decisions need principles

From law professor and metaethicist Ruth Chang's On Hard Choices:

"As post-Enlightenment creatures we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world. But the world of value is different from the world of science. One world can be quantified by real numbers, but the other cannot.

We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of weights and lengths, has the same structure as the world of ought, of values."

The Red Pill, The Blue Pill

My siblings and I have watched The Matrix together more times than I can count. We spent most of our time seeking out hilarious out-of-context two-second snippets that we would play back over and over again. Yes, Vine a full fifteen years before Vine.

Anyways, the soul of the entire movie lives in one scene. Morpheus presents Mr. Anderson with a red pill and a blue pill:

"You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

Viewed in isolation, neither option is superior in any obvious way to the other. Both are, as Ruth Chang would say, "on a par" with each other, though leading to uncertain and diverging outcomes. The red pill would show Mr. Anderson a world outside The Matrix. Or it might not. The blue pill would allow Mr. Anderson to return to his life as usual. Or it might not. 

To different people, different decisions would be appropriate in this situation. But as viewers, we know Mr. Anderson will pick the red pill because we already know what his values are. We already know from earlier scenes that he is a rebellious, dissatisfied fringe member of the corporate world. With that emotional context laid out, we know exactly which decision he will make. We might even be rooting for him to choose one way.

"This type of response to hard choices is a rational response. But it is not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it is supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives."

Reasoning & Emotions

In his influential Descartes' Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the peculiar circumstances of a patient named Elliot. A brain tumor caused damage to Elliot's frontal lobe; subsequently, his ability to experience emotion evaporated. In the ensuing years, Elliot's professional and personal lives unraveled, as he found it difficult to make decisions.

We sometimes tend to think that the best decision-making system is one that is purely rational and devoid of emotion. But in Damasio's estimation, reasoning is incomplete without emotional motivation. Many decisions cannot be reduced down to choosing between less, more, or equal quantities. We might even think we're being entirely rational, when really a suppressed emotional context might be invisibly creating this appearance of rationality.

Hard decisions are hard because there is no correct answer to them. If the decision was easy, there would be no dilemma. My eternal dilemma is: should we go get noodles or tacos for dinner? I don't know! Both options sound amazing!

What makes hard choices is the set of tradeoffs and uncertain futures that accompany them. One set cannot necessarily be proven "greater than" the other. We can use measurement to get as close as possible to an objective view of these tradeoffs, but at some point, the uncertainty of correctness still remains.

In this space of difficulty, the agent must observe this decision in terms of the system that is her life. By choosing one alternative over another, she has made a normative choice as to which types of tradeoffs, uncertain futures, and new realities she is willing to accept. Over time, these normative choices form our notions of principles and character. And when we feel like we've made a mistake, we can go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate how we decide. As Chang says herself:

"[...] the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here in this space of hard choices that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are."

Hypothetical: Jobs (and Investing in Anything)

Here's a hypothetical about deciding between job offers (because that's something I'll be doing pretty soon). Choosing a job, like most choices dealing with a degree of uncertainty, involves an investment. Generally speaking, investing is the act of choosing one uncertain future over another, with the hope that a particular subset of futures comes to fruition.

You can minimize uncertainty through observation and data, but at the end of the day, all uncertainty can't be vanquished. In fact, an over-reliance on measurement might even blind you from some uncertain outcomes you hadn't anticipated.

The typical approach to the job question is to choose the most socially validating job in your community. Another approach is to enumerate pros and cons for each option and then pick the job that's the biggest net positive. Both methods on their own can quickly lead to unhappy outcomes when faced with hard choices. Prestige-bound choices occur through forces external to the decision-maker, while exhaustive pro-conning can act as a form of fake rigor.

A more robust approach would be to envision the person you are and the person you aspire to become. What are the values and principles that ought to be guiding your decision? Which job offers would prevent this person from actualizing? As a good friend recently pointed out, something as simple as a bad interview experience could point to such a misalignment. 

A valid thesis could be: I want to construct a life in which 1) I nurture strong relationships with family and friends, 2) I devote my energy to mastering a craft, and 3) I have the right time-money balance to dedicate to missions I care about. As thoughtful decision-makers, we can go through each of these levers to clarify exactly what they mean and what they look like. Why are they so important to us? Do we fear the things we value?

Introspecting like this can show us the types of biases and insecurities we are susceptible to. Maybe we lean to the safe and prestigious at the detriment of what we actually need. Conversely, maybe we ignore the option we need precisely because it is safe and prestigious.

Principles, Values, and Science

A principles-based analysis often creates a simplifying rigor to decision-making. It eliminates enticing offers that would jeopardize your values. It illuminates options that you may have been hesitating to take seriously.

Of course, this is not to say that striving for purely rational thought is stupid. In fact, many areas of our lives can be better understood through this form of reasoning. You can "science the shit out of" more things than not. In some cases, you can even science the shit out of analyzing your own values.

But in the realm of decision-making, scientific rigor should exist in the service of identifying and acting upon principles. We see this everywhere: sports (the Broncos and zone blocking schemes, the Spurs and ball movement), software (Amazon's maniacal focus on the customer and near-100% uptime), organizations (Google's super analytical approach to hiring and preventing bias); politics (Denmark's rehabilitation-focused counterterrorism efforts) ... the list goes on and on.

In the long run, a well-tuned set of principles can give an entity a pretty long-lasting advantage over its peers. Mostly because everyone else doesn't have the patience to act based on principles.

Perhaps the most concise expression of all the above comes from the philosopher king Kanye West:

Damn, here we go again.
Everybody's saying what's not for him,
But everything I'm not made me everything I am.