You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please SUBSCRIBE!
Robin Attfield on how theory can enhance practice.
When I was younger, almost the only decisions in which the various religious groups took an interest were decisions of religious self-commitment, happening once in a lifetime. But there are many more decisions than ones like that. Indeed if it is as important as theologians often claim that human beings have freedom of choice, then the frequent exercise of this faculty must also be important, at least in the development of character and lifestyle of each individual. Most of the decisions involved are, apparently, completely secular ones, some important, like choices of career and of life-partners, some trivial, such as selecting which film to see or what clothes to wear. Yet in making them we discover ourselves. Also, of course, in making decisions we sometimes make or mar the life-prospects of other people or other creatures, whether in the present or in years to come.
So it’s worthwhile occasionally to reflect on decisions. Philosophers have been doing this at least since Aristotle, and have not stopped; indeed my present project is to ask whether any light can be thrown on the subject of decisions in general. Now I happen to be the kind of philosopher who holds that we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, and of our inaction too. I shaln’t try comprehensively to defend this view here, but will instead ask what advice about decisions follows from it.
Consider the options. There may be far more options than at first appear. Your holiday need not be chosen out of visiting relations and visiting the Costa Brava; you could instead be restoring dry-stone walls, or canal-boating, or even sun-bathing in the back garden. And so on. Life could become much richer if pursued through routes which are not at first obvious; and this is all the more important if we are responsible in the way I was suggesting.
Another rule of thumb is to weigh the costs and the benefits of the options. Rather than entering into choices blindly, it is as well to think about which lives are affected, in what way they are affected, and to what degree. There are, of course, no scales for this kind of weighing; yet people still manage to weigh up outcomes time and again, and so it cannot be impossible. We all, for example, managed to weigh up the pros and cons of coming by a copy of this Philosophy Now. Costs and benefits naturally include the risks and also the good prospects. There are experts concerned with this kind of thing where the risks are technical ones like metalfatigue. But there must also be lots of issues which experts cannot solve, issues such as whether to become an expert, or at least whether to call in an expert. And life is often too short for either. Once again, we cannot help doing these weighings for ourselves most of the time.
Once the cost and benefits of outcomes have been weighed, it becomes possible to select the option with the best balance of outcomes, that is the option where the benefits most outweigh the costs. If there are more than one courses of action like this, it may not matter much which one is adopted. But one should always bear in mind that one of the options is often to do nothing at all; and this often does much less harm than all the positive courses of action would do.
But isn’t all this a grotesque oversimplification? Probably. Let’s reflect on why this might be said or thought.
One reason is the symbolism of so much human action. Our actions have all kinds of sideeffects. They may be read as gestures of solidarity or of disloyalty. They may involve help where our help is unacceptable. Or they may typecast us in the wrong role or stereotype. Actually, I don’t think this is really a problem for what has been said so far; it just calls for much more perceptiveness in reflecting on the outcomes to which we may unintentionally give rise.
Another problem is the sheer uncertainty of many costs and benefits. This uncertainty too can be fitted into the scheme mentioned earlier; the suggestion would be to multiply the goodness or badness of outcomes by their probability. This is consistent with accepting that some evils would be so great that any risk of their occurrence rules out the course which could lead to them. The Chernobyl disaster may carry lessons of this sort.
Another factor to bear in mind is irreversibility. In theory this applies to many positive achievements, like being the first person to set foot on the moon. But it also applies to deeds of destruction. If the last condors are allowed to die, the loss affects all future generations of humans (and, of course, all the generations of condors which there might have been). Even this can be reconciled with costbenefit analysis, as long as we remember the costs for all these generations. These costs would almost invariably be sufficient to condemn the avoidable extinction of a species. But the point brings to light the need to be thorough in thinking about costs or losses. Incidentally, conventional cost-benefit analysis markedly fails to do this; and this is why some of us have suggested a revision of it which, for example, takes future generations fully into account. This approach to decision-making may be found in Values, Conflict and the Environment, edited by myself and Katharine Dell and published in 1989 at Oxford by the Ian Ramsey Centre and the Centre for Applied Ethics, Cardiff (available @ £10.00 from The Principal’s Secretary, Westminster College, North Hinksey, Oxford OX1 2AT).
But what about rules and principles? All this talk of producing the best outcome might seem to clash with the conviction that some courses of action are ruled out whatever the outcome. Yet this too can be reconciled with everything said so far. Rules like keeping promises and principles like that of loyalty are certainly valuable, because if most people stick to them most of the time, the outcome is much better than if everyone worked out every decision from scratch. This makes rules important in themselves, and explains why means matter, and not only ends, when morality is at issue. Rules and principles also save time and effort, and thus make life tolerable. But there are occasions when almost any rule must be questioned, even perhaps the rule which prohibits killing; and when they are questioned, what should be appealed to is the good or harm that would be done bykeeping or breaking them.
This point about rules draws to attention another. People do not take decisions in isolation. The rationale of rules is often that if enough solidarity of practice is shown, everyone knows where they stand, plans can be more dependably made, and life is greatly enhanced. But the fact that there are many other agents making decisions alongside ours makes a difference even when there are no rules as yet. Thus in matters of pollution, there are sometimes millions of people making quite negligible impacts on the common environment; but what is trivial when done in isolation may be disastrous when the deed is multiplied up millions of times over. The results might be the poisoning of children through the emission of lead from petrol, or even an increase of the greenhouse effect from too much consumption of fuel.
And there are also decisions which are taken jointly in the sense of corporately. Often we find ourselves having to uphold a decision or policy of bodies we work for, without having shared in making it, and sometimes without agreeing with it. There is still a case for loyalty to the organisation; yet there will also be cases where loyalty has its limits.
The situation is sometimes eased where corporate decisions are taken democratically. In such cases there will be an opportunity to share in the making of decisions, and it is a good principle to abide by the decision of the majority. And this, of course, is a rather different approach to decision-making from the approach given so far, even if they can, at a pinch, be reconciled. But there must be cases where the democratic decision is the wrong decision, and a smaller set of cases where, even in a democracy, we ought to be conscientious objectors rather than conformists.
One special way to dissociate ourselves from decisions or policies of which we disapprove is resignation. This is an option not lightly to be taken; but it is wise to bear it in mind from time to time, to avoid the sense that the individual is enslaved to unending compliance for the sake of a body such as a factory, university or church. Sometimes, indeed, it would be wrong not to resign, often when compliance has a symbolic significance greater than the immediate consequences of action.
Now that some progress has been made, let’s see if it stands up to the most significant difficulties, which fit together under the heading:
Decisions are impossible
Let’s think of some of the reasons why this might be held.
First, some decisions cannot be faced because they would be unbearable. Facing up to what seem to be obligations can fill us with despair. Or the course we take to be obligatory may be the one which would undermine our life’s work, or at least one or other of the projects or the friendships we hold dear. It should be admitted candidly that this can happen. On the other hand, the effects of action include impacts upon the agent; and if the agent has any further responsibilities to carry out, it is unlikely that it is really obligatory to undermine one’s own capacity to continue functioning as an agent. Costs such as these often serve to show that an action which seemed mandatory was not really an obligation at all.
Next, strong emotions may make following what seems the best option out of the question. Someone paralysed with fear, or quivering with anger, or desperately in love may be unable to contemplate many of the options. Most of us have emotions such as these on occasion. Yet emotional states do not remove all possibility of acting responsibly; and they sometimes bring to light possible forms of action which would not otherwise have been dreamed of.
There again, weighing costs and benefits involves a degree of knowledge which it is hard to come by. Many consequences are downright unforeseeable, whatever we do; and some are foreseeable, but only by someone with much more insight into people’s feelings than we happen to have. Now lack of information will sometimes genuinely prevent us doing what we later recognise as the best thing to do; indeed we cannot be expected to act as if we were omniscient. On the other hand, this does not show that we should not weigh up the alternatives in the light of such knowledge and understanding as we have, or that we should not quite often seek to add to it. Our ignorance should warn us against irreversible damage, and in that sense against playing God. But as nearly everyone is beset by uncertainty, and doing nothing is also a decision, incompleteness of information does not excuse us from doing our best, though it does mean that we should sometimes be prepared to change our minds, even when action is well under way. If the road to hell were paved with willingness to make ‘U’-turns, it would not be the road to hell at all.
Decisions also seem impossible for people like Hamlet, or for the rest of us when in a Hamlet-like frame of mind; sometimes we just cannot bring ourselves to decide whether the deed is to be or not to be. The problem may be one of those mentioned already, or it may be self-division, or having a self-image of a person who does not manage to take decisions. In such cases there is often another decision which can be taken, the decision to seek the help of a friend, or of a counsellor, or perhaps of a psychiatrist. As we are not isolated, there is nothing wrong with enlisting others’ perspectives. Some indecision may well remain incurable, but often it need not be perpetual or terminal.
Too little, however, has been said so far about values; thus readers may reasonably expect the question to be addressed of what we ought to count as a good or a bad outcome, when the impacts of action are being taken into account. This leads me to a new heading:
Quality-of-life aspects of decisionmaking
Doing most good or least harm in terms of what, you may ask. What is required is a theory about what is of value. (This is indeed another of those issues with which philosophers have traditionally been concerned.) This is not the place for a lengthy excursus about theory. But here are some relevant issues.
Is what is fundamentally of value simply life itself, or quality of life? If the former, then we ought to put massive resources into keeping people alive (e.g. through expenditure on safety railings as opposed to education). If the latter, we have to accept that some lives are not worth living at present, and that some of them have no prospect of becoming worth living. I am sympathetic to this latter view. In any case, we have to weigh up rules concerning “the sanctity of life” against concern not to inflict on anyone a negative quality of life.
Whose lives or quality of life matter? Future people, where they can be affected, seem just as important as current people; and it is difficult to sustain the view that nonhuman living creatures do not matter at all. If future people and nonhuman creatures count, then some quite different answers are liable to be given to environmental issues. Also we have to weigh up present and future interests, and sometimes human and nonhuman interests (as commended in Values, Conflict and the Environment.)
How important are the choices or the autonomy of the people affected? If autonomy (in the form of consent) is good in matters of medical treatment, should it not also be respected where the person has decided to commit suicide, or to ask for voluntary euthanasia? But if so, should we really allow the suicide of someone whose quality of life is good, or likely to be good? Here we have to weigh up autonomy and wellbeing.
Different philosophers produce different theories to resolve these conflicts, such as theories which make rights fundamental and theories concerned with the best overall outcome, the kind of theory which I have been supporting. This is not the occasion to sift all the theories; and in any case whatever theory is best, people still have to make decisions, usually without benefit of theory. (Fortunately we are a resilient species.) But, before I stop, I should acknowledge that I have been supporting and presenting some of the grounds for a theory which attaches importance to the best overall outcome, and which regards not so much life but worthwhile life as valuable intrinsically; which recognises autonomy as one of the dimensions of a worthwhile life alongside others, and which counts future people and nonhuman creatures as mattering (in appropriate ways) as well as people who can be met in the present. There must be at least the possibility that a theory such as this can improve the quality of decisions.
© Robin Attfield 1991
Dr. Robin Attfield is Reader in Philosophy at University of Wales College of Cardiff.