17 Helpful Heuristics

Happily, there are a number of heuristics (“mental shortcuts”) that people have suggested to try to inoculate ourselves to the worst tendencies of self-interested biases. For instance, US political philosopher, John Rawls, proposed an interesting way of using rational self-interest to subvert exceptionalist thinking in political theory. He suggested that when we are trying to decide what a just society is or what a just solution to a social problem might be, we should imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance. By this, he meant that when we are trying to decide what social arrangement would be the most just, we should imagine that we don’t know what our position or role in society might be. He thought that if we make decisions about social arrangements imagining that we might be in the worst possible position in society, then we will favor decisions that will be fairer. The BBC has a nice brief introduction to this thought experiment here. The veil of ignorance heuristic can be extended to thinking about how our own actions might affect or be judged by others.

Many cultures share another kind of tool to guard against self-regarding cognitive biases. In the Christian tradition, it is called the Golden Rule: “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12). This passage references the Jewish law, which teaches, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and, unsurprisingly we can find much the same idea in Islamic teachings and philosophy.[1] Of course, the history and teachings of these three religions are intimately connected and mirror each other in many ways, so it is unsurprising that they share this maxim. It is perhaps more surprising that we can find the same basic idea in India, China, and Africa. In the Mahabharata, one passage counsels, “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.”[2]  Similarly, Kong Fuzi taught “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”[3] These are just a few examples of the traditions where we can find this important reminder to avoid exceptionalist and selfish thinking.

Of course, the veil of ignorance and the Golden Rule are just heuristics and cannot offer perfect guidance. Some have complained that our imaginations are limited and that it is much better to attend to what the least fortunate in our society say they want rather than imagining ourselves in their shoes. Similarly, you may have some peculiar tastes and preferences so others may not want to be treated the same way as you would like to be. But arguably, such responses miss the point. These heuristics are helpful because they remind us that other individuals have lives as rich, complicated, and worthy of respect as our own.

Helpful heuristics aside, some of the best tools for challenging our own cognitive biases and self-interested attitudes have already been described in this primer—that is, philosophical argumentation, engaging in productive debates with others, and using the various ethical lenses to evaluate our options and decisions. One of the key reasons that these tools are so effective is that they slow down our deliberative and decision-making processes. Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on human decision-making, describes two ways that neurotypical human brains process information and make decisions: fast thinking and slow thinking.[4] Slow thinking describes the rational and deliberative thought processes that allow humans to think critically about their beliefs, values, and experiences when making choices.[5] The slow thinking system, however, requires significant mental effort. Kahneman has found that—although, as rational agents, we identify with the slow thinking process—fast thinking is more influential in daily tasks and decision-making. The fast thinking system takes past experiences, judgements, and decisions and unreflectively applies these previous patterns to current decision-making; thus, saving mental effort. However, it also makes us susceptible to cognitive biases and errors in thinking, like the self-interested biases discussed above. Kahneman’s research shows that when we allow our brains to run on autopilot, are cognitively busy or exhausted, or avoid tasks that engage our slow thinking processes, then we are more susceptible to selfish, unethical, and even discriminatory behaviour.[6]

Using the tools that we described in this primer will help you engage your slow thinking processes and avoid the cognitive biases and exceptionalist thinking that might lead to unethical attitudes or behaviour. Productive debate and philosophical argumentation can help one understand alternative positions and evaluate the strength of one’s own reasons for accepting a given conclusion. The ethical lenses can help one think through decisions about how to act from various perspectives that have different starting points or central commitments. And the helpful heuristics, described above, can disrupt the fast thinking that we subconsciously use to make most of our small, everyday decisions when our choices matter morally. Ethics helps one think critically about the attitudes, beliefs, and practices we might take for granted—attitudes, beliefs, and practices that might be engrained in our automatic, fast thinking habits.

  1. For example, see Justin Parrot, “Al-Ghazali and the Golden Rule: Ethics of Reciprocity in the Works of a Muslim Sage,” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 16, no. 2 (2017): 68-72, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10477845.2017.1281067.
  2. Richard H. Davis, “A Hindu Golden Rule, in Context,” in The Golden Rule: The Ethics of Reciprocity in World Religions, edited by Jacob and Bruce Chilton (London: Continuum, 2008), 146-56.
  3. Confucius, The Analects (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2016), XV. 23, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/dal/detail.action?docID=4697581.
  4. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013), 10-12.
  5. Kahneman, 21.
  6. Kahneman, 37.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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