Making Decisions Logically

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

The prohibition disaster.

The 18th Amendment to the US constitution, which made it illegal to make, transport, or sell alcohol, was signed in January 1920, but it remained legal to drink it. By the time it was repealed in 1933, it had created a social disaster. Its purpose was to reduce crime, which would empty out prisons and save money, and improve health and well-being. What it did instead was create an explosion of alcohol-related crime, and the growth of corruption in politics and law enforcement. Illegal cheap liquor was unregulated and tainted alcohol killed thousands of people. Instead of saving money, prohibition cost money from lost taxes on liquor sales. Finally, criminals operated on the periphery of society until the profitability of bootlegging kick-started them to organize, which made the Mafia a criminal force to be reckoned with.

The prohibition story is ample proof there is a reason we want to think carefully before making decisions.

West Churchman argued different Western philosophical traditions give insight into how we arrive at the knowledge needed to make reasoned, logical decisions.

We accept something as true if it fits in with other theories, hypotheses, and facts. In other words, some truths are supported by networks of other truths, which are supported by other truths, etc., until we arrive at final truths. Knowledge of this nature has two problems. We must believe the first truths are true, because we can never prove them, and knowledge based on logic is built like a card house; if a supporting theory, hypothesis, or fact is proven wrong, the card house collapses. For example, the idea that our universe is structured and works like a clock is unchallenged, but if it is complex instead, the way we go about discovering knowledge about it changes fundamentally and many truths we take for granted become questionable.

Other knowledge depends on agreement between people, which is the basis of science. Scientists only accept something is true if other scientists repeat an experiment and confirm the findings. Knowledge based on agreement has three problems. Nowadays it is more important to make new discoveries than confirm them, hence few scientists take the trouble of verifying the discoveries of others. Secondly, we agree on what we observe which means we must trust our senses, and we know our senses don’t reproduce reality precisely, it constructs it in our brains, hence we must believe our senses don’t deceive us. Thirdly, we rely on what experts say, but experts regularly get things wrong. Julius Wagner-Juaregg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1927 for treating mentally ill people by infecting them with malaria, which couldn’t have been more wrong-headed.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued we can’t know anything without starting off with some basic assumptions, such as concepts of time, space, measurement, and how things are related. For example, it makes a big difference whether we start by assuming reality works like a clock or is complex. What we can know and discover is very different between these two assumptions, hence we must be aware of the assumptions we make.

A third way to build knowledge is by sweeping in different perspectives. We start with a position and then consider its alternatives and by doing so, new insights emerge. For example, one may argue the purpose of prisons is to make society safe. It is done by removing criminals from society and locking them up. An alternative perspective could be prisons are for rehabilitating criminals, which means they may be released after they show they can fit into normal society again, and means they are then forgiven their sins. A third perspective is prisons are educational facilities in which criminals exchange knowledge, which means they become even more criminal after release. The perspective we choose greatly influences the outcome. During prohibition, people took the perspective alcohol causes crime and ill health, hence removing alcohol will reduce crime and improve health.  They didn’t consider alternative explanations and outcomes. Dialogue makes perspectives more inclusive.

Finally, we need to consider how we measure the success or failure of our decisions. For example, a major consideration in health care is reducing cost, in other words the outcome is measured in financial terms, but we also need to consider other outcomes. For example, is the outcome ethical and moral, how does the outcome affect people who didn’t participate in the decision but are affected by it, what would its consequences be for future generations, etc. We get into trouble when only one outcome dominates our decisions.

In other words, what Churchman said is when making decisions we use theoretical knowledge, facts, make assumptions, engage in dialogue, and need to consider various outcomes, and, being aware of that and the limitations of each, we can arrive at better, more logical decisions. He also remarked there are times when what he calls the enemies of reason prevail. It’s when we make decisions because we have the power to do so, because we follow our beliefs dogmatically, because we strongly believe we are right, or because it gives us pleasure.

It’s easy to follow Churchman’s suggestion if you decide by yourself, but as he also pointed out, most decisions are social in nature. It means someone wants something and has a measure for knowing when that something is attained. Someone else have resources and the means needed to make that something happen and control some of the resources, but not all resources and means, and a third party has a plan for bringing the client and resource owner together with some sort of guarantee the plan may work. The client, resource owner, and planner can be the same entity or different combinations of it. Making collective decisions is more difficult, because we not only need to consider what we know and what to do, but also what other people participating know, want to do, and what their motives are.

In a complex world, there are no guaranteed plans, but we can reduce the risks of bad outcomes by going about our decision making in a more logical and reasoned way. The prohibition decision makers didn’t consider the social complexity of what they were dealing with, they started from the wrong assumptions, they didn’t consider alternative perspectives, and they didn’t consider different outcomes with different consequences. My guess is the decision they made was based on dogmatic beliefs, strong beliefs they were right, and because they had the power to do so. Most big decisions in today’s world are not made logically, nor do they consider the complex social dynamics and context within which they are made, instead they are made by the enemies of logic.