Making good decisions in the grey zone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made us think harder about the decisions we make.
Sometimes it’s a personal choice: is it right to visit my lonely elderly relative, or should I stay away to avoid any chance of transmitting the virus?
In other situations, it’s a matter of public policy: does the harm of workers losing jobs outweigh the health benefits of shutting down cafés and restaurants?
In extreme cases— as we’ve seen overseas, though thankfully not Australia — it can be a matter of life and death: who gets care when there are more patients than ventilators in the intensive care ward?
In all these examples, we must operate in the grey zone, navigating conflicting priorities and interests, and drawing on contested or uncertain evidence. It is all very well to say, “listen to the experts”, but expert opinion can differ, as we know from the debates about when schools should re-open or whether it is beneficial for everyone to wear face masks in public.
The pandemic has brought such grey-zone dilemmas into focus, but in truth they are always with us. Thankfully, rules, guidelines and codes of conduct make many everyday choices clear— I don’t have to think about what side of the road to drive on or what speed to drive at. But it is impossible to devise a rule to cover every situation, nor would it be desirable to do so. We’d end up living in some horrific totalitarian bureaucracy in which we did not need to think about our decisions at all. Ideas of personal responsibility and accountability would be thrown out the window, because we could all justify our actions with the Nuremburg defence: “I was just following orders”.
After observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the German public servant who organised the transport of Jews to the death camps, the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that human beings must “be capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgement”. And as she noted, sometimes this might put us at odds with everyone else around us. Doing a good job of being human requires us to develop the capacity to make good judgements, both in our work and in our personal life. It is a capacity that is enhanced by being open to new information and to different points of view. It is a capacity that requires us to be alert to our tendency to make decisions that benefit us personally, even when we are convinced that we are being entirely objective. It is a capacity that is exercised together with core virtues like integrity, courage, generosity and fairness. And, as with so many things in life, good judgement is something that we can only get better at with practice.