How do You Know If You're Making the Right Decision?
Are you faced with choices and you are not sure what to do? Are you afraid of making the wrong decision?
There are some rules of thumb when it comes to facing challenging situations.
Prudence is the term and virtue given to the application of right reason to action and right reason of action and is essential in the decision making process. Aristotle defined prudence as the "right reason applied to practice." Since prudence deals with actions, it helps the person know what is to be done in any situation.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, prudence does three things known as the three acts of decision making: 1. To take counsel, 2. To judge soundly and 3. To command their employment (i.e. act).
1 The act of counsel
Prudence requires the understanding that knowledge of a single lifetime is not as great as the accumulation of lifetimes. One person cannot know all the particulars that a person can face in a lifetime. So he needs counsel. Counsel also means general learning from others' achievements and mistakes without direct advisement.
Don't ignore the wealth of knowledge and experience that has come before you. We often fail to think of or appreciate how much work and thought has gone into the things we value today. Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.
The second is judgment which determines the proper means to attain the end. It is dependent upon virtue as much if not more so than impartial rationality.
Rational judgment involves holding together concepts so that the resulting composite (content judged) conforms to how things are. The ability to reason through important decisions, solve problems, generate creative ideas, and set goals can be gained by developing logical skills. Logic builds the mental habit of thinking in an orderly way. Logic, according to Peter Kreeft, will help you attain happiness. All of us long for happiness because no matter what else we desire, we hope that it will be a means to happiness, or part of happiness. When we attain what we desire, we are happy, and we are all the more likely to attain it if we think more clearly, and logic makes us think more clearly. Thus logic makes us happy. A good resource for improving your logic skills is Peter Kreeft's book Socratic Logic.
Knowing the different logical fallacies and cognitive distortions will help you with understanding and keeping you from falling into faulty reasoning as well.
That is applying counsel and judgment to action.
It is not simply good to take good counsel and judge rightly. One needs to act prudently as well. For instance, I may judge properly that overeating is bad for my health but not act rightly when eating so much that it causes a belly ache. I know from experience and judgment that overeating results in having an upset stomach but may not act rationally when eating out.
What are the essential parts of prudence?
Memory is essential to make a prudent decision. We must remember the advice of good counsel. We must have knowledge of the past to make prudent decisions. Disordered life of passions can hinder one's memory. Those who lead a life of passion tend to suffer from inconsideration and lack of judgment necessary, which is required for memory. Another hindrance to memory is remembering the wrong things due to a lack of understanding.
Understanding is necessary to grasp the current state of affairs as they are. It gives the person knowledge of not just universals but how those universal principles apply in a given case. Therapist often help their clients reformulate a memory, such as a traumatic experience so, to allow them to separate from the things that are false and harmful.
The last is reason. Reason is the ability to apply universals to particulars well. "Only reason knows both the universal good of the individual as well as the particular good in the concrete" Ripperger. Reason is the application of logic to understand and judge something rightly.
How can we apply these principle in our decision making?
When a client is struggling with a challenging situation. One of the things I will have them do is reflect on the following questions (adapted from Dr. Gregory Popcak):
1. What your automatic response tends to be in that stressful situation? What, specifically, you didn’t like about the response?
This gets you thinking about your passions. What good are they telling you? It is love of the good that gives rise to your passions. It is love of the good, for instance that gives rise to anger. That does not excuse anger, but our passions do tell us something. What is it?
2. What virtues were missing from your default response? What qualities would have been helpful to be able to access in that situation?
One way to apply this is by looking to the virtue or mean from any extreme or deficit in your default response. I attached here a diagram to help with the visual. Aristotle describes a virtue as a “mean” or “intermediate” between two extremes: excess and deficiency. We should aim at this mean or keep it in mind in our decision making process.
What is your ideal? Is it reasonably good? How can we exemplify this virtue and make it a habit?
3. Identify different times you have been able to display those qualities in different situations when you were under pressure.
The purpose of this is to help activate your memory to help in the decision making process. Which decision will bring more enduring, deep, and pervasive happiness according to right reason and experience?
4. How could you adapt those more virtuous/productive responses to this different, frustrating situation?
This will help you get from the judgment to the choice or act in the decision making process. Sometimes it helps by breaking down our options into smaller choices and listing the pros and cons.
5. What structures of support you will create (phone reminders, notes, daily reflection time, an accountability partner, etc.) to help you remember to use this new, more virtuous response next time.
Lastly, it is important to know whether we made the right choice with little regret. Aristotle says any choice is good or "choiceworth," if it is a good thing. This means that if reason has determined it is a good option for us as virtuous beings, then it was a good choice, even if it is unpleasant. Sometimes the right thing to do is unpleasant and cannot be the determining factor. But you should never regret a decision if you have made it in good conscience, aiming at the good without using dishonest means. I speak more to guilt and shame here if you have made a regrettable decision and don't know what to do with that guilt.
Reach out to a therapist if you are facing difficult decisions. They can help you walk through the decision making process.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.