In this paper, I will argue that there is a myriad of occasions during which decisions not only can be, but should be made by people for others. In doing so, I will clarify differing interpretations of decision making for others, and both argue against and defend ideas of freedom of choice, sovereignty over self, and more.
In order to begin addressing this lengthy topic, we need to first distinguish between what I will call passive and active decision making. Both have integral parts within human culture, and while they achieve their ends in different manners, are still in essence decision making by individuals for others. Passive decision making can be seen as suggestions. They do not entail orders given and followed, but rather very strongly urged suggestions that carry good consequences for being followed, and bad ones for the opposite. Examples could include a teacher or professor assigning homework for their students, a manager detailing goals for the next business quarter, or a painter receiving a commission by a prospective customer. Each involves no explicit demand to do whatever has been asked; a student need not do their homework, employees could ignore the manager and refuse to work, or the artist may feel their newest patron does not deserve such a fine work. However, by failing to follow the decision made by the higher authority, the teacher having decided that homework was well worth the effort, the manager aiming for high profits and a nice bonus, the art customer for whatever reason, the addressee of the decision suffers. Here, we see ideas that I will expand upon later in the paper, namely, the ideas of authority and self-help.
The other side of decision making comes in the form of active decisions, easily interpreted as commands to be followed as soon as possible, as closely as possible. Here we may think of it as a military commander issuing orders to his or her subordinate, a doctor rushing a patient to a surgery without their consent, or a firefighter telling victims trapped in a burning building what to do. Unlike passive decisions, active is done fully expecting total obedience, or at the very least, without choice by the addressee. Active also entails decision making of authority and self-help, but also uniquely addresses decision making for the greater good, whether for an individual or for a multitude of beings.
Authoritative decision making seems to be a natural place to start, as it is one of the most prevalent forms of outside person decision making. At its core, it seems like it is obvious that a person of higher authority should be given the power to make decisions for others. After all, they are in that position for a reason. I would not be writing this paper at this moment if I did not acknowledge you, the reader, as having been given more authority than me due to your more extensive education, an Army private follows his or her commanding officer’s decisions because that officer for some reason deserved such power, and so on.Whether it is by grace of superior knowledge, consistent commendable actions (like being promoted within a company), or more traditional means such as a history of monarchy, authority has justification enough to make decisions for others. There are, however, problems with this. Thus far, we have assumed that the person of authority had earned that position through moral means. They are educated enough, experienced enough, etc. What is the correct thing to do when the decisions made are made by somebody wholly unqualified to do so, whether by nepotism, or again, by traditional passage of power through monarchy or the like. Here, it seems that not only is it immoral for that person to make decisions for others, but at times, it may be more moral for the addressee of the decision to act contrary to it. If a low level accountant is told to hide signs of corruption by their superiors, a decision has been made by somebody of higher authority, yet it would not be the moral thing to do for said accountant. Therefore, authority itself is not enough to justify making decisions for others. It must be authority given by merit, so as to establish the decision maker as a person who deserves to be listened to.
Moving to the active side of decision making, there is decision making for the greater good. An example of this could be combatants in the military essentially blindly following orders in the heat of battle, trusting their superior officer to make the correct decision that will result in the best outcome for a majority. It can also be seen in a caretaker for somebody mentally ill deciding how their patient should be treated, or an emergency respondent making snap decisions in dangerous situations in order to try and guarantee a relatively positive outcome. Now, at first glance, this seems to also be a rather straightforward moral problem easily addressed by utilitarianism. Is the decision meant to create more benefit than harm? If yes, the decision maker is morally justified. If not, then they are not. But what happens when the possible outcomes are variable, with no guaranteed good and bad outcome? It then becomes similar to the trolley problem, where one’s actions could be considered both evil and unjustified, or justified for the greater good. Should a general willingly send one or two service people to die in order to provide the necessary diversion to save the rest of the unit, and/or achieve whatever goal THAT general’s commanding officer decided? Is it moral for a family to condemn their sick relative to a psychiatric hospital because they would receive better care? Unlike authority, the greater good can be extremely ambiguous, changing according to the whims of the decision makers. I believe there is no way to simply say a decision was made to benefit the most people, and therefore it was the moral choice.
Apart from who is making the decision, and in what context they are doing so, the addressee of the decision also plays a large role in determining morality. Here, I will talk about age, probably the most significant factor in deciding whether we think it is right or wrong to make decisions for others. Children, anybody under the age of 18 in the United States of America, seem to be intrinsically treated as incapable of fully rational decision making. Now, this is true in certain aspects. A child, oftentimes with at most a part-time job, almost definitely does not know how to properly file taxes, pay mortgage and utilities on homes, and more. However, there are some less, let’s say worldly experience based decisions, that children can and should be able to make for themselves. A simple, relatively harmless example would be watching R rated movies, which bar anybody under the age of 17 from watching without adult supervision. Is the possibility of exposing a child to vulgar language and violent scenes -which the child has probably already seen in daily life and television- enough to justify deciding what media that they may or may not see? If it is argued that they should be protected while they develop mentally and become more mature, it could also easily be argued that in order for the child to grow and understand the world better, they cannot be sheltered. More seriously could be the topic of medical treatment. In the case of, let’s say, amputation versus risky surgery, shouldn’t it be the job of the child to decide which treatment they will receive? I believe so. When it affects nobody but his or herself, in the case of an emergency, the child should be given full autonomy in deciding what should be done.
Of course, there are more general problems to the idea of decision making for others. Stepping outside the realm of what seems to be our daily lives, we can address self-sovereignty and freedom of choice. What gives people the right to make decisions for others based on the idea of potential good outcome? What happens when a person affected positively by the decision actually did not want that outcome? What should be done about laws? Laws are generally drafted and passed by representatives elected to office by a majority of citizens. Optimistically, these representatives work together to pass legislation meant to help as many people as possible. Yet, in America for example, if one political party controls a majority of the legislative branch of government, they can pass laws that are deeply politically skewed, and meant to pander to half, or even less, of the general populace. Is this immoral because the representatives we have chosen do not truly represent all of us? Or is it moral because we had willingly established such a system that allows this type of decision making? Decision making by individuals or groups of individuals for others exists as a fundamental part of human culture. Yet, there seems to be no intrinsically right way to claim that it is either moral or immoral. In the end, all we can do is fight for our beliefs, in the hopes that they are the right ones.
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