New Zealand’s Government has proposed a plan to prevent smoking for future generations. The new legislation will come into force as in 2023, when everybody born from 2008 onwards will be banned from buying tobacco. In this way, it is expected that by 2025 the country could reduce the current smoking rate of 18 % to 5% of population.
It is an incredible decision for a few, a recipe for disaster for others and a positive move for many. It triggers as much criticism as hope. Either way, it is a fact that shows we can imagine a different future and fight for it if we decide to do so. However, there is considerable unpredictability surrounding such a decision.
The single-world view
An area of uncertainty, not the least, will surely be in dealing with the big tobacco companies whose enormous influence on political life is worldwide known.
Effectively, multinationals and governments share the common doctrine of neo-capitalism, the system that allows companies and organisations to hold socio-economic power and to expand globally. It is for those reasons that they clearly need each other and regularly collide over policy decisions.
In unstable times, both invest considerable resources in analyzing the decision-making process. They do so to maximise efficiency while taking reasonable risks. Their cutting-edge technology allows them global communication as well as processing a huge amount of data. The most powerful entities, helped of course by highly intelligent minds, design mathematical models for making reliable forecasts of results. Obviously, schools of business are also committed to considering different perspectives from which to make their final decision based on factors such as utility, ethics, virtue, sustainability, the law and the common good.
Nevertheless, in many situations it looks as if reality is silently slipping away from such theoretical endeavor. Then, when an anomalous situation turns up, how to tackle it? Since its dynamics are unknown, neither theoretical knowledge nor previous experience is enough. Can anyone really find a coherent framework that leads the way to a successful decision? How can one be sure that any risks taken are not putting your company to unnecessary risks? Given the volatility of modern world what if anything can a business trust?
In the shifting sands of markets, many people are used stubbornly to taking refuge from rational thinking, even though the latest scientific research into the cognitive functions involved in the decision-making process conclude that humans are largely influenced by unconscious bias, which are difficult to avoid (cfr. Laboratorio de Neurociencia Teorética y Cognitiva de la UPF). Other people though, following these investigations, openly criticize such rational models and directly emphasize the emotional response that prevails these days in contemporary culture, which is something that also distorts the decision-making process.
Among scientists who have devoted themselves during decades to shedding insight into the role played by feelings, shines the eminent neurologist, Antonio Damasio. He investigates the biological bases of the mind’s dynamism, and he states “We are governed by two types of intelligence, relying on two kinds of cognition” (Feeling and Knowing” p.5), that of reason and that of feelings, both operate together and it is the latter that gives rise to right decisions because “a feeling is the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes” (Looking for Spinoza, 86).
His accurate and brilliant analysis of the interior of the human organism describes in detail the role played by emotions, feelings, brain, mind, and the consciousness to help with the management of life. However, you need something else apart from reading Damasio’s illuminating explanations for having your dilemmas solved, because how do you manage to identify such precise concepts in yourself? When every single one of these inner functions suggest choosing something different, how can you decide which of them you ought to listen to “here and now”?
Trying to disentangle all these inner voices is an arduous task, not to mention attempting to do it when surrounded by the heavily consumerist environment of our society.
Some of its traits such as the countless assortment of goods, the ease of obtaining financial support with great ease and making variety of choice something of fetish (cfr. “Decidir” en pregaria.cat) seem to pursue a constant increase in consumption as well as keeping citizens, transformed into consumers, within that consumerist flow. In this way, a lifestyle based on continuous and unlimited choices generates a mirage for freedom on them, to the point that they can feel that are deciding in their life. Contemporaneously, comfort and immediate pleasure lull the deepest desires of such consumers.
Those consumers, are they able to decide? Might it not be true that they only choose from the predetermined options of others? Is it strange that the number of those who suffer from anguish and disorientation continues to increase in our welfare societies? Not to mention those who see their own life as nonsense. Is it strange that consumption is promoted as the only possible economic system? Can it come as a surprise to anyone that the commonly held belief is that of making money?
It is not the case to enlarge the examples that play down and show the limits of the human ability to decide our own. Immersed in society and aware of the weak scope of our freedom, we can resign ourselves to feeling unable to untangle the opaque threads that move our world. When put our own in front of personal crossroads we can justify poor decisions by claiming our good intentions and, finally, we may try to withstand the consumerist lifestyle. We can, in all this, honestly say that we do what we can.
History as a teacher of life
We certainly do what we can in difficult times, although are we sure that we do all the good we could do? Taking advantage of the new revival of the classical world we well might see those who also lived through turbulent times and knew how to tackle uncertain contexts, someone like Plato. Leaving aside his philosophical system, we can use some of the steps that he took in his search for the meaning of human existence.
For example, he devoted himself to defining the concept of justice and thinking the organization of the polis. In his dialogue “The Republic”, he describes the human capacity to get insight into reality with the metaphor of the cave. When he sets out the sort of knowledge required by politicians, he states that “the power [to do so] is in the soul of each” and also “the instrument with which each learns”. He states this against those who “assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it, as though they were putting sight into blind eyes” (The Republic VII; 518c.)
Without delving into the philosophical meaning of “the power of learning” and “the instrument for it” let us stay with the core of his thought: every person finds in himself or herself the ability to grasp reality. This is also what the contemporary neurologist Antonio Damasio asserts.
Hence, being able to assess accurately what is going on around you, comprehend its dynamics, seeing that context as an opportunity to growth, discerning what risks are unacceptable and what are reasonable comes from within not from without. Obviously, scientific knowledge is necessary, but is insufficient.
To fully understand the implications of such a statement, it would be convenient to be aware that Plato initiated his research not in a moral dialogue but in a social one, where he is questioning the governance of the polis. It is in this political context that he affirms that the necessary ability to discern stems from an internal source. In addition, there is a second remarkable trait, Plato dedicates a considerably large part of the dialogue to specifying the method able to develop such skill. In doing so, he reveals that a skill only benefits us when we try patiently to use it. In a nutshell, training is a must.
It depends on you
In this issue of deciding may happen as in other human dimensions, the key point lays not in what we do but in what we do not do. As previously stated, we certainly do what we can, but we can honestly ask ourselves if we could do things differently. Is it not true that by strengthening that inner source, dedicating time and energy, initiating, and maintaining discernment processes, a kind of certainty emerges in us? Then would we not experience ourselves as capable of facing the surrounding uncertainty? Taking care of our inner source would help us not only to make wiser decisions but also to accompany their implementation to prepare for a better future.