In Favor of Clear Thinking: Incorporating Moral Rules into a Wise Cost-Benefit Analysis
Executive Summary — Policy decisions may be the most important set of decisions we make as a society. In this realm, moral rules often play an active and dysfunctional role. The typical way in which we make decisions—by weighing them individually—leads us to overuse moral rules in a manner that is inconsistent with the more reflective set of preferences we would identify through joint consideration of options. In their response to a companion article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Max Bazerman, of HBS, and Joshua D. Greene, of Harvard University, argue that cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is unfairly stereotyped. The critique of CBA in the companion article could be better framed as a set of considerations that can contribute to more careful CBAs. Key concepts include:
- Good decision analysts pay attention to potential misapplications of cost-benefit analysis.
- CBA is not perfect, for many reasons. But CBA needs to be compared against an alternative, and the development of that alternative thus far is limited.
Bennis, Medin, and Bartels (2009) have contributed an interesting paper on the comparative benefit of moral rules versus cost-benefit analysis. Many of their specific comments are accurate, useful, and insightful. At the same time, we believe they have misrepresented cost-benefit analysis and have reached a set of conclusions that are misguided and, if adopted wholesale, potentially dangerous. Overall, they offer wise suggestions for making CBA more effective, rather than eliminating CBA as a decision-making tool. 11 pages.