Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.

Painting by John Everett Millais entitled Yes or No?

Epistle 16. Posted on 2019-04-16.

A dilemma is a problem that consists of two choice alternatives, and neither alternative is clearly preferable. This article explores the dilemma in the context of philosophical counseling. Common examples include

Should I go to college or not?
Should I stay with my partner or not?
Should I take the out-of-state job or not?

There are other forms of dilemmas, some of which are valid and some of which are not, but the form of the dilemma used here — in philosophical counseling — is to p or not to p.

Almost every decision you’ve ever made, and ever will, may be structured this way. For example, if someone wonders whether they should p or q or r, this still involves the question of whether to p or not to p, and implicitly whether to q or not to q, and so on.

When the best choice is unclear, as it often as, it is helpful to have a formal way of reasoning through the problem. Enter philosophical counseling. In fact, reasoning about dilemmas may even be the hallmark of the profession.

Consider an important question in your life. Now, ask yourself how you plan on solving it. You could ask friends for opinions, which may be helpful, but may also contain faulty reasoning. You could ask a non-philosophical counselor, therapist, or life coach, but chances are they don’t know anything about formally solving a dilemma. As a case in point, wait until a suggestion has been made, and then ask them questions about how, exactly, the suggestion came about. Ask if they used a popular alternative called decision theory, ask specifically for expected utility theory, and then discover that the suggestion lacked any basis in utility. To give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they used a valid alternative to decision theory. Ask away.

My point is that most people are unqualified to offer any advice — whatsoever — on decisions, because most people have not studied — and practiced — decision theory. In case you’re wondering, I have.

If you would like help with a dilemma, there are formal ways to approach it. Your best bet may seem to be Bayesian decision theory, though it probably will prove impractical to use as intended. Deductive logic is another option.

Decision theory gets all of the attention, but it does have problems. Foremost, decision theory for dilemmas is usable in only the simplest of dilemmas. In most real-world decisions, it requires months and teams of scientists, and in many cases, even those are not enough. This is not an exaggeration. I am, again, well-versed in it, but I cannot recommend it as practical.

One of the things that makes utility-based decision theory so impractical is that it requires the decision-maker to elicit both expected probabilities and utilities associated with consequences. We can ignore the probabilities and utilities, and recognize the problems with consequence-based decisions. There are usually too many potential consequences to take into account, let alone to evaluate numerically.

Making a decision based on consequences, as you see, has an explosive complexity. By contemplating both decision theory and ethics, one may reach the conclusion that decisions are best based on other considerations. For example, a boy who follows his father into a nuclear bunker, pushes the red button, and ends up being responsible for nuclear war. He is causally responsible, since he did push the red button, but is he morally responsible since he did not intend harm? Of course not. This ethical situation is not about consequences, which may be regarded as consequentialist ethics. Likewise, decisions may be based on other considerations, analogous to ethics. As alternatives, consider deontology and virtue ethics.

More specifically, consider the choice alternatives of a dilemma as relative to the decision-maker, and use deductive logic. It is impractical to tell the boy in the nuclear room that before he can decide anything, before he can ever move a muscle again, he must spend months evaluating every possible consequence. Rubbish. Instead, to make a good decision the decision-maker considers each choice alternative relative to themselves, which includes their goals. Finally, we have a decision-making method that is both practical and formally reasonable.

If the boy had the information that the red button would cause war, he would not have pressed it because it would have conflicted necessarily with a goal. In this way, a decision can be made objectively in a subjective context, and based on the limited information available to the subject. We have a winner.

Now, there’s quite a bit more to reasonable decision-making in the context of a dilemma, and it cannot all be covered in a simple blog article. What I hope I accomplished was to make you aware there are people who have studied such material and can be helpful to you, and that receiving qualified help is priceless in an important dilemma.

Being faced with a dilemma is more than merely having a problem to solve. Oftentimes, a decision-maker may literally suffer while facing a dilemma, experiencing mental conflict. A tormented decision-maker may become convinced for a duration that option p is better, but then reverse everything in light of a new consideration and return again to that now-notorious option p. The quandary or predicament is often described as a no-win situation or damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and less commonly as the Cornelian dilemma. George Santayana (1863 – 1952) quipped Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament. An ethical dilemma can be particularly uncomfortable.

Don’t get stuck wondering Yes or No? like the figure painted by John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896). When you face a dilemma and you’d like some help with it, please keep me in mind; together we’ll reason through it in a practical way.

Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for Farewell),

Ron Hall

Ron Hall

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