Moral Heuristics or Moral Competence? Reflections on Sunstein

2 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2006

See all articles by John Mikhail

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center


In "Moral Heuristics," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28(4), 531-573 (2005), Professor Cass Sunstein draws on recent scientific literature on heuristics in judgment and decision-making to argue that heuristics play a pervasive role in moral cognition and often lead to mistaken and even absurd moral judgments. In this commentary, I argue that by focusing on moral judgments he assumes are distorted or mistaken, Sunstein reverses the normal order of inquiry in the cognitive sciences, which seeks to understand the ideal operations of a cognitive system before attempting to explain its occasional pathologies or disorders. What Sunstein gives us, in effect, is a theory of performance errors without a corresponding theory of moral competence. Additionally, I argue that Sunstein's objections to thought experiments like the footbridge and trolley problems are unsound. Exotic and unfamiliar stimuli are used in theory construction throughout the cognitive sciences, and these problems enable us to uncover the implicit structure of widely shared moral intuitions.

Keywords: Sunstein, Rawls, heuristics, moral heuristics, moral competence, mental representation, trolley problem, cognitive science, human rights

JEL Classification: D63, D64, K00, K13, K14

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Moral Heuristics or Moral Competence? Reflections on Sunstein. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 557-558, 2005; Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 879827; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 879827. Available at SSRN:

John Mikhail (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9392 (Phone)
202-662-9409 (Fax)

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