Decisions, advocacy & explanation

Deliberation is the reasoning that wraps around a course of action. It is often considered to mean decision making, but I would extend the idea to include advocacy and explanation. Deliberative decisions are made in the knowledge that they will need to be justified and explained.

The advantage of this is that it offers a plausible solution to the problem of rational agency. It has always been difficult to conceptualise the rationality of decision making when the paradigm case of rationality is taken to be theoretical, particularly scientific, explanation. However, if rational agency also includes a form of explanation, then the gap may not be so wide or so problematic.

Decision making can be the private reasoning of an individual or the public reasoning of a corporate entity such as a council or committee but it is always time-limited and engaged. This is not to say that we can’t practice and prepare; we often think about what we would do if we were in someone else’s predicament, or what we might do if we found ourselves in a particular situation, but there is always a hypothetical dimension to such thinking; it doesn’t have the same meaning as making real choices, that are decisive because they are to be put into effect, does.

Decision making is grounded in diagnostics, the identification of a particular predicament as an instance of a class or type. Through this identification a link can be made to the way in which events might be expected to develop and the range of possible interventions that might be made to steer the evolution of the situation in a particular direction.

Inside a particular field, such as medicine, diagnosis is relatively contained, unambiguous and structured; outside specialist domains it becomes much more open-ended, ambiguous and relatively unstructured. It may turn out that there are many possible interpretations or it may be that the situation is unprecedented. A heuristic approach is required to manage the complexity. Decision making is a thoughtful process but complexity and lack of time and  militate against extensive deliberation. Deliberative thinking is often rough and ready. The boundary between deliberative and intuitive decision making is not always solid.

There are a number of common methods of simplifying decision making. To make things easier, we typically take an evolutionary approach, copying what we did the last time with variations at the margins, rather than re-evaluating everything from the ground up. For the same reason we partition our mental accounting rather than weighing every decision globally.

Decision making is further simplified from being constrained by ethical and practical values and by the structuring that comes from situations and roles. Many decisions are made in the context of the roles we play and the situations in which that role is engaged.

There are any number of roles associated with social networks, family structures, occupations and politics. Roles come with rights and duties, privileges and obligations, purposes and values. Particular roles are rarely imposed, but it’s hard to be part of any society without engaging in at least a few different roles.

When we have arrived at a set of possible courses of action, these have to be put into some kind of priority or preference order. The most significant difficulty is that making choices is rarely a matter of comparing like with like; for example, there is always the need to balance the short term against the long term, the probable against the uncertain and the safer against riskier.

Deliberation isn’t necessarily or even usually an algorithmic process of sorting into order a set of known options. The trade-offs required in decision making have to be discovered and, in the process, preferences will come under review and can change. This is even more true if the outcome has to be negotiated with other parties. The real choices can only be known at the moment of decision.

If decision-making is concerned with diagnosing situations and discovering preferences, advocacy is the art of making a case. The paradigm setting for advocacy is the law court, but in almost every situation, from private arguments to business and politics, the case for a proposal has to made and a course of action defended.

There is no rule that says we have to make decisions consistently. I think this is the basic error that moral philosophers make. The world is large and diverse and invites a large and diverse response.

On the other hand, there is a rule that says that justifications must be consistent. Consistency is constitutive of advocacy. An arbitrary and inconsistent justification would undermine itself. The reason is that advocacy grounds decisions in principles. It is an assertion that some principle is important and the obvious response to inconsistency or arbitrariness would be ask why, if the principle is of variable importance to the speaker, it should not also be of variable importance to the audience.

Although advocacy is aimed at ourselves, to give us confidence in our own decisions, there is usually also an external target audience. The audience is itself engaged in the course of events and for that reason, advocacy, like decision making, is accountable to the current predicament and the parties engaged in it. We are not advocates before a detached court. The judgement of a sympathetic audience will be informed by fellow feeling and a recognition that the same principles apply to everyone. Demanding principles may require a course of action from an audience that it doesn’t want to take.

Practical reasoning involves the time-limited integration of judgements and decisions made in a constrained set of circumstances that can be defended and explained to a wider audience. So, while the need to present a case to others will push us beyond the subjective point-of-view and the particular agenda, the scope will be constrained by the considerations of the momentary predicament. 

The third mode of practical reasoning is explanation. Explanation is similar to advocacy in that it is retrospective and is addressed both reflectively towards the decision maker and to the wider audience. The difference is one of purpose. Unlike advocacy, explanations provide insight and information rather than making demands or appeals. Advocacy is often-irksome and challenging and requires some response, whether concurrence, rejection or indifference. Explanation, when it is offered, is offered freely and if heard, heard freely. The explanatory mode is a means of creating a shared understanding, removing as far as possible misunderstanding, miscommunication and misrepresentation.

Unlike disputes in the sciences, there is a no need for a presumption of concurrence or the idea that disagreement is evidence of a problem somewhere.  Agreement is neither necessary nor always beneficial in practical reasoning.  Diversity is the engine of disagreement but also necessary to knowledge and discovery. Premature or insincere agreement is a form of evasion. In many cases, accommodation on the basis of an agreement to differ is sufficient.

On the other hand, the action of offering an explanation creates vulnerability, because explanations are corrigible. If an explanation is wrong, based on mistaken assumptions, misinformation and faulty reasoning, the course of action and the justifications offered to support it will be left hanging. A change of course will be necessary or the explanation will be shown to be a rationalisation or pretext rather than a genuine reason.

By their nature decision making, advocacy and explanation tend towards a reflective way of thinking. Furthermore, there is no partitioning to explanation; theoretical explanations from the arts and sciences inform the practical explanations of decisions made and their justifications; The difference is largely one of degree, a difference in the level of abstraction and generality, rather than kind. In this picture, practical rationality is the product of weaving together different modes of reasoning into a single, though loosely integrated and necessarily complex, structure.

There is a tendency, I think, to conflate decision making and rational agency and ignore justification and explanation. This can then look quite alien to detached theoretical reasoning. The advantage of this three-part model is that it can make more sense of a rational continuity.