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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fast, Frugal, and (Sometimes) Wrong

Cass R. Sunstein
University of Chicago Law School and Department of Political Science
Originally published in 2005


Do moral heuristics operate in the moral domain? If so, do they lead to moral errors? This brief essay offers an affirmative answer to both questions. In so doing, it responds to an essay by Gerd Gigerenzer on the nature of heuristics, moral and otherwise. While focused on morality, the discussion bears on the general debate between those who emphasize cognitive errors, sometimes produced by heuristics, and those who emphasize the frequent success of heuristics in producing sensible judgments in the real world. General claims are that it is contentious to see moral problems as ones of arithmetic, and that arguments about moral heuristics will often do well to steer clear of contentious arguments about what morality requires.


But no one should deny that in many contexts, moral and other heuristics, in the form of simple rules of thumb, lead to moral error on any plausible view of morality. Consider, for example, the idea, emphasized by Gigerenzer, that one ought to do as the majority does, a source of massive moral blunders (see Sunstein, 2003). Or consider the fast and frugal idea that one ought not to distort the truth—a heuristic that generally works well, but that also leads (in my view) to moral error when, for example, the distortion is necessary to avoid significant numbers of deaths. Or consider the act- omission distinction, which makes moral sense in many domains, but which can lead to unsupportable moral judgments as well (Baron, 2004).

The entire article is here.