Sunday, 28 January 2007

Why We Do What We Do

Why do we choose one course of action over another? And on what ethical basis? I've been wondering about this, as I've had to make a lot of decisions of late. Partly because I've been putting some of them off for some time; partly because opportunities have arisen that I have had to weigh up; and partly because I've come to a stage in my life where simply being has got to be substituted by purposeful action. Participation rather than spectation is the order of the day. Call that a quarter life crisis if you will, but suddenly the fact that life is short and the choices are many has been highlighted with a big neon sign over the doorway of my mind.

So how do we decide ethically what decisions to make? How do we weigh up the options? I'll turn to my philosophy reading list for a few ideas. The rationalist says that we take stock of the possibilities and, by process of elimination, come to the most reasonable conclusion. The utilitarian says that we follow that course of action which leads to the greatest happiness. The Nietzschian says that we do what we do for no other reason than that we will it.

The problem is, we are not always as rational, or as capable of summing the alternatives, as we would like to think. As James Griffin has noted, the idea that we can calculate total benefits against total costs demands something like a Godlike knowledge of the world and the consequences of any particular action (the whole butterfly flaps its wings and an earthquake occurs on the other side of the world kind of scenario).

Being quite simply human, the most likely scenario seems to be, as Joseph Raz observes, that having disqualified a number of options on rational or emotional grounds then it is our will, and our will alone, that provides the grounds for subsequent decision-making. Though of course, decisions are made on a whole number of bases - the time available to think through the options, our levels of tiredness, indifference, or simply capacity to think.

So the more you look at it, the less absolutely ethical, or rational, anything we do seems to be. Perhaps the best axiom is simply do what seems right to you at the time. And should that prove to be a poor choice, and our lives are too short to start over again in the new-found knowledge that a different course of action is preferable, we must simply live with the fact of our limitations.

That also seems to be one of the best reasons for believing in God. Whatever we humans discover is always a partial truth, and, even if such truths prove absolutely true, there is no reason to beleive that there are no other axes for truth of which we remain ignorant.

As such, I am off to Brussels for no good reason except that the opportunity has come along and I am too tired and busy to look for more good reasons not to take it.


Peter said...

It'll be sad to see you go so soon - just as I was getting to know you. But well, you seem to have applied the finest philosophical systems to your decision, and if the result is 'go to Brussels' then I am sure it will work out.

Consider This said...

thanks Pete - but I am sure that the blogosphere connection will allow our frienship to flourish. It's certainly revelatory what people post :)

Take care and see you soon I hope