This is part two in a series about human decision making. The first part can be found here.
There are some important things that need to be established before we go on with thinking about decision making. These may seem like they should go without saying to most people, but they frequently debated. In fact, the underlying assumptions behind decision making are so fiercely disagreed upon and so consequential, that our discussion on decision making would be meaningless to many people without them.
First, let us talk about what humans are capable of in decision making. Are we even capable of making decisions for ourselves?
Is it that our thoughts and actions are just products of our brain chemistry, which has been finely tuned to respond to stimuli in a specific way by millions of years of genetic selection and a few years of personal experience? Do our decisions just come down to a matter of instinct and evolutionary psychology?
Has fate dictated our actions already that we only walk a path that has been laid out for us?
I’ve heard it said that we as humans are so depraved and consumed with our own selfish natural desires, that we are incapable of doing ‘good’ without something changing/helping us. Our will is dead, we are slaves to sin, and we are evil.
How often have you heard it said that what is supposed to happen will happen? Everything happens for a reason? There are probably countless rationalizations for the actions of people.
Interestingly enough, these points of view are very similar. They both have the same implications. If we cannot make decisions for ourselves, are we even responsible for our own actions?
What if we aren’t? If that is the case, we could not blame a murderer or rapist for his actions, he is not capable of deciding to do something different. In fact, we couldn’t even call it murder. It would be more like when a lion kills another lion for whatever reason. It’s just what they do. And many people throughout our history speak of humanity like this: it’s just what they do! Our species is an endless cycle of selfish action that cannot be broken. Is our condition really that hopeless?
What does that imply for how you, as an individual, make decisions? You could do whatever you wanted and you wouldn’t even know why or if it was wrong or if it even mattered.
But we as humans have, in a matter of speaking, inside information. We aren’t observing humanity from the outside, we are human. We know exactly how we act and why we act that way. We know that every time a situation is before us, there are multiple things tugging at us. Someone trips and falls while a crowd is running out a burning building. Your instinct is telling you to keep running to get away from the fire and not risk getting trampled. But, as we discussed in the last post, we know the way we ought to behave, and we could make the decision to help this person up.
If you didn’t help them up, but you saw them there and kept running, would that be wrong? One does not even have to come to an answer for that question to understand all the computations that could possibly go into that. We then make a decision. Even if there is some feeling or compulsion so strong that your whole body wants it, we can, and might often, make a decision contrary to that compulsion.
And why would we want to think so hard about making the right decision? Could it be that we are responsible for our own actions because we control our own actions?
We take such strong ownership of our personal actions that we lie awake at night thinking about our decisions. We reign in our primal instincts to hurt someone when we are angry and we have dedicated an entire justice system to holding responsible people who do not reign in those instincts. It is indeed the mark of a civilized person to ignore his internal desires for the sake of making a ‘good’ decision. And we imprison those who do not.
I would suggest that the simplest answer is the right one here: we make decisions every day of our lives with what we are given. We all do it and to claim we don’t does nothing but absolve people of responsibility of their actions.
Maybe we often wish to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own actions?
In any case, we can show that while we know what we ought to do, we don’t always do it and because we are responsible for our own actions, it is our choice.
Why is it important that we recognize this? How often do we go through life trying to understand why we do what we do? We question whether or not we did the right thing. We question whether or not our actions matter.
To come to the conclusion that we are unable to choose our own actions brings us an easy answer to a complicated problem: how do we do ‘good’?
We westerners love easy answers and not thinking about what our actions. You can either continue to not think or you can start taking your decisions seriously because they matter.
Stay tuned for more on this.