The Calculus of Decisions

You might often hear somebody say, “that wasn’t a smart move” or “he shouldn’t be doing that” or “that is not an appropriate thing for somebody that (insert adjective) to be doing.” Now this brings up a couple of interesting points on how people live their lives and make day to day decisions. The first, not be being discussed in depth in this post, is the concept of unequal value between people. That is to say that, “what is good for somebody is not necessarily good for someone else.” Thus this makes things like Utopia and Heaven hard to define, because of the variability in the definition of a “perfect life” from person to person.

That said however, I do believe that on the whole or on average most people can agree on what is generally good and generally bad. Moreover individuals can make value judgments on their own decisions. The most obvious example is that most people agree that is “bad” to kill other people, so it is also pretty easy to come up with case that (more or less) clearly define a good decision. Another example might be a junkie who decides to start using again. An outside observer might say, “that was a bad decision for that clean junkie to start using again, I mean doesn’t he know he’s an addict?”

Furthermore, most of the time the individual has a sense when they are making a decision that is bad (good), that even they themselves would deem a bad (good) decision. However, that person still makes a bad(good) decision… the question is why do people make consciously bad (by their own definition) decisions.

I think that this topic is best discussed in the context of trying to lose weight. The reason is that losing and gaining weight is a long term goal that somebody has to reach. Therefore if somebody sets out, say as their new year’s resolution to lose weight, they are making a conscious decision that over the next couple of months they are going eat healthier and exercise more.

A couple of points about this. First this “decision” is a long term decision, one cannot choose to lose weight in one second, it is a process that that person is aware of the fact that it is going to take a long time. The decision therefore has no immediate impact or it does not change the person instantaneous status. For any reasonable aged healthy person it makes sense to plan for the future to improves one’s condition (in this case physical condition).

So why do we make long term decisions?

Well this is a very interesting concept as well. As in the case of somebody trying to lose weight, they maybe motivated to be healthier (say the doc told them they have a bad cholesterol) or they are motivated to be more attractive (say they haven’t been laid in awhile or ever). In either case, the person can not reap the benefits of that choice until the future arrives when they are thin and healthy. This is similar to the fact that you can’t spend the money while your saving it. You have to wait for the time that you have saved up enough cash to spend it on what you want it to.

The whole point of this thought experiment is that the benefits of a long term decision get reaped on the short term or in the moment. Once you are thin you feel better (right now) because you are healthier. Once you are thin you appear more attractive the opposite sex (as you walk around right now). Thus the whole point of making a long term decision is that you want to make the “nows” of the future better.

It seems as though we go through a sort of calculus where decide what the value of something is at the moment and weight that against what the value of something will be in future moments. So if you are the test subject trying to lose weight and you are now faced with the decision of whether or not to eat an unhealthy pie, you must go through some calculus:

How important is feeling of good taste and satisfaction right now?

How important is the feeling healthy and attractive in some unknown number of future moments ?

Now if we were to weight all moments equally, it would seem that not eating the thing is the natural choice, because all of the future moments will completely out weight the couple of “bad” moments you had while feeling unsatisfied (because you didn’t eat the pie).

However, the real difference lies in the face that what happens now is tremendously more important than what may happen in the future. Thus it the obvious conclusion is that we as humans are really only capable of experiencing right now. Even though we can plan for the future and anticipate and make judgment on the quality of future moments, it seem to me that the most important factor in your decision is how you feel and what you want RIGHT NOW.

This intrinsic limitation or this innate quality of existence is a powerful force that can be used to make both “good” and “bad” decisions. Our existence seems to take place over the course of time. We can look back by reading books and watching movies and talking to other. We can look forward by planning, forecasting, and hoping.

Thus decision making, which is probably the most important action that humans do that impact their physical, emotional, and mental condition. Therefore understanding how and why we make decisions is essential to making the decisions that we think are good decisions.


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8 Responses to The Calculus of Decisions

  1. activephilosophy says:

    After rereading this, I am not sure I got my point across. We live in the moment, but are aware of the past and the future. This unique situation always to make decision based on a plethora of inputs. Filtering through this is difficult and really is a skill that can be developed over time.

  2. deadondres says:

    That’s brilliant. A couple things strike me:

    1 – Weight problems and addition both seem like modern phenomena. Of course they can’t be. There have always been alcoholics and hefty folks. But at the same time civilization must exacerbate the utter despair.

    For example in the past it wouldn’t really be possible to be much overweight because food was scarce and merely surviving melted as many calories as athletes burn today. Addiction wasn’t really possible because there were too many lions to kill, berries to pick, children to raise, fires to build if one didn’t want to die real quick.

    These conclusions can be followed along the evolution of society with some ease to suggest that we have increasingly sunk into inactivity culminating in today’s lethargy and predictability (think about any TV show and it is pretty much about exploring this).

    Which leads me to…

    2 – Families are increasingly smaller, fractured even beyond the supposedly tight-knit (but in reality strained by Rebel-Without-A-Cause silent confused anger and defiance) nuclear families of the 50s. Communities and clans are increasingly divided and constrained, reducing one’s responsibility and sense of purpose.

    This means that the now is confined to oneself, making the decision to shoot heroin and crack equally on par with the decision to go meditate for 50 hours and eat only fruit, susceptible to any random hedonism. There is not the burden of tribal dependence but at the same time there is no pressure to make good choices that preserve the kinship group.

    This perverts value judgments when we are more intertwined than ever.

    The notion of our modern aesthetic, postmodernism, as a movement drifting within the fog of now. There exist less obligatory restrictions on ourselves and this leads to a certain restricted limitless freedom in that we are free to peruse or appreciate or buy whatever we damn want. These values help to create systems like capitalism and the internet.

    3 – David Harvey, compiling work from various Marxist scholars, remarked upon capitalism’s ability to cause space time compression.

    It compacts space by for example parceling land into private property. It encourages arteries into and out of the city, which expands upwards and outwards to accommodate expediency and flows of capital.

    Eventually urban centers come to dominate rural populations and determine the function of unoccupied land. For the most part pro-federalist forces were defeated throughout the world in the 18th and 19th centuries shortly after the young democracies are founded, and it is no surprise that concern for a lifestyle beyond the cities is crushed by the chariot of progress.

    It compacts time by defining and indexing it, through the workweek, watches, television schedules, stoplights, police cars, cell-phones, etc. The now becomes a taxing thing. It also becomes known. Given the shortcomings of “knowing” this is a very delusional perspective. Especially because it is a passive knowing. This breeds consent without contemplation.

    If time is compressed the benefits of the now become honed on fleeting and usually unhealthy habits and reduce the visibility and seeming viability of sacrifice.

    4. Freedom of movement. Restrictions on movement such as highways and cubicals lead to time/space compression, because it limits one’s potential. The inability to move leads to addiction and weight issues. This ties into the death of the kinship group, because one can no longer move between relations and interactions. Instead we are confined to anonymous encounters and the strained family structure, if present at all. Friendships and the new category peer groups (notice the slight change)play a very important role and reclusive individuals feel depressed because traditional systems of support no longer exist.

    5 – Capitalism also creates uncertainty, through volatile flows of capital and derivatives, and this restricts potential movement further. Some form of community is formed within the work that we do but it is predicably suspect and detached.

    Therefore our decisions, both good and bad, must be extremely influenced by restrictions on movement and influence that only the most wealthy can afford to avoid.

    • activephilosophy says:

      Yes, I do agree that in general being over weight and addicted are two by products of not having to spend all of one’s time simply trying to survive. However, I think that they actually are more direct consequences of our ability to live in the now, but be aware of the past and the future. Although other animals are somewhat capable of doing this, I think that humans have developed this ability much better. (Maybe the abililty to interpret the past and future is a defining quality of humanity?).

      However, it almost seems that we can come full circle, in the sense that we have now gotten “over” the fact that we are somehow special and are now ready to tackle the problems head on.

  3. deadondres says:

    Well I am not sure. I think that must be true, that we can interpret the past and future, and better than animals, but at the same time I think about a dog burying a bone and that requires both memory and foresight.

    On the other hand I think about climate change and destruction of the environment, and in terms of today’s society I don’t see how we respect either the past or the future.

    The point I was trying to make was that the concept of now is much more concise and limited than it used to be in the past, due to not only the demands of the rat race but also the technology and how we apply it.

    For example, a hundred years ago if someone said, I need to talk to so-and-so right now, you would have to walk down the road over to their house.

    But in 2009 if you want to talk to somebody right now, you call them on their cell-phone.

    This is an inadequate example. I keep missing the target but if I keep aiming perhaps my misses can provide an approximation of where the target should be.

    In terms of living in the now – is working 40+ hours a week to pay off a mortgage, bills and car payments living in the now? I would call it the opposite. We are knee-deep in debt and perpetually paying that off. In the past that was called indentured servitude. Like how workers had to buy from the company store to get food with future wages.

    That doesn’t address that we are aware of the past and the future – but in a way it seems like a constant push for an indeterminate to-come, leaving the past by the wayside (I see an example of this in my own life, going from school to school to school to work with really little regard for what came previously except to get to that next point).

    So to sum up I wholeheartedly think the problems we mentioned earlier are uniquely human, and agree with your reasoning for why, and I think that they have worsened or become more a focus for concern because of the way that our decisions are affected by the modern world.

    I also completely agree that we (at least some of us, depending on how much you shave off “we”) have come full circle and can – hopefully – find a compromise between our unique condition and the rest of existence that doesn’t put require the narcissistic placing of ourselves on a pedestal.

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