The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.
Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.
Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.
Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it. Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.
But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.
So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.
These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.
So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.
1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)
2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.
3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:
“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”
She then considers two very different people in that situation:
One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.
And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –
courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.
So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.