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Personal choices

Tipping the balance

We tend to believe that in relation to the rest of humanity, our personal decisions don't count for much, but is that really true?

This article came as result of the sychronicity of watching the Eye in the Sky movie, and a comment thread from a post in LinkedIn. The movie is about whether a drone should be directed to release a missile at some terrorists, depending upon the likelihood of death or injury to a small girl selling bread outside the terrorists' building. The thread is about what constitutes wise choices.

We tend to only see what we do as effecting just those who may directly involved, thus ignoring many of the consequential effects. But what we do has effects that propagate outwards from us, generally having less of an effect the further they are separated from us. That propagation is in both space and time.

It's a numbers gameβ–³

A lot of decisions come down to some, perhaps vague, arbitrary figure, either side of which our actions will be substatially different.

For example, a shop has a lot of products. The owner or manager may decide which to continue selling based upon whether they sell more than a certain number per month. The actual decision may depend on other considerations, but in the end, it will usually come down to a rounded figure on a spreadsheet. That rounding is where an individual's decision may have a dramatic effect.

Now, one person could decide to buy one of a stock item that is on the margin. The shop owner's decision to continue stocking the item might come down to whether that one person chooses to buy that item at the end of the month, thereby tipping over the critical figure, or defer till a couple of days later, resulting in the final sales for the previous month being rounded down. If the shop is part of a chain, that product may be teetering on the edge of discontinuation in a corporate spreadsheet, which may just be rounded down enough for the whole chain to drop the product.

Some other scenarios are:

  1. aDrug dealer decides to quit the game because they get the sense that their patchy sales means that it is not working for them, just because a valued customer decides that they can forgo it or buy elsewhere.
  2. bA phone company decides to defer fixing some bugs in a feature because it was not useful to enough users.
  3. cPolice forces do not commit enough resources to handling domestic violence because not enough are reporting it.
  4. dYour spouse or partner decides to stop doing something you like because you are not providing enough appreciation to show that you really want it.

These are all marginal situations, but that is where one can have an effect, because what happens next is mostly determined by your decision. So, given this power, how do we get to be the one who makes the difference?

Generally, you can't, and that is because it is often too difficult to determine how to be the right one in the sequence to affect the decisions of others, who you may never meet nor otherwise influence, other than by your chance action. This leads people to start figuring that they are a fairly insignificant blip on the radar of life. They can feel that their decisions don't really affect society, so may feel safe in that anonymity to pursue some perhaps nefarious activities.

A practical approachβ–³

We mostly have no idea how much effect each of our choices will have, just because we are not privy to the information that would allow us to determine that, let alone make any decision based on it.

When a lot of us do the same thing, whether it is vote for a particular party, buy a certain brand of phone, or prefer a particular brand of toilet paper, we signal to the providers of those to continue to provide them. They will want to continue to gain our custom, so they will try to improve the products in order to continue to appeal to us.

These companies are looking at our aggregated decisions and actions, not at us as individuals. If we were an organised group we may have a more direct opportunity to influence their policies, but mostly we are individuals, making individual decisions, that just happen to be similar to many others.

This idea of bulk decision-making may provide a key to helping us to make our individual decisions. In particular, it provides a way of imagining the consequences of our decisions, which, of their own, may appear minor.

Question to self

The basic approach is to ask oneself:
What would the world be like if 60% of people
made the same choice I am making?

For example, deciding to steal something from a shop may appear to be fairly trivial among all their sales, but it would be devastating to the shop's survival if 60% of people entering it did the same. A gang member may feel safe in among its members, but that is dependent upon almost everyone else being law-abiding citizens. If 60% of people were in gangs, the streets would be extremely unsafe.

Here we are seeing that selfish actions just don't scale. Societies are a consensus, so while it may be able to tolerate a few people with such disruptive eccentricities, wholesale selfish divergence is going to lead to societal breakdown. We see people of ill intent seeking to leverage mass selfishness for their own ends.

Conversely, seeing that a mass implementation of your actions would lead to good outcomes for society, you may be spurred on to continue to repeat those actions, despite initial resistance from others.

This is not to say that change is bad, but it will not work if society is not ready to adapt to that change. Unfortunately, a lot in our societies is defined by thinking patterns that eventually stifle worthwhile change. Such blinkers are typically religious or political ideologies that define an accepted set of behaviours, divergence from which is seen as some sort of blasphemy or threat to the state.

If we want to make worthwhile changes to our world, we have to be the model for those changes, just so others can see that those changes are alright, or even that they might work for them. Imagine and write about what the changes would look like for society in general, as until that expanded view can enter the mass consciousness, resistance may kill the chances of change.

Back to the movieβ–³

The use of drone technology has dramatically changed how risks are managed in conflicts, but it is a world away from what happens in wars.

In conflicts, the basic assumption is that the general population is mostly innocents caught up in a power struggle between rival groups or the government and rebels. This assumption means that those who have a vested interest in minimising undue disruption to the lives of those innocents will take measures to ensure that the risks of such harm are minimised, by limiting the destructive capability, and increasing the targeting capability, of weapons.

That all changes in war, as then the general population of a country is seen as supporting the government of the country, especially if they voted them in, so are fair game for destruction by their enemies, notwithstanding pockets of resistance.

Many have grown used to limited conflicts where losses are vastly less than in full-blown wars, so have expected that there is some fairness and that civilians should be able to be spared. The reality is that conflict harms all people, and no-one is spared. If that is not acceptable, avoid the conflict to begin with!

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