A gentleman from Indonesia asked me recently, “How do I make an objective decision?” This is an interesting question because, while many of us want to make objective decisions, it’s not really obvious how to do so. It’s not even clear that this is a goal we should strive for. Here’s a slightly expanded version of how I answered his question:
An objective decision is one which is not influenced by one’s personal feelings, perspectives, interests and biases. Instead, it considers only verifiable facts and all stakeholders’ interests (perhaps equally). It may even respect stakeholders who have yet to be born, animals and the Earth as a whole. An objective decision seeks to maximize the benefits, net of costs, conform to the rules and values of those stakeholders.
From the perspective of benefits and costs, the decision may seek to ensure that at least one person is better off, but no one is harmed (towards a Pareto optimality). In some cases where there is complete information and markets, it may be appropriate for a decision to make some people worse off, provided they can be compensated by those who benefit (Hicks-Kaldor efficiency).
With respect to the rules and values of stakeholders, the decision maker must gather evidence of these attitudes from them. Insofar as there are disagreements and conflicting priorities, the decision maker has to find a reasonable way to address these. For example, the decision can attempt to meet a minimum threshold of moral acceptability from all affected.
Regardless of perspective, an objective decision must rely solely on facts, evidence and analysis that is, in principle, verifiable by selfless and disinterested people with diverse points of view, interests and backgrounds. One check: an exhaustive search for disconfirming evidence turns up empty. While not all stakeholders need agree with a proposed decision, their views must have been incorporated in the decision.
A useful thought experiment to perform to check whether your decision is objective is to pretend you are making the decision from behind a “veil of ignorance”. In this scenario, you don’t know anything about your personal preferences or circumstances. Instead, you are aware of the interests of the people who are affected. You might even imagine a lottery that would determine which stakeholder you might turn out to be. When you take the “view from nowhere” would you still make the same decision?
A real-life test for objectivity is consensus. Simply ask the stakeholders if they agree with the decision. If this is impractical, perhaps find representatives of each group of stakeholders that shares their interests.
So, a surprising benefit (and criterion) of objective decisions is that they are intrinsically fair and just. They naturally account for the interests of everybody who is affected.
However, objectivity may not always be desirable. Many decisions affect us individually or certain groups more than others. Shouldn’t the decision weight my (and certain groups’) interests more heavily? For example, one’s choice of career certainly affects the individual more than others and so ought to be at least partially subjective. In addition, some decisions must be made quickly or are just not important enough to merit the additional effort to be objective.
In short, an objective decision is a just and fair one, supported by verifiable facts, with which rational and informed people will tend to agree. That said, subjectivity has its place. It’s up to us to determine mindfully the degree of objectivity is required in each case.
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