Making Decisions

by Ruel F. Pepa

I. Introduction

What are the philosophical concerns surrounding the issue of “making decisions”? To start off, it is important to locate first the focal points of the inquiry: Is it on the making of decisions or on the decisions themselves that are made? Considering the “making” aspect, on one hand, the focal point is on the process: How is a decision made? On the other hand, considering the decisions themselves brings us to the focal point of quality: What kind of decision has been made? These two focal points are of the essence to capture the meaningfulness of a philosophical examination of decision-making.

In its most superficial state, making decisions is a very general terrain. A decision could be made in whatever way a decision-maker wants it made. And this is the reason why a lot of decisions made cover a spectrum that ranges from the most successful and beneficial to the most devastating and disastrous. The orientation of this consideration that focuses on the process of making decisions inevitably connects with the quality of decisions made. In other words, the process involved in making decisions has a direct bearing on the quality of decisions made. Whether we can draw a necessary connection or simply a constant conjunction is beside the point (with apologies to David Hume).

Judging the exact nature of the philosophical inquiry on the issue at hand brings us to the classical philosophical fields of methodology and axiology. In terms of methodology, epistemology stands out while in terms of axiology, ethics is the major player. Making decisions which involves a process enters the domain of epistemology while the decisions made which are characterized by their respective qualities are the responsibility of ethics.

II. Appropriating Epistemology in Decision-Making

Knowledge is the key factor in epistemology. Its most basic condition is hitched on the following questions: (1) What can I know?; (2) How do I know what I can know?; and (3) How do I know that I know? Making satisfactory decisions involves a significant aspect of epistemological consideration because logically, we can only adequately decide on the basis of what is knowable. Properly deciding on a certain matter requires a knowledge not only of the matter under consideration but more importantly the states of affairs that constitute the surrounding environment where such matter is located. Then we answer the question, “What can I know?” Furthermore, it is likewise vital to be equipped with the necessary tools–both material and mental–to carefully and conscientiously explore the situation once the possibility of knowing its condition has been determined. Then we satisfy the question, “How do I know what I can know?” And at a certain point in time when we have told ourselves that we know the entire gamut of everything within the domain of the knowable, we have to reach the level of full justification and absolute certainty that our knowledge of the matter is concrete and incontrovertible thereby resolving the question, “How do I know that I know?”

The field of business management has some useful and potent tools of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation that equip decision-makers. One of them is called SWOT analysis which is an acronym for a kind of systematic analysis exploring the factors of “Strengths,” “Weaknesses,” “Opportunities,” and “Threats” in consideration of a proposed business project. This is a concrete case where we find honest-to-goodness philosophy utilized in business. SWOT analysis in decision-making involves both the subjective and objective factors of reality. The subjective factor takes into consideration the inner capability of a business entity–a company–for that matter. The objective factor lies in the outer environment where the proposed project is intended to be located. It is objective because its rigid nature is outside the control of the human will power.

The same dynamics work if applied in a more personal context of decision-making. We make decisions on the basis of what is doable as far as our personal capabilities are concerned. In this area, we take into consideration our own personal strengths and weaknesses. In other words, there is an aspect of a decision that relies on these factors. So that, I could say on the one hand that I can effect this decision because I have the strengths to do it. But on the other hand, I likewise know my weaknesses and these will surely hinder the successful achievement of the objective anticipated when the decision has been pragmatized. The whole situation, however, depends on the subjective power and persuasion of the decision-maker because of the reality that a weakness may be transformed into strength. If there is a will, there is a way, as the saying goes. The important point here is that we are in control of our capabilities–of our strengths and weaknesses. And by way of an epistemological consideration, such strengths and weaknesses may be revealed in broad daylight, so to speak. Having this in mind, a relevant, practicable and logical decision may be tentatively reached at the end of the day.

But the process is not yet through. The objective factor is out there and such is not within the sphere of our whims and wishes. The objective factor appears in two scenarios: opportunities and threats. We are inspired by the opportunities and whatever strength we have in pursuing a decision to its practical implementation is pushed and driven to take advantage of the visible opportunities. But that is just one side of the coin because there are threats lurking on the sideline. We cannot push through “full speed ahead” because doing so would definitely be an act of suicide. Here enters epistemology once again because we need a full knowledge of the threats. We need to explore the anatomy and the motion of these threats. It is epistemology that will lead us to get to an intermediary decision on whether it is possible to neutralize the threats by certain methods or if they are too tough to be confronted head-on the only recourse is avoidance by looking for alternative routes that will ultimately lead to the desired objective.

III. Locating the Value of Decisions in Ethical Terms

Decision-making that draws its life-blood from philosophy cannot ignore the vital role played by epistemology in getting into a process that leads it to its final rational conclusion. At this point, we amplify rationality and understand it axiologically as reasonability. In this particular connection, high-quality decisions that contribute to the enhancement of particular human experiences and human life, in general, is of utmost importance. With this in mind, we are now ready to consider another important philosophical deliberation which is in the area of ethics as we highlight human flourishing which is fundamentally characterized by (1) amelioration or alleviation of suffering; (2) resolution of conflict; and (3) promotion of happiness.

In ethical terms, we don’t basically distinguish between good and right decisions and conversely between wrong and bad decisions. Good decisions are generally considered right and bad decisions, wrong. However, a closer look into this issue will bring us to a realization that once again the subjective and the objective get into an interplay. Good and bad are subjective classifications while right and wrong are objective. A decision is good or bad depending on a person’s subjective impression while a decision may be right or wrong as a matter of universal implementation. A decision or an act may be good as far as the people in a particular socio-cultural arrangement are concerned but bad in another setting. However, a right decision is right and a wrong decision is wrong on the basis of the multifaceted factors that influenced their formulation without considering strictly parochial presuppositions ensconced on the unquestioned platform of a culture. Something is considered right if its ethical substance is universal and hence universalizable. Simply put, it is right in all angles whether it directly assaults a cultural practice deemed to be good in the context of a particular society. The sole criterion of this so-called objective morality is the universal principle of human flourishing. In a sense, we could say that a right decision may not be good and vice versa. Conversely, a wrong decision may be good and vice versa.

IV. Conclusion

Making decisions is a very broad topic but a philosophical treatment has somehow led us into a streamlining process that finally takes us to its more refined variety in both epistemological and ethical terms. In the final analysis, we have reached a realization that what truly matters is the making of knowledge-based decisions that are not only good but more importantly right. Nevertheless, it is one thing to get into a discourse of an issue like the one that we have here and it is another to actually pragmatize the merits of an ideal. Whatever the ideal is, we can be sure that people will continue to make bad and wrong decisions and the world will continue to experience problems and difficulties big and small, simple and complex, because of them.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 14 January 2019

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