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This centuries-old framework is surprisingly effective for making better decisions

Ethical reasoning has been around for centuries. Having a framework for tough decisions could help you make more impactful moves in work and life this year.

This centuries-old framework is surprisingly effective for making better decisions
[Photo: William Iven/Unsplash]

It’s been quite a year for tough decisions. Between defining work-from-home policies, recalibrating company values, and making personal choices related to the pandemic and our loved ones, current events have us all thinking more deeply about the decisions we make on both a professional and personal level. When we’re motivated to take action, but swimming in uncharted territory, what’s the best way to assess our options and make a decision?

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As it turns out, systematized approaches to ethical quandaries have been debated by philosophers for centuries. Felicific calculus, first defined by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is a framework on how to appropriately weigh the consequences of any given decision. Taken from the branch of ethics known as utilitarianism, Bentham postulates that pleasure and pain are the true motivators of humanity’s decisions and that assessing pros and cons for yourself and others through this lens is the most moral approach.

Felicific calculus is usually reserved for weighty moral decisions in medicine, technology, and innovation. Small stuff like, oh, you know, human cloning. But in modern times, when we’re all thinking more about the long-term impacts of both our professional and personal decisions, having a utilitarian screwdriver in our toolbox certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Whether you’re responsible for important enterprise-level decisions this year, or just need to weigh the pros and cons of eating the last of the leftover pizza without telling your spouse, felicific calculus can provide a measured way to inform your future choices.

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Morality and math

Bentham’s ideology is an algorithm that directs us to weigh the following seven factors to help determine prospective consequences:

  1. Intensity: How intense will the pleasure or pain be on the other side of our decision?
  2. Duration: How long will the pleasure or pain go on?
  3. Certainty: How certain are we that the pleasure or pain will actually happen?
  4. Onset: How long will it take for the pleasure or pain to arrive? (Bentham refers to this as “propinquity”.)
  5. Repeatability: What are the chances that these consequences will be repeated over and over again?
  6. Opposite effect: What are the chances that the pleasure or pain created could be reciprocated back onto oneself?
  7. Number of people: How many people will be affected by this decision, and in what way?

Simple enough, right? Not exactly. Felicific calculus and utilitarianism have their fair share of critics. The most common objection is whether or not happiness is actually quantifiable; Bentham’s formula invites decision-makers to assign “utils” as units of measurement to tally a score, but the numerical value designated to various outcomes is up to the decision-maker. Felicific calculus also doesn’t take into consideration how pleasure and benefit might be unevenly distributed among different parties. For example, if a trillion-dollar tax cut would benefit millions, but almost all the relief is given out at the top, the calculus would base total morality on the total number of dollars distributed, which ignores important socioeconomic nuances.

Dissension aside, thinking before you act is very trendy these days, and various organizations have welcomed scientific rigor with open arms as a way to tackle ethical dilemmas and inspire. Effective Altruism gained increased popularity after a 2013 TED talk from founder and Princeton professor Peter Singer. EA’s site indicates that they “see suffering, injustice and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone actually doing it, can be a difficult and disheartening challenge.” A recent NPR interview with Singer examined how to be of service specifically during a pandemic.

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And as the University of Oxford’s Future Humanity Institute points out, the development of AI is forcing us to make important decisions at the intersection of morality and science. Programming machines to make autonomous choices requires us to look at how we ourselves make moral decisions in the first place.

Save the world . . . or just make better decisions

For most of us, our day job doesn’t involve protecting humanity from the robot apocalypse… yet. But we do want our decisions to be considerate and have a bigger impact, especially after a year in which lights have been shone on inequity and injustice like never before. As you keep impact top-of-mind in your decision-making process, here are a few tips that might help.

Consider how outcomes affect others. Collaboration is cute. Take the time to understand how your decisions impact others, particularly direct reports or peers, and your intentions will be better-received.

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Make your position clear. Consumers are looking to align with like-minded brands more than ever before. Make this decision easy by having your values and what you stand for be front and center.

Slow down to speed up. Hustle culture is all the rage, but the essence of felicific calculus is to practice deep consideration before making your next move. When you’re crystal clear on your path forward, taking steps in the right direction becomes a lot easier.

Whether the decisions you make this year involve saving the world or just making next week a little bit easier, having a protocol to move forward can inspire you to take action. Instead of reinventing the wheel, consider adapting an existing philosophical approach to make wiser decisions for the months and years ahead.

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Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.


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