How to decide: to do, or not to do?

Thinking about the most crucial dilemma of all time.

By Harshvardhan in life thoughts

April 13, 2019

At times in your life, you will arrive at a point when you need to decide between the two equally good sounding options. You will feel one of the choices is “right”. Other isn’t. One of the picks will result in instant gratification. The other will give you long term benefits. Arguments exist for both sides, but you, probably like me, remain confused.

I have thought over this question for a long time. It keeps biting me. I arrived at some conclusion; you’re welcome to question it. My ascertainment and the rest of this article is based on anecdotes and some limited literature.

I then remember Prof Swain’s class on philosophy and ethics. He started the course by noting the difference between law and ethics. If you were to understand them through Venn diagrams, laws would lie inside the circle of ethics. Therefore, even if something isn’t explicitly prohibited, it’s not the ethical thing to do.

Next, he taught us about the various ethical perspectives. Law of Means. Aristotle. Egoistic Approach. More like them. However, utilitarianism stood out. It was a bit different from the others. It understood that decisions would lead to some people’s happiness and others' suppression of interests. It advised for “maximum happiness of maximum number”. Another argument attacked it, saying this logic of utilitarianism could justify genocides. That argument is overblown, but I got the idea. This theory could not give me the correct answer to what is right.

Then, I took a workshop class by three different professors where we discussed all Volkswagen dieselgate fiasco. Before taking that course, I concluded that Volkswagen’s managers were to be blamed for the debacle. However, after reading the case materials, I learned that they were not the only ones who had committed something wrong. The most striking point in the case was when the company asked the customers to bring back the car so that Volkswagen could plug out a specific diesel device; the consumers were enraged. They didn’t want low mileage cars – who cares about pollution anyway than the government itself.

I read about Winterkorn and other executive’s opinions. They weren’t grossly wrong – car companies need to sell their cars. Regulations about air pollution are stringent, and consumers demand high mileage at a low price which are on extreme ends. They broke the law by hiding the fact that the cars were polluting in the real world. However, it didn’t affect them a lot as a company. The sales barely dropped in the US and remained more or less the same elsewhere.

Then, I also watched the movie and read the case of Enron. A plethora of things that went wrong. Just before the stock price toppling, they were sky high – an excellent point for shareholders. The management’s duty is to its shareholders, according to Milton Friedman. They are supposed to make the checklist of things that enhance shareholder values, an essential part of shareholder wealth. I am a management student, so I do picture myself someday forth when I would have to decide on such a situation. What would I do? More importantly, what should I do?

To prepare me for that day, I decided to build on a framework to determine the ethics based on my limited understanding. At the very least, I won’t regret choosing an apple over an orange twenty years down the line. I borrowed a large part of it from Bhagwat Gita, an excellent life book that first my mother suggested I read, and always kept a copy with me ever since.

First, I should decide what my karma is — the purpose. The Matrix (movie series) showed that even a program has its karma and purpose. I am here for a specific task which I should pursue at all costs. A CEO must increase shareholder value. A family guardian must take care of family members. A police officer must guard the city and its residents. Yama must let people die when it’s their time. It’s their sacred duty - their karma - their purpose.

Then, I should understand that my stay here is forever. This part here is in the schema of the long journey that I must undertake. I want to add the reference to immortal atman (soul) being reborn here, but that would make it very dramatic.

Keep in mind two things: your duty and that everything is a part of the journey. It will help you decide what is right: when you have to choose between the options, X and Y, choose the one which is your duty to, not forgetting the long-term impact of the decision.

To exemplify, consider the case of Volkswagen. Winterkorn and other executives were supposed to do what would give them the highest returns for their shareholders. Then the question is, what did they do wrong? They undertook something illegal, something which was not going to enhance shareholder value in the long term. And as I stated earlier, shareholder values not only consist of wealth but are more than that. They did something illegal in their business – their karma. So, they failed in their karma.

But what happened with Enron? They didn’t do something illegal in their business per se (except the accounting fraud). Their mistake was that they didn’t think in the long term. They increased shareholder values for a short period. Still, They harmed, in the long run, knowing beforehand that it would occur that way. So, a violation of the second rule. Wrong understanding that the business isn’t going to last forever.

These two rules (karma and immortality) would lead you to a definite answer in most cases. Right or not, that’s another debate – who decides what’s right anyway – but at least you won’t have regrets.