Informing ethical decision making

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Book Chapter

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Department of Humanities


Who should decide how we live our lives? A straightforward answer that is often embodied in democratic ideals is that people who are competent should have the opportunity to decide for themselves. There are of course extensive caveats and nuances. Those issues notwithstanding, the goal of independent decision making presents a great practical and theoretical challenge: How can we efficiently and ethically help people make good decisions in a fundamentally uncertain and ever-changing world? Modern decision theory holds that good decisions are those that accord with rational choice optimization processes (e.g., weighting and integrating values and risks to maximize subjective expected utilities; Gigerenzer et al., 1999). Of course, computational complexity in concert with our neurocognitive limitations (i.e., bounded rationality) and the fundamental uncertainty of our world means that true decision optimization is usually impractical, if not impossible. Yet people generally do make good decisions thanks to the use of simple adaptive decision strategies (i.e., decision heuristics and rules of thumb) that fit with their neurocognitive and ecological constraints (Cokely and Feltz, 2014; Gigerenzer et al., 1999). That is, a great body of research shows that simple decision processes often lead to good decision making, particularly when people understand the decision stakes (e.g., risks, benefits). But generally does not entail always. And understanding risks is often much easier said than done. As our technologies, ecologies, and even neuropsychologies continue to evolve, the quality of our decision making will be determined in part by the quality and character of our choice architecture policies and support systems (e.g., laws, risk communications, incentives, and educational systems).

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© 2018 Taylor & Francis. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

The Routledge Handbook of Neuroethics