How should we decide?

Why would one be interested in decisions? One reason is because you want to know how people actually decide.  Whole fields – behavioural economics, and parts of psychology – are dedicated to this descriptive question. And for good reason, knowing how people decide, and potential weaknesses or biases in their decision, one can act to help them and even legislate to defend them from those who wish to profit from these weaknesses (as the recent enthusiasm for Nudge in public policy and law makes illustrates).

Another reason stems from interest in the consequences of many individual decisions on the level of a group or society. Economists, but also some schools in sociology for example, often build models aiming to understand how prices, booms, busts, but also institutions, arise from the myriad of individual choices. For this, they need to rely on a (tractable) model of how people choose.

This site is concerned with a third reason for interest in decisions. We – as individuals, as groups, as society – are faced with decisions all the time. Some are easy. Increasingly many, however, are hard. This is especially true at the societal level, as decisions about how to react to the climate change illustrate. It would be helpful to have some guidance as to how we should go about taking such decisions. What is needed, in other words, is normative guidance.

Guidance about how to decide does not tell you what to decide. Decisions about climate policy rely heavily on facts about the climatic impact of human activity and normative guidance has nothing to say on this: science does. On the other hand, science does not say anything about how to decide given what we know about climate impacts: that’s where normative guidance comes in. It tells us how to get from the knowledge (and values) relevant for the decision to the appropriate choice.

This normative question has at times been discussed, in philosophy for example and occasionally in economics. But it is without doubt the most neglected perspective on decision making of the three just mentioned. A situation that is all the more regrettable when we realise how many important, difficult decisions we as a society are faced with. And how little deliberate reflection and discussion there is on how they should be taken. The hope is that this site will contribute to remedying this situation.