This is very much a work in progress, which I intend to refine, but published in this incomplete form to link other posts into a wider context.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,The Road not Taken by Robert Frost
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Having gone down a path, whether by our own choice or by circumstances beyond our control, we should try – even though it may be hard – not to let the road not taken cloud our thinking. We start from where we are.
This article is about the tools humanity has evolved to help us make those decision, science, ethics and economics, which all have a role to play
- Science tells us what is possible or not possible – Can we do it
- Ethics is about making moral decisions between the possible choice – Should we do it
- Economics is about balancing our available resources – Can we afford it
With great power comes great responsibilityPeter Parker
Ethics, as I am using it here, is a huge field, containing philosophy, religion and politics.
Individuals, Groups, Nations, Humanity
Finding the right balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group has always been hard, and is becoming harder as the world grows more complex.
Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is Power)Francis Bacon (attributed)
Any decision which is incompatible with science will ultimately go wrong, because the science tells us about the world as it is, rather than the world as we might like it to be.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science
Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.
It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.
The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.Abraham Lincoln
Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)
To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.
Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.
How do They decide ?
If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.
If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.
All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?
This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we are to forgive their mistakes then they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.
We can also look at the words and the actions of decision makers, such as political and other leaders and see if they match. Do they tell us, for example, that there are no excuses for not tackling climate change, but but travel there and back by private jet ? When such a mismatch is uncovered it damages trust, not only in a specific leader but in politicians, churchmen, scientists etc as a general group.
Collateral trust damage.
If a member of a group does something which, if it became public would damage trust in that group, there is a natural instinct to close ranks and try to keep to downplay the action. The long term damage to trust shows that this is probably a bad strategy, whether it be corrupt politicians, paedophile priests or policemen or scientists who fabricate evidence to back up their theories.
Do we decide ?
I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.
A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.
This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.
In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.