Part of what it means to be a man is to make decisions in this world.
Part of making decisions involves setting off a chain of consequences which impact the lives of other people, positively and negatively.
A man of good character will, at least consider the consequences of his actions on other people around him, especially those he is responsible for. However, no matter how hard you may try to avoid it, sometimes you find yourself in a situation where no matter what you do, the consequences are going to harm someone, in some way.
This can be an extremely difficult period of time in a man’s life. From deciding to relocate and take your family somewhere new (severing the ties they have with grandparents, their friends, etc), to telling your wife about that affair you had that’s been eating you alive from the inside out for years, to deciding to get out of the job you despise and detest to pursue your own happiness and fulfillment, despite the fact that others depend on you, we’ve all got to face these things and deal with them head on at some point.
Quite often, these situations can lead to paralysis and indecisiveness. There are either too many variables to consider or there just isn’t enough information to know what to do next. Sometimes the right thing to do is sit and wait, and let life, the greatest change agent of all, do its work and move you out of the situation by itself, which it eventually will.
Other times, you’ve got to man up and make a call. It can be tough, it can be nasty, it can be messy, and you’ve got to deal with the fallout one way or another. That being said, you’ve still got to make a judgment call and pull the pin at some point.
First, let’s explore some things we can do which can help us gain clarity and understand as best we can the various angles and consequences of our decisions, and then let’s look at some of the theories the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers have espoused over time to help us make better decisions.
Gathering Information to Make Better Decisions
The first thing we need to do is gather information. Generally speaking, the more information you have, the better the decision will be.
Information can be about various things, but it mainly includes considering what the costs and benefits of various courses of action will be. As a man, you can’t help but have certain feelings regarding a place, person or thing, but sometimes you need to be able to set those emotions aside and logically look at your options.
Consider what it will cost you. What resources are the various courses of action going to use up? Time? Money? Relationship collateral? What do you stand to gain and what do you stand to lose from all of the various courses of action in front of you? What do others stand to gain or lose?
Consider who is going to be affected? Most of us aren’t narcissists who only consider what we want. If we have wives, children, in-laws, friends and loved ones, we will be aware that what we do has an impact on their lives and will cause them both pleasure and pain. It’s true that you can’t please all the people, all the time, but you should at least think about the pain your actions might cause others before you do something and try to minimize it or come to a win-win situation, if possible.
Consider when you can do various things. Sometimes the severity of the consequences of an action can be reduced by doing it at the right time. Some things are best to get out in the open right from the get go, such as confessing guilt over an abuse of trust in an ongoing relationship, while some things need to be done at a later date, such as relocating, moving or changing careers.
Would it be better to hang in for a year in a job that sucks, saving everything you can, to have that financial cushion for your family before you make the move? Would it be better to pay off an existing loan before you decide to start a business? Think about the time-frame for taking various courses of action, and then decide when’s best.
Consider why you might take various courses of action. Is it because you think it’s the right thing to do? Is it because you stand to gain something? Is it because it’s what’s right for your children, family or self? One of the most agonizing forms of decision you can have to make is when one or more of the ‘whys’ conflict and you have a clash of values.
Maybe you have to do something that’s right for you but wrong for your spouse. Maybe you have to do something that’s right for your children, but will destroy your spouse (such as removing them from a problem person’s influence). When you get your list of reasons, look at them and decide which is the most important ‘why’. This can bring instant clarity. EG, doing what’s right for your children is often something that can immediately trump all other considerations and solve the dilemma or make the decision easier. You’ll have to decide which reason matters more, and this may mean realigning and updating your internal values to cope.
Once you have all of this information, review it and get a gut feeling for what’s right. Having things spelled out in front of you like this can help you gain clarity and know what to do. This helps us make better decisions in life and business.
Ethical Theories for Making Decisions
Sometimes our internal values come into conflict, making us indecisive, confused and unsure how to proceed. When our internal systems fail to provide the answers we need, we can look to the theories laid down by history’s greatest thinkers for guidance. Generally speaking these apply mostly to moral decisions, but since most decisions impact other people, it could be said that almost all decisions are of some sort of moral element.
Theory 1: Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You
This theory was most famously espoused by the biblical character of Jesus. He said this in the new testament. While I certainly do not follow religion of any form or shape, I can see the value in this golden rule.
Following this principle can be extremely difficult, because it often means you have to do something that’s not right for yourself, but right for someone else. It is a self-sacrificing principle.
This theory clarifies things instantly. Been wondering whether you should confess to hiding money from your spouse or lying about something? Consider how you would like them to act, if the tables were turned. This can immediately help you solve a dilemma and make a call.
The only limitation to this theory is that sometimes there are lots of different parties involved in a decision and you just can’t make a decision that’s fair or right for everyone. In this case you just won’t be able to treat everyone as they wish to be treated. Someone is going to get the short end of the stick. Just try to treat the losing party with respect and do things amicably.
Theory 2: Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism was a theory espoused by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. He said that we should calculate the consequences of an action before taking it, and do the thing which maximizes pleasure for the greatest number of people. Since all people count for one, you need to consider everyone who may be affected and do what’s right for the greatest number.
Of course, there are very obvious glaring flaws to this theory. It can be useful in some situations, but it justifies some pretty heinous actions. Another version of utilitarianism is ‘negative’ utilitarianism, which tells us to do the thing which reduces harm to the greatest number of people. An example of this would be to let go of a relationship which is bringing a whole family endless misery.
Utilitarianism can be useful when calculating the consequences of our actions, but it rarely allows us full insight since we can’t possibly know what the full scope of consequences to our actions will be. It’s virtually impossible to calculate accurately.
Theory 3: Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism is basically the principle that you only do what’s right for others in situations that it benefits you to do so. Since everyone is essentially self-interested, the theory goes, there’s nothing wrong with you doing the same.
This theory simplifies matters a great deal since there’s only one party to consider – you. However, it doesn’t account for the multifaceted decisions we sometimes need to make where our interests are actually tied up with other people and their interests.
For example, this theory won’t help you much when you have to make family decisions. Since what’s right for you can be bad for your family, and doing what’s bad for your family can ultimately harm you, this theory falls short of being a solve-all. You might do something that’s right for you today but will turn out to be in your detriment years down the road, such as faking your CV to get a job you aren’t qualified for, so it’s impossible to use this principle in those situations.
While it’s true that doing what’s right for you is what most people do, the worldview that we are all one would say that this theory therefore requires you to consider others in your calculations for this principle to even be valid. It would also say that considering your children and spouse, who are part of you, as well as society at large, who are also part of you, is essential to living in accordance with this principle.
Theory 4: Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics is basically the idea that you hold true to your principles, no matter what the cost to yourself or others.
Essentially, virtue ethics means doing what you believe to be the right thing at all costs. Some people, for example, believe in the maxim ‘If it can be destroyed by truth, it should be destroyed by truth’, which means telling it like it is no matter if someone’s feelings get hurt or a relationship crashes and burns as a result.
It’s hard to fault this theory, but it can be seen by some as self-righteous. It certainly proves you have a strong soul and that you won’t compromise who you are or what you’re about, but sometimes this means others have to pay the price for your integrity to remain in tact. I this really fair to them?
I’ve personally witnessed the truth reverberate like a nuclear weapon, destroying entire families, companies and friendships. I’ve also seen the principle ‘do no harm’ lead to extreme harm later, when someone decided to cover up the truth about a situation in the name of protecting someone, only for them to find out later and have their entire reality shattered.
Truth is not the only thing to consider, but since most of us never find ourselves in a situation where we have to kill or steal, it’s usually the thing which factors into most moral dilemmas.
So, should you tell your best friend you saw his wife out with another man? Should you come forward and tell your boss there’s a scheme afoot within the organization and people are stealing? Should you keep your mouth shut about abuse that’s afoot within your family that could lead to someone you love going to jail or worse?
All of these are tough calls to make, but we’ll almost all have to make them at least once at some point in our lives. There are no fast and easy answers, and decision-making, especially involving moral factors, can be agonizing no matter what we do.
Decisions are often hard, but they’re real nonetheless. There’s no avoiding them and no getting around them by burying our heads in the sand. Being a man means making the tough calls that come with leadership.
I hope this article has shed some light on how to make better decisions and resolve dilemmas. Whatever you do, I’m sure it’ll be for the best!
So what do you think? What tools do you use for making decisions? How do you deal with ethical dilemmas as they arise?
Desire. Decide. Persist.