Month: November 2013

Should you live like it was your last day?

We all like to think that we are very rational people, that our decisions follow a constant set of rules and all in all have a pretty good image of ourselves. When asked why we act in some way, we usually have a rational sounding answer. We  can’t stand having no answer and we don’t love admitting making mistakes.

My friend, who self-diagnosed himself having Asperger syndrome, said in an ongoing discussion that at the last moments of hislife, it seems logical to him to choose having a banana over saving a family’s life. Explaining that the personal gain and expected value of the eaten banana goes up drastically, when your time is so limited – you basically improve your whole remaining life and also, you won’t have to face the consequent problems of guilty conscience.The act changes however, if you’re not going to die at the next moment – if he’d have more time to live, he’d save the family. Now I’m not yet able to perfectly interpret and understand what’s going on in his mind, but I got interested with the possibility of changing personal values when your own state changes. Do we have an inner code that we follow and how often and why do we change it?

Our decisions change, when our situation changes. From mathematics it should be fully logical. You would say that I’m a dummy, if I start thinking why the outcome of A + B is different than A*A + B or  B + D. But outside mathematics, drastic changes of world view seem illogical. Or is it my own rational instinct of holding on to previously made decisions and stay away from contradicting myself? Is the comparison itself so absurd that it wouldn’t come up in reality and my mind can not comprehend a situation, where I would choose bananas over people.

Staying on course of mathematics and physics, Daniel Robinson from The Teaching Company made a good lecture on Newton. As I interpret Isaac Newton’s philosophy, he  was dividing matters into two categories:

  • An ideal situation – the theoretical happening, where everything is “as it should be” and follows a concrete theory.
  • A practical situation – observations and real situations

Hypothetical and approximate results are not to be compared with the absolute truth – observations have variables. So Newton was an advocate of solving problems as ideal abstractions,  returning to the hypothesis and comparing observational data with the ideal theoretical solution and seeing how these two match up. “An idealised model of an imaginable world can be used to frame and test conjectures regarding the facts of the actual world.”

So, according to him, we could have an idealized code that we use to make everyday decisions and the ideal theoretical system should explain all practical situations.

The One Ring

One ideal to rule them all.
One ideal to find them.
One ideal to bring them all
and in the enlightenment bind them.

Following the idea of an ideal, we come to Kant and his moral imperative, which states that you should act in the way as you believe could be implemented as a common practice or law.  That is, find the theoretical ideal code and follow it always. And that means not giving in and no discussions on the “price” of the decision you make. The “price” can be explained by a little joke: A woman, who agreed to have intimate relations(oh, so gently said) with a stranger for a million gold coins, was asked if she would do it for two coins instead. She blurted, offendedly: “Who do you think I am?” The outburst was met with a calm statement: “Well, we made clear what you are, now we’re just determining the price.” So you either follow the rule always or you do not follow it.

That is the way people often act, however. And clearly illustrates the point which came into my interest in the banana case. There are many people who would take the million, but would offend to a smaller offer. Does that say that we don’t have the ideal or that this is just the practical world and we can’t see all the variables.

Now, I embrace the fact that we do not know the reasons why we act. Or that in most cases we go by the “gut feeling”. I think that’s perfectly normal and Kant’s imperative is the theoretical view of life and not quite a practical one. In practice, there are too many different situations and backgrounds to decisions that a presence of one golden rule is nigh impossible. But knowing about the possibility of it creates an interesting goal to work towards.

It’s amusing that people are using “I didn’t have a choice” defence so often. That means, they know they did something that does not go by the(ir) moral norm, but they had a reason for it. But that’s it. You had a choice actually, and you chose your way. You just scaled the options and found one is better for you than the other. It’s as simple as that. It may seem that your hands were tied, but you still chose to act in the way you did. To save their perception of themselves, they choose to believe that it was not them, who must take the responsibility and the situation was caused by something else.

So is the question “was it wrong” a good one? How to start measuring the correctness of these “I didn’t have a choice” decisions? Is there a way? I think that sometimes it is enough that people understand they have a power over their actions. You made a choice that didn’t correspond with your previous ideals. Maybe you should think about that and reorganise your perception of yourself rather than take a defencive stance? Take responsibility in you own mind. It only helps to grow mental powers as you are not shifting decision making away from yourself.

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