Decision-making essentials

Decision-making is an essential task in managing our lives. We make scores of decisions every day, from the trivial all the way to life-changing — for ourselves and often for others. But how many of us have really thought about what’s involved in making a decision? What are the key ingredients? How does decision-making work?

Let’s start with the most basic ingredients:

  • the characteristics of the situation that prompt the need for deciding something in the first place
  • an agent or “decider,” the person prompted by the situation
  • the purpose to be pursued, or more accurately, the end-in-view
  • the material conditions under which the end-in-view is to be pursued
  • the principles that guide the process of making a decision
  • methods by which the end-in-view is to be pursued
  • and finally, the content of the decision itself, or more accurately, the what-is-to-be-done

No doubt we could list additional ingredients, but I list these explicitly because they are, as philosophers say, necessary conditions. In other words, if you ask “What characteristics does something have to have to count as a decision,” this list is a reasonably complete and robust response. The absence of any one of these renders the decision ineffective at best, or at worst, counterproductive or harmful — or not an actual decision at all.

To help clarify these essential elements, let me analyze a decision I made. I recently took a weekend trip to San Antonio, and before I left, I started thinking about food, which is one of my main motivations for making the trip in the first place. Being a person who tends not to leave things to chance, I realized I should make reservations at restaurants, and then I confronted the decision I needed to make: Where shall I make reservations?

This vignette posits an agent (me), and the features of the story roughly correspond to the prompt, though perhaps lacking a few additional details, like the fact that, for me, there’s nothing worse than expending the neuron-power to choose a restaurant only to show up and find it fully booked. The more astute reader will realize that this is not so much a material condition prompting me to decide something, but an antecedently held action-guiding principle.

The term “action-guiding principle” more accurately reflects the function of such principles than more common words like “values.” Action-guiding principles may closely track a specific situation, but more often, they are “portable” across a range of situations. This portability is why some people call action-guiding principles “values”: A key feature of a “value” is a readiness to act in certain ways in response to certain prompts. The word “value” has the disadvantage that it frequently connotes moral values and therefore can lead to confusion. As deeply as I hold the principle of avoiding wasting resources deciding on a restaurant and finding out later that it’s fully booked, most of us would not consider that a matter of morality or ethics. It’s important to note this distinction now, because it will play a significant role when we consider collaboration, precisely because people may differ with respect to action-guiding principles, and these differences can lead to conflict that should not be branded “moral” unless it actually is.

The end-in-view is akin to what we might call a “purpose,” but the term end-in-view more accurately reflects the function of the second element: It’s not the specific restaurant I (will) choose; rather, is the reason why I will choose some restaurant at all. Perhaps a good start at stating the end-in-view of this particular decision is this: I want to determine the food I want and where to get it, and I want a reasonable assurance of success at eating that food. The difference between an end-in-view and the content of the eventual decision is that the end-in-view applies to any possible outcome of the decision process, and may therefore be considered “abstract”; the content of some particular decision or other is concrete as well as specific.

The conditions under which the end-in-view is to be pursued may include material conditions and action-guiding principles that prompted a decision in the first place — like being in San Antonio, or my deeply-entrenched quirk of not leaving things to chance — but even in simple cases of decision-making, conditions impinging on the end-in-view are often uncovered as the process proceeds. This characteristic reveals that genuine decision-making is quite often a process of inquiry, and this is another key to effective decision-making.

In this case, as I gathered possibilities, I discovered that one of my restaurant options was not open on Sunday, which clearly imposes a constraint on my pursuit of the end-in-view. A restaurant’s hours is an example of a material condition, but as we have seen, action-guiding principles come into play as well. For instance, I have an inclination to take into account the eating preferences of my dining companions. This principle works in concert with the material conditions imposed by the menus of various restaurant possibilities, all of which constrain my pursuit of the end-in-view.

Not every characteristic of a situation is actually relevant to the end-in-view. For instance, in this particular case, whether a restaurant has valet service is irrelevant to my process of choosing a restaurant, because I intend to walk to the restaurants I end up choosing. While it is true that irrelevant characteristics do not constrain decision-making, they don’t promote it either. Irrelevant elements in a situation have no bearing one way or another, which means that we needn’t waste resources like our neurons debating over them. This reveals that what makes a structural element of a situation a material condition is whether that element is relevant to the pursuit of the end-in-view.

A successful decision process operates within the relevant constraints imposed by material conditions and action-guiding principles and moves toward “the decision,” more accurately characterized by the term, what-is-to-be-done. A responsible and grounded decision process involves reflection on what must be done to realize a particular instantiation of what-is-to-be-done. In other words, “the” decision must be appropriately responsive to the material conditions and the action-guiding principles within the arena of that decision process on the way to achieving the end-in-view. A useful term for assessing and ensuring this responsiveness is method.

In this case, my methods included actions like checking Google maps to see which restaurants are within walking distance (another constraining action-guiding principle), visiting their websites to review their hours and menus, calling or using an online system to make reservations, etc. Methods also include more “abstract” operations, like determining the extent of “match” between action-guiding principles and material conditions like the distance from my hotel or the range of options on the menu is satisfactory. In other words, the methods operative in effective decision-making include all the usual and customary tools of logic — namely, the generic methods characteristic of the kinds of problem-solving that produce reliable results.

Finally, the closure or culmination of a decision-process is the determination of what-is-to-be-done. Typically, we “determine” what-is-to-be-done by doing it, but we might also mean that we’ve decided what is to be done in preparation for doing it. This ambiguity is precisely why I like the term what-is-to-be-done. It’s a formula that refers both to the future-oriented intention to perform a specific series of actions, and to the actual performance of those actions.

This ambiguity is not a problem to be eradicated; in fact, it’s an essential aspect of a genuine decision. Let me illustrate: Suppose I tell you I’ve decided to take up the bassoon. As we converse further about my “decision,” you discover that I don’t have a bassoon or know what it will take to obtain one, that I haven’t considered that I may need lessons, and that I have no realistic notion of the time it will take to play the bassoon — for instance, the weeks of regular practice required just to develop the embouchure to make anything resembling music come out of the instrument. In such a case, I have not really made a decision; rather, at best, I have expressed an aspiration. We have harsher terms for this too, like “pipe-dream.” But no doubt you will notice that aspirations all-too-frequently pass for decisions, especially in complex situations. Aspirations may give us a thrill, but it’s a cheap thrill, unencumbered by the work of actually making a decision.

I didn’t analyze this example to underscore the extent to which thinking like a philosopher is operative even in putatively trivial parts of my life (which is undeniably true, incidentally), but to illustrate the elements operative in all decision-making, irrespective of whether we render them explicit. And I want to make the further claim that responsible and grounded decision-making will not only render them explicit, but also respect the functions of these elements throughout the decision process.

If you need an example of irresponsible or ungrounded decision-making, consider this alternate ending to my story about choosing a restaurant. Under the conditions imposed by the scenario I described, suppose I choose Nino’s, make a reservation, and then, on the appointed day, I have a tantrum because I can’t get there. Nino’s does indeed meet many of the conditions within the scenario: I like the food, my customary companion also likes the food, and they’re open on Saturdays and Sundays. Unfortunately, Nino’s is in Houston.

The actual conclusion of the story is that I did make reservations (online) at the Maverick and the Battalion for Saturday and Sunday, respectively. These choices satisfy the material conditions of the situation (they’re not only in San Antonio but also within walking distance of my hotel, for instance) and the action-guiding principles I hold (for instance, I like the food on offer at these places and so does my companion). But, as is the case in many decisions, they don’t satisfy the conditions perfectly: I would have preferred to eat at 3:00 PM (another action-guiding principle I happen to hold), but neither opens that early. Nevertheless, these choices satisfactorily instantiate the end-in-view, respect the actual conditions imposed by of the situation, and harmonize reasonably well with the relevant action-guiding principles. That’s about the best you can hope for in responsible and grounded decision-making. If I’d been pig-headed about my preference for 3:00 PM, I’d have ended up at Schlotzsky’s. Alone

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