How to know your decision was Good – An Armchair Ethics Post
Perhaps the main aim of the study of morality and ethics is to understand complex decision making processes and enable those involved to choose the most ethical and moral of actions from a choice of several. It is not sufficient or desired to have people know what is right or wrong but to choose, regardless of knowing, to do what is wrong. There are many ways we can calculate what is right and wrong. Two of the most well-known of course, maximize utility, or act in a way that can be made into a universal law. After we have made our calculations of utility or run our potential actions through a maxim, is there a way to reflect on whether that calculation was accurate. Or to say that the decision was a good decision. This short article is about decision making, looking back on our decisions, and asking whether we made those calculations correctly.
A lot of moral theory is actually about decision making i.e. making the right decisions, and predominately asks us to make these decisions as impartial and removed to a degree from the environment itself. Quite a bit of it relies on almost an inhuman ability to be distant from emotions that may sway an individual to be anything less than objective. A good example of this are those who argue for saving the lives of five people rather than a friend of yours. The right decision for many ethicists would be strangely not to save your friend but to save the lives of the five strangers because in terms of utility, five lives and their potential outweighs the lives of just one. That it is your friend, some would argue does not carry sufficient weight as to allow the lives of five other lives to be lost. Whether we can actually make these impartial decisions or should will not be discussed here. There are good reasons to think that they cannot or should not but that is not the focus of this article.
When we make these impartial calculations we are using frameworks of decision making that we believe reliably provides the right decisions. In general terms, this is true. Under Utilitarianism we make decision that maximize utility or what is said to be good. Under Deontology we act in ways that we agree could be universal law. Both have aspects of impartiality and both have criticisms. As we see the need to add specifics and details, often what is right becomes increasingly blurred with each new layer of detailed information and context. I believe this blurring is due to the true nature of morality as a subjective mechanism for governing which can be applied universally in only the most general statements. How to accurately measure utility is a known criticism of Utilitarianism and I believe the necessary generality of the categorical imperative is a weakness of its ability to calculate actions in a manner that is not dogmatic, broad, and wide-ranging rules. With the problems of calculation in detailed and specific actions for everyday or common use, the need to be reflective and ask whether a decision already made was the right decision or a good decision is ever more important.
For many years now people associate the right objective to our collective existence is for human flourishing. In short, it means people are doing well in the areas that are important to humans. Examples from Harvard, The Human Flourishing Program (https://hfh.fas.harvard.edu/measuring-flourishing), include being happy and satisfied with life, good mental and physical health, having a meaning and purpose, and several others. These measurements if applied to those involved in a decision and taken years after, can provide some information on whether the decision was a good decision. Of course we cannot go back and make the decision again and then provide a comparative analysis, however, we can know if the decision, as made through these less than perfect calculations, was good. We know we are doing good when those involved in the decisions made are flourishing. I would add that this flourishing should not diminish the flourishing of others and be at their expense. Although we cannot go back and make a different decision, if we learn the decision made was wrong, we can always attempt to undo what was done and begin down the path that should have been taken initially.
Even though moral theory asks we be impartial despite its difficulties, and even though the calculations used to decide right action are often general and intended for rules rather than individual actions, we can look back and know that we made the right decision if it lead to human flourishing. These are the best tools we have to make important decisions on matters that may lead to difficult outcomes such as the loss of life. While we can always seek to strengthen them and improve upon their understanding, another aspect which can be examined is the reflective determination on whether the decision was good. Human flourishing offers this measure as a fundamental and universal human need.