Sunday, August 31, 2014


A new topic: how do we make decisions? How do we make choices? This is a bit of a flighty question for me because I don't really ever address such issues and they don't seem to have much to do with Canadian Studies. In my defense, I might argue that they have a lot to do with Canadians. But, really, this is a subject that has been on my mind lately. There is, of course, a whole bunch of social science on choices and why people make the decisions they make. This literature runs across studies of consumer culture, risk and trust, political authority and voting, public goods, etc. What these various studies tell us -- on a remarkably abstract level -- is that there are patterns to choices. Each individual makes their own choices and these are not the same thing. Individuals being what they are, they will make different choices  (I order X for supper, you order Y).  But, choices on an aggregate level line up into patterns. For instance, a whole bunch of people individually decide that they will vote, say, Conservative. Or, in consumption, each individual decides to buy a certain style of shirt but collectively we get a fad. Much of the social science on choice is about how these patterns emerge. Why do some people vote Conservative and others do not? Are there any correlations we can find with gender, sexual orientation, region, etc. Why do some people listen to a certain type of music and others a different type? And ... on down the line.

I make a great deal of use of the literature in political behaviour, consumption, sociology, etc. in my courses to try to explain these choices. Public opinion polling data helps. I find this useful and allows my students and I to ask questions that help us  to understand the dynamics of contemporary Canada. I am not talking about these kinds of questions in this blog, however important they are. Instead, I want to think out load about the ethics of choices that we make.  When we make a choice, what goes through our minds? And, I want to think about these choices in terms of our relations with other people. I'll tip my hand: like most people I think there are right choices to be made. This is not an awe-inspiring conclusion, I know. But, it might also be construe as arrogant: who are you, Andrew Nurse, to tell me that the choice I have made is wrong. That is a darned good question and one to which I don't have an easy answer. What I will do by way of partial reply is to encourage people to disagree with me, or modify my conclusions, or support them if they like. In other words, let's have a discussion of choices. But, I also want to suggest that in our interactions with others, there are ways we can make better choices.

Note, I said "better choices" because often times we do not know the results of the choices we make, at least not right away. In other words, we have to make choices often times without clear evidence that one answer we might pick is either right or wrong. For example, imagine that I am about to hire someone to work in my business. I have a number of applicants. I can review their CVs, check their references, make sure they have relevant work experience, etc. But, any choice I make is conducted without perfect evidence. And, we have all seen this happen. Someone who looks good "on paper" turns out to not be right for a specific job. It is not that the employer was not doing their homework (which can also happen), because in my example, they were. It is that they needed to make a choice with incomplete evidence. There was no way of knowing how person X or Y would respond to that specific job in that specific company until they were actually doing the job. Still one can make a "better choice" or a "worse choice": one can do one's homework, check the applicants records, have more extended discussions with their referees, etc. and then select the person who best fits on the basis of their record. This is, I am saying, no guarantee that the choice is right, but it improves the odds. Conversely, doing the opposite, checking the record and then selecting a person who does not appear to be the best fit would be  worse choice because one would be increasing the chances of having an employee who could not do the job.

That is, I am sure, so much common sense. It makes sense for an employer to want to hire the best employees (even if that selection is not a guarantee of that person being able to do the job). What about other situations? The short answer is that what makes for a better choice depends on one's objectives. For instance, an employer may not hire the best person for a particular job because they have  relative who needs a job and they are going to hire them. We might not like this choice (the best qualified person, surely, is supposed to get the job) -- particularly if we were the best qualified person who did not get the job because some  relative was hired -- but our critique of this decision (however accurate) misses the point. The person hiring had a different objective than we and so we each approached this choice from different perspectives that were not compatible. We argued "Hey, I am the best person I should be hired" whereas the employer's goal was not to hire the best person but to get one of their relatives work because they believe "family comes first" (or, say, because their deadbeat relative was living in their basement and they wanted to get them out). The conflict arises, then, not because any one is necessarily doing something wrong but because each person approach a choice with different objectives.

What this means is that when thinking about choices, we need to think about objectives: what are we trying to do with any individual choice. Some of these choices are, I concede, not particularly important. Our objectives may be very limited or idiosyncratic. We make choices with regard to what we might eat out of the spur of the moment, or to see a film because we find the trailer interesting. In these kinds of circumstances, the stakes are low. If we make a wrong choice -- or a worse choice than one we might otherwise have made -- no one suffers but ourselves. The choice has limited effects on others and no readily foreseeable effects and so it does not really merit intense scrutiny. No one suffers if I decide to have leftovers for supper. In this situation, I don't really need to think about my objectives. Sure, I could have made a better choice, but since that determination of that is both difficult and since there are no negative effects to other people, it simply not worth the time of trying to figure out a better choice and demonstrating exactly why that choise would be better likely could be done but … so what?

Things change when other people are affected by the choices we make. In that circumstance, we need to balance our objectives with the reasonably foreseeable effects on other people. Most of us recognize this and you can think about consideration of choices you might hear about you. Don't drive drunk because you might kill someone else if you hit them with your car. Don't fire a gun in a residential neighbourhood because you might shoot someone. Thinking about others when we make choices, then, is actually a normal thing. It is not airy fairy or softie or bleeding heart, but a normal mode of what I would argue is reasonable forethought. In fact, we would likely be concerned about someone who cared not a whit for others in the process of making important determinations. The implications of some choices are, in fact, so important that the state legislates parameters under which they can be made. You cannot, for instance, store radioactive waste in the shed in your backyard even though you own the property on which your shed sits. You cannot drag race through the centre of town (note, the state lets you drag race … just not in certain places where it is harmful to others). In employment, public agencies are bond by sets of formalized legal rules that constrain the choices people make viz private enterprise. If I own a business, I have every right to hire whoever I want, whether or not someone else feels they are the best qualified person. If I am hiring for my place of employment, I can't use the same criteria. I have to hire the best person (even if I can never be 100% sure of exactly who is the best person) because I am using public funds and I can't use public funds to hire my deadbeat relatives. (I don't have deadbeat relatives. This is just an example.) I take the rationale to be self evident. The negative effects to others (the students in the class, other scholars, the work others have to do to make up for a person who cannot do the job, public confidence in the institution, and others) are so pressing that most of us consider this type of nepotism wrong, even if we are prepared to accept it (or, at least feel there is nothing we can/should do about it) in the private sphere.

There are a number of reasons people will give for not making the right choice and I will try to address these in a future blog (or, making a worse choice), but before we consider these reasons, let us consider what makes for a better choice. We can acknowledge that a whole bunch of people give a whole bunch of reasons for the choices they make. The fact that they do this indicates that they fully understand that there are better choices and worse choices. If they did not believe this, they would not bother to explain their rationale. If they believed, for instance, that choices don't matter and they are "supermen" then explaining the reasons for a choice becomes a constraint on their liberty which is simply denied. But, most people don't do this. In fact, in controversial decisions, most people go out of their way to explain their reasoning to us. When they do this, what they are, in fact, saying is "I recognize that there are better and worse decisions. I want to explain to you why I made this decision so you will see that I have tried to make the best decision." I had a phone conversation the other night with a person who made a decision with which I disagreed and he spent 15 minutes going over his rationale for the decision point-by-point with me. This indicates not simply that he was responding to my questions about his decision but that he was at pains to try to say "look, this is the best decision because there are good reasons for it." In this case, this was a decision that did affect other people, hence his care.

I can also concede that decisions people make are grounded in their political or economic or social perspectives. For instance, a believer in capitalism will make certain decisions with regard to hiring people that I might not make and they will make no apologies for their course of action. I made this decision, they might say, because I will make money out of it. I acknowledge that it might case some people a significant degree of pain, but that pain ... well ... that is not my concern. My job is to make money. Conservatives I know often use a similar rationale: the world is a hard and tough place, they have told me, and yes, the decision that I made upset a bunch of children but they have to learn that the world is a hard and cold place. They may be upset but that is life.

I am going to stake out a different ground for making decisions. One of the reasons is that these rationales -- the one's I have just given above -- don't hold water. That is a strong claim but if you bear with me over the next blog or so I'll try to set out a reasoned argument why that don't measure up (preview: one argument, as you might imagine, is self-fulfilling prophesy. The Conservative actually makes the world a hard and cold place by the decisions that they make. If they had made a different choice - say one that did not upset children - they would actually be showing that the world is not a hard and cold place. Before they made that decision, these children who they upset thought that the world was neither hard and cold or nice and warm. The decision is what made them think that.) Instead of going over these rationales here, however, let me sketch out what I think is a better ground on which we should make decisions.

Because we cannot know the future for certain, our choices can always have ironic results. They can end up being disproved later. The appeasement of fascism, for example, is often looked at as a decision that went horribly awry even though it was made with the best of objectives: to secure peace and, hence, save lives and make the world a safer place. This is an extreme case, but you get my point. In this situation, in a situation where we are making decisions without full knowledge of what will happen as a result, we need to be double certain of objectives. In my view, the best ground them of making a decision is this: does the decision I am about to make stand a greater chance of securing good things? I should avoid a decision that has a greater chance of securing bad things, say hurting other people, but make the decision that has the better chance of producing positive results, say helping other people.

I'll give you an example. Imagine that I am coaching an amateur sports team. Normally, my team has 10 players on it. 11 players show up. Do I cut one of the players or keep them all. Imagine, too, that I am talking about minor team, say a bantam basketball team. 10 players might be ideal for me (two shifts, nice balance of guards and forwards, exactly two centres, I already have 10 uniforms, etc.). But, by cutting one of these players, I make a decision that has adverse effects particularly on a young person. They feel bad, indeed young people are often crushed in that situation. They don't play the game. They don't learn who to play it better so they might not be available next year. They might be isolated from their peers who are playing (imagine all their friends on the team).

Now, turn to my objectives. What am I trying to do in coaching this team? I state that I coach bantam basketball because I want to teach kids basketball, I like seeing their development, I can help them get ready to play in higher divisions, I can encourage sportsmanship, encourage teamwork, etc. The question that we need to ask is this: how does the decision to cut this one player actually fulfill my objectives. The short answer is that it does not. In fact, it might be detrimental to my stated objectives. I have the opportunity to fulfill my objectives with regard to this one player who was cut but I have chosen not to. I have chosen to set a limit which is artificial because I created it on the number of players to whom I will teach the game, who will learn sportsmanship, who will be physically active. Even worse, I might need that player (who I have cut) next year. I might only have 9 players show up next year and I need a tenth but the player I cut decided to quit because of my actions. Hence, I have harmed my own team in the future as well as undercut my objectives. In the process, I have also caused a high level of emotional pain to a younger person and, what is even worse in my view, I did so for an unneeded reason. In other words, my decision to cut this one player did not help me meet my objectives, it harmed my long term objectives, it had adverse consequences for a young person, and it did not need to be made.

What do I mean by it did not need to be made. This: I set the limit of ten players. I've actually coached teams with up to 14 players on them. Thus, I had room to include this player, to keep him or her with their friends, to encourage their love of the sport, to help them develop skills I -- as a coach might need next year -- and be inclusive. I also had the opportunity to show a child that world did not need to be a hard and cold place. I made it a hard and cold place for him or her by cutting them. I did not need to do that. All I needed to do was take that player on the team and field a team of 11.

One still might argue that there is a good reason to cut players if those cuts serve some other purpose, that is they avoid some other cost that is prohibitive. What was the cost of taking that eleventh player. In terms of practices, there are no costs. It does not matter how many players are at a practice. Since at the developmental level (and bantam is still at that level), we practice much more than we play (as we should so that the girls learn basic skills so that they can play in the future), the majority of time there is no added cost to having that extra child. The gym does not cost more to rent (the rent is fixed by hour no matter how many kids we have). An extra kid or two or three is no more demanding on the coaching staff and, in fact, might be helpful. It also adds revenue to my local basketball association because that player will pay a registration fee (and so I have 10% more money to work with the pay referee fees for games, for instance). No cost here and, however small, benefits. The only cost that I can see is that there will be a very slight reduction in playing time -- allowing that I will play all my players equally -- over the course of the season for each player. I say very small because we are talking about a few minutes per player per game over the span of a season. I could go on (and talk about bench depth and the player development and the like) but you see my point. When I sit down to make this decision, there is much to gain from taking that one player and almost nothing to lose.

In fact, the only area where there is a serious conflict lies in the disjuncture between my desire for a team of ten and all the benefits that come from taking this player on the team. I have to give up something: my comfort with a team of ten players. In this instance, I can see that my comfort is irrelevant because it is not what I am after. In my list of objectives, my comfortable love of 10 was not listed. So, even here, I have not given up anything that is fundamental to my goals. To argue that I should cut this player, I would, in fact, have to contravene my own stated goals (which opens me, rightly, to accusations of dishonesty or hypocrisy). The only thing I can argue is that my comfort with 10 is the deciding factor at which point the logic is: do I weigh my comfort ahead of my own stated goals (as I said, at which point in time people will not believe that I am honestly articulating my goals), ahead of the positive benefits that will come to this player, and against the future development of my team? The logic here strikes me as straight forward: there is a better decision and that decision is to take the player. The worse decision is to cut the player.

Now I want to conclude on this note: note that we have no way of actually knowing precisely what the right decision is. I could be making the wrong decision if the player I chose to keep on the team ends up, say, using his opportunity to play on my team to become a terrorist and attack a neighbouring community. I am exaggerating but you get my point. It is possible that that extra player could be a real problem player. Conversely, if I don't take him and one of my players gets injured I might need him or her. But, when I go and say "congrats, we have an injury. I can now take you on the team." This player might say "screw you. You are a mean hypocrite and won't play for you." And, you know what, this would not just be sour grapes; it would be right (because I had violated my stated own self-stated objectives for my own comfort and not out of any good reason). Not taking the player might end up, in fact, being the worse decision I could have made. 

My point, however, is not that that is correct but that we don't know. The only thing I can do is make a decision on partial information and on the basis of my objectives. I can make a decision that includes a person, helps me meet my objectives, and provides for the future or ... not. The question is which decision stands the greatest chance of being correct. Or, to put this in simpler terms: do I have a better chance of teaching this player basic basketball skills if I have them on my team or I leave them off?  

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