues?

 One heuristic is loss aversion: we make greater efforts to avoid the loss of what we have than to acquire things we do not have. For example, this can lead to irrational, fruitless litigation to prevent the loss of a deserting partner. The virtue of benevolence often requires sacrifice, and this heuristic of loss aversion therefore creates a bias against benevolence. In trust, one runs ‘relational risk’ of loss, and the more one fears this, the less one is inclined to trust. Loss aversion is adaptive, however, in that in evolution loss often was loss of life or livelihood, weighing more heavily than an increase of well-being.

 A second heuristic is statistically unwarranted generalisation, raising incidents to the level of law-like regularities. Mishaps or incidental misconduct is seen as ‘always’ happening. This affects the judgement of someone’s virtuousness, making it vulnerable to mere incidents. However, this virtue is adaptive in making people alert to the possible recurrence of opportunities warranting engagement, and reducing vulnerability to recurrent threat.

 A third heuristic is escalation of commitment, where past losses of a line of action give a motivation to stick to it. This is not rational because bygones are bygones, water under the bridge, and rationally only future costs and benefits matter. Thus, loss of the lives of soldiers prods continuation of the war, because otherwise those losses ‘would be in vain’. It is done in spite of its non-rationality, for reasons of reputation, because withdrawal would signal an admission of having made a bad decision. Thus, it was hard form the USA to withdraw from Vietnam and Afghanistan. This heuristic may cause the continuation of the fruitless enactment of a misfiring virtue. However, it can also be an indication of perseverance in the face of setbacks, but how far should one go before one makes an adjustment?.

 Another heuristic is anchoring and adjustment, where people stick to established practices, or allow only for marginal adjustment, even though what is established is arbitrary or counterproductive, requiring a new approach. In the enactment of virtues one may stick to inappropriate ones, no longer fitting current conditions, adopted in education. Yet, this also may be adaptive as perseverance in the face of setbacks.

 In spite of the heuristics, reason still is one of the ‘cardinal’ virtues, next to the other cardinal virtues of courage, moderation and justice. Emotion appeals to the instinct of empathy and benevolence, as a virtue in itself, and needed for the cardinal virtues of moderation and justice.

 Institutions support or replace virtue. Institutions are rules of the game, enabling and constraining action, such as laws and regulations, police, jurisdiction, prisons, etc. They constitute largely rational governance of actions, requiring organisation and control, limiting or promoting freedom to act Action can also be guided by morality, which is more laden with feelings and emotions, and does not require organisation and control, but is natural, as claimed by the philosophers Hutcheson and Hume, innate, I claim, and is supplemented by virtues assimilated in education, schooling, and experience along the path of life. Of course, emotions can also yield negative effects, such as those resulting from hurt vanity and the frustrated urge for recognition, and the exclusion of outsiders. There are evolutionary roots of both benevolence and self-interest.

 To reduce vulnerability to the adverse effects of these non-rational heuristics, reason is all the more needed as a virtue.

 Kahneman, D. and A. Tversky 1979, ‘Prospect theory: an analysis of decision making under risk’, Econometrica, 47.: 263–91.

 Kahneman, D., P. Slovic and A. Tversky (eds) 1982, Judgment under Uncertainty:Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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