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Framing Effects and Mikhail’s Linguistic Analogy

Mikhail (2007) argues for an analogy between ethical and linguistic abilities on the grounds that patterns in humans’ moral intutions reflect legal principles they are unaware of. One challenge to this argument arises from evidence that moral intuitions are subject to framing effects.

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What Is a Framing Effect?

Suppose you are asked to judge whether an object is near or far from you. You might be surprised to discover that your judgements can be influenced by whether another person is in the scene and able to interact with the object (Fini, Brass, & Committeri, 2015). After all, the judgement you are making is supposed to be about the distance between you and an object; the distance from another person and that person’s ability to interact with the object are irrelevant considerations.

This an example of a framing effect: task-irrelevant features of a situation systematically influence your performance.

Are Philosophers Subject To Framing Effects When Considering Ethical Scenarios?

Schwitzgebel & Cushman (2015) show that philosophers are subject to order-of-presentation effects (they make different judgements depending on which order trolley scenarios are presented).

Wiegmann, Horvath, & Meyer (2020) show that philosophers are subject to irrelevant additional options: like lay people, philosophers will more readily endorsing killing one person to save nine when given five alternatives than when given six alternatives. (These authors also demonstrate order-of-presentation effects.)

Wiegmann & Horvath (2020) show that they philosophers are subject to the ‘Asian disease’ framing used in a famous earlier study (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). (They also find an indication that philosophers, although susceptible to other framing effects, may be less susceptible than lay people to four other framing effects, including whether an outcome is presented as a loss or a gain (which they term ‘Focus’).)

What do Framing Effects Show?

According to Kahneman (2013), there are some instances[1] in which

‘there is no underlying preference that is masked or distorted by the frame. Our preferences are about framed problems, and our moral intuitions are about descriptions, not about substance’ (Kahneman, 2013).

From the existence of framing effects, Rini (2013, p. 265) also draws a strong conclusion:

‘Our moral judgments are apparently sensitive to idiosyncratic factors, which cannot plausibly appear as the basis of an interpersonal normative standard. [...] we are not in a position to introspectively isolate and abstract away from these factors. Worse yet, even when we think that we have achieved normative abstraction, we may only erroneously conclude that we have succeeded.’

Should we accept these strong conclusions? Perhaps there are good arguments for them, but we cannot draw either Kahneman’s or Rini’s conclusion directly from the mere existence of framing effects. Consider order-of-presentation effects. Wiegmann & Waldmann (2014) offer evidence for the theory that this effect is a consequence of one scenario selectively highlighting an aspect of the causal structure of another scenario. If this is correct, we might think that the order-of-presentation effect does not show that moral intuitions are not about substance after all.


Mikhail (2007) offered an argument for his Linguistic Analogy based the claim that there is a pattern in humans’ moral intuitions: they relfect legal principles such as a ban on purposive battery.

However we have seen that these moral intuitions are subject to framing effects.

We should therefore not accept Mikhail (2007)’s argument unless there is good reason to suppose that the pattern Mikhail identifies (see table 2 in Mikhail, 2007) are not distorted by framing effects.

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Asian disease : A disease will kill 600 people for sure without an intervention. You are a decision maker tasked with choosing between two intervensions. Your choice can be framed in two ways. Frame 1: Either save 200 people for sure, or else take a one in three chance that everyone will be saved with a two in three chance that no one will be saved. Frame 2: Either allow 400 people to die for sure, or else take a one in three chance that nobody will die and a two in three chance that everyone will die. (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981)


Dreisbach, S., & Guevara, D. (2019). The Asian Disease Problem and the Ethical Implications Of Prospect Theory. Noûs, 53(3), 613–638.
Fini, C., Brass, M., & Committeri, G. (2015). Social scaling of extrapersonal space: Target objects are judged as closer when the reference frame is a human agent with available movement potentialities. Cognition, 134, 50–56.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus; Giroux.
Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence and the future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(4), 143–152.
Mikhail, J. (2014). Any Animal Whatever? Harmful Battery and Its Elements as Building Blocks of Moral Cognition. Ethics, 124(4), 750–786.
Rini, R. A. (2013). Making psychology normatively significant. The Journal of Ethics, 17(3), 257–274.
Rini, R. A. (2017). Why moral psychology is disturbing. Philosophical Studies, 174(6), 1439–1458.
Schwitzgebel, E., & Cushman, F. (2015). Philosophers’ biased judgments persist despite training, expertise and reflection. Cognition, 141, 127–137.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453–458.
Waldmann, M. R., Nagel, J., & Wiegmann, A. (2012). Moral Judgment. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), The oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 274–299). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wiegmann, A., & Horvath, J. (2020). Intuitive Expertise in Moral Judgements. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming.
Wiegmann, A., Horvath, J., & Meyer, K. (2020). Intuitive expertise and irrelevant options. Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, 3, 275–310.
Wiegmann, A., & Waldmann, M. R. (2014). Transfer effects between moral dilemmas: A causal model theory. Cognition, 131(1), 28–43.


  1. Kahneman (2013) is making this claim for Schelling’s child exemptions in the tax code example and also the ‘Asian disease’ framing effect. ↩︎