The Art of Decision-Making

Joshua Rothman: Philosophers have tried to understand how we make decisions and, by extension, what makes any given decision sound or unsound, rational or irrational. “Decision theory,” the destination on which they’ve converged, has tended to hold that sound decisions flow from values. Faced with a choice — should we major in economics or in art history? — we first ask ourselves what we value, then seek to maximize that value. From this perspective, a decision is essentially a value-maximizing equation. If you’re going out and can’t decide whether to take an umbrella, you could come to a decision by following a formula that assigns weights to the probability of rain, the pleasure you’ll feel in strolling unencumbered, and the displeasure you’ll feel if you get wet. Most decisions are more complex than this, but the promise of decision theory is that there’s a formula for everything, from launching a raid in Abbottabad to digging an oil well in the North Sea. Plug in your values, and the right choice pops out. In recent decades, some philosophers have grown dissatisfied with decision theory. They point out that it becomes less useful when we’re unsure what we care about, or when we anticipate that what we care about might shift.

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