The limits of moral intuitions for human rights advocacy

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The central ambition of human rights advocacy is to get people to care, who might otherwise not, about the suffering of others. To accomplish this, human rights advocates often appeal to moral intuitions by telling stories that evoke moral outrage, indignation, or guilt. Are these sorts of appeals a good way to promote human rights? The conventional wisdom suggests that they are. But perhaps the conventional wisdom is incomplete - perhaps human rights advocates should treat moral intuitions with skepticism rather than uncritical embrace. In this brief essay, I argue that appeals to moral intuitions are problematic because moral intuitions can lead people to make decisions that are suboptimal from the standpoint of the human rights regime's goals. I attempt to show, in other words, that one of the great assets of the human rights regime - its ability to harness our strong intuitive reaction to the suffering of others - is also one of its great limitations. To make this argument, I draw from the mind sciences literature on moral decision-making. The latest research in this domain suggests that our moral intuitions are fallible. A number of studies have shown, for example, that moral outrage and indignation can cause people to make decisions that they would not defend under cooler conditions. I focus on three particular sorts of moral judgment biases and explore their implications for human rights advocacy. I then evaluate two different normative claims one might make about these moral judgment biases and offer several concluding thoughts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-111
Number of pages21
JournalLaw and Ethics of Human Rights
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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