14 March, 2011

The usefulness of an action

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about classes of actions, and how we decide or define what we want or what we should do. A major part of human life consists of making decisions about how to spend a given time frame and then executing the relevant actions following the decisions or choices. But how do we actually make these choices? How do we actually decide what to do? There are several possible ways to classify actions and the decision criteria, but this time I’ll look into just one of them: usefulness. I think it’s a very commonly accepted proposition that one should focus on doing things that are useful.

What is usefulness, and when can something be called useful? Dictionary.com defines the word useful as
1.       being of use or service; serving some purpose; advantageous, helpful, or of good effect: a useful member of society.
2.       of practical use, as for doing work; producing material results; supplying common needs: the useful arts; useful work.
It is clear from the dictionary definition that a thing is useful when it promotes achieving a certain goal or result. The useful is a means to obtain something that we hold to be intrinsically valuable. To put it in different words: the useful action is the way towards the goal, whatever it is. The goal is of intrinsic value.
There are some variables to consider in deriving the usefulness of an action. These would include at least
  • magnitude of effects
  • mixture of effects
  • division of effects
  • effort expenditure
  • considered time frame
Magnitude of effects
This means that the larger the effect on promoting the reaching of my goal, the better an action is. Naturally, the ultimate best action would be one that instantly makes me reach my goal (unless the journey itself has intrinsic value, of course). The effect can be divided into several subcategories, as there are effects on personal, social and society level. Especially the two latter are often key to understanding the ethics of an action.
Another very important point in effects is that they are in no way limited to the normal business understanding of value creation. Unless one’s goal is strictly economic success, there are beneficial actions, which on the outer layer seem to be totally useless. In its extreme form, this would reduce friendship to networking and relaxing to recover strength for economic endeavours. But just a not: this is not the only way to think about it, and not the only possible goal. 

Mixture of effects
An action, which only has positive effects, is better than one with also negative ones. This is psychologically an interesting category, since we have a habit of deciding in favour of alternatives with no drawbacks, even though the end effects might be greater and the net result better with the “worse” option. This is even more so in the case of positive effects in the future, yet negative effects in the present.

Division of effects
An action which benefits several people is often more worth my time than an action benefiting solely myself. Negative effects are not so bad if they affect only me, as I know already how I feel about those. Bu negative effects on other people are unpredictable, since I will hardly ever know for sure how those people feel about something. So to impose negative effects on others is a risk.

Effort expenditure
Clearly, an action is more useful if it consumes fewer resources and leaves the possibility to do something else too. But it’s not so easy to know, what constitutes as a big effort. What’s the standard of comparison? A further complication is that not all resources are equal: time is not money, or at least not in a linearly translatable way. So a question of its own is to devise a scheme to be able to make decisions about different resources: what are the connections of time, money and mental health, for example? I’m sure everyone has their own answer to that.

Considered time frame
Last, but not least, one variable not to forget is the considered time frame. It is very different to analyze actions in the scope of a day than in the scope of several years. Going for a run makes me feel energetic in the short term, but in the long term it promotes health and lengthens my lifespan. Studying, for example, is a good example of something, where most of the important effects are considered to be long term. I’m not sure if I agree with that, but still, I agree there are actions with which most of the positive effects come only later, and the effort is still linear right from the start (or is it really?). 

Even after this framework, there are still many unresolved problems in deciding, whether a given action is useful and in what degree. Some of these problems go very deep into philosophy or psychology, and I am definitely not expecting to come up with a magic solution. Problems such as
  • How much do we give weight to others’ feelings?
  • What is my goal in the end?
  • What is the difference in wanting something in itself, or wanting something to prove a point in the social ranking, and how can I know which one applies to me wanting something?
  • When will I know an action is the best possibility? Could there have been better choices?
  • How much does it make sense to “sacrifice” for possible positive effects in the future?
The list is not in any way comprehensive, and I definitely don’t know the answer to any of those questions – if any of them. Nonetheless, I believe that a structured framework is always beneficial and at least it does help to try to formulate thoughts and decisions properly.

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