DECISION & DESIRE: Four Steps toward Designing Solutions

2 January 2015


  1. A decision signals the onset of activities to support a choice, as a given course of action to solve a problem.
  2. This choice embodies a person’s or a group of people’s commitment to act in one particular way to solve the problem as distinct from a range of possible alternative other courses of action.
  3. This range of alternatives encompasses the warranted arguments[1] for that choice as a solution to a problem.
  4. A problem frames the current state of affairs such that finding a solution becomes desired, possible, and perhaps also necessary.
  5. The current state of affairs reflects the consequences of previous decisions.


Non-Choice: We understand that we have no choice where only one alternative exists. If I hold out one hand and tell you: choose, you might obey or you might invent another alternative for yourself on the spot and tell me no. But a “choice” of one offers only an illusion or parody of choice and points, rather, to some manipulative or coercive Power enforcing the situation, even if that is sometimes only the cop in one’s head.

Pseudo-Choice: In a less manipulative or coercive setting or a situation where we more “freely” make determinations for ourselves, when we consider a single alternative we frequently do so with the understanding also that we might not go with that one alternative at all. This gives an appearance of an either/or (two) alternatives as well: either I want the one alternative available and I select it, or I do not. This circumstance differs from non-choice only in the fact that no concrete Power specifically extorts one’s complicity in a “choice”; this does not mean that spectral or imagined Powers do not impinge on one’s consciousness with respect to choosing (or not choosing) more or less freely.

Choice: a circumstance of authentic choice requires at least two distinct alternatives, no matter how trivial, e.g., whether one will have spaghetti or pizza for dinner. In general, we rarely find ourselves helplessly constrained to only two alternatives, [2] but in the event that social forces, our limited imaginations, or the Powers of the status quo can enforce that we must choose between only the two alternatives offered, then we still have the following four orientations toward choice:

  1. I may choose one alternative voluntarily (without protest) because I want it.[3]
  2. I may choose one alternative involuntarily (under protest) because I see the other as insufficient or untenable.[4]
  3. I may choose one alternative voluntarily (without protest) to avoid having to choose the other.[5]
  4. I may choose one alternative involuntarily (under protest) because while I find it untenable, I find it less untenable than the other.[6]

The four orientations of choice characterise wanting at the four distinct steps involved in designing solutions.[7]


When I frame the prevailing state of affairs in the world so that finding a solution becomes desired, possible, and perhaps also necessary, I do so by choosing one alternative voluntarily (to see the current state of affairs as a problem) in order to avoid having to choose the other alternative (of allowing the current state of affairs to continue). Thus, I willingly take a problem upon myself.

Then, when I characterise a range of alternatives that encompass the warranted arguments for identifying a solution to the problem I have willingly taken upon myself, I do so by choosing an alternative involuntarily (not only to recognise the necessity of doing the hard work to discover such a range of alternatives but also to have to live now in an awareness of a problem I did not previously have) because the alternative (to remain ignorant and complacent) is no longer tenable. I would sooner not shoulder the demands of this work or live in the knowledge it brings, but the alternative (not to do so) no longer seems palatable or tenable.

When from this range of alternatives I embody my commitment to act in a choice to support one of the many possible alternative courses of action to solve the problem, I do so by choosing that alternative voluntarily (without protest) because I want it. Thus I commit myself to implementing a solution to the problem.

And once the onset of activities to support that course of action have begun, I do so by choosing that alternative involuntarily (because the decision to act is now in the past even while remaining binding on everyone who works to implement our decided upon course of action) because the other alternative (to change our course of action) seems less tenable. We stay the course (over and above our wanting and doing) because changing course at this point is an even less tenable idea.

Of course, at any moment, we might re-visit our course of action and change it, but this would require consultation toward enacting a new decision.

In merging the four kinds of choosing and four steps of designing solutions, the last step may seem the most bizarre. Insofar as the fourth orientation to choice may be characterised at times as choosing the lesser of two evils, how can “staying the course” seem this lesser if all agree it was the best course in the first place?

Partly this is a problem of an example upstaging the idea, but it points also to a critique of typical decision implementation, which congratulates itself in advance for its wisdom and foresight and then finds someone to blame when the plan runs aground. By contrast, to keep in mind in advance that any plan is a lesser of two evils spares us the planner’s arrogance and also makes us potentially more ready to be alert for needed changes.

On the deeper level, the emphasis falls on the involuntary part. For example, when one agrees to a group venture, individual volition gets attached more or exclusively to the goal (of the group) an less if at all to any “narrow” or “personal” goal. This does not mean, of course, that no benefit accrues to individuals for group activity—money, fame, prestige, a portion of the hunt, &c will be allotted accordingly. But imagine a circumstance where one hunter in a group is asked to stand in a certain spot and frighten game away from himself and in a certain direction. As an individual action, this amounts to the most ineffective hunting technique ever—it fails completely to serve any “personal” goal toward a successful (individual) hunt. But this same behaviour proves crucial for the success of the group hunt. Thus, to the extent that such behaviour is group-beneficial and not personally beneficial, then the performance of the act involves a non-voluntary element, since it is not for the self. One may say in this case that is “the group” (not the individual) who acts. This inheres for all instances of cooperative action (by hunter-gatherers or office workers).


[1] By warranted arguments, I mean the culturally recognised justifications for action. The school student who wants to do drugs at his friend’s house frames his request to his parents to go to his friend’s house in terms of doing homework, because doing homework is a warrantable justification for visiting friends on a school night. All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have some skill in representing our wants in terms of warrantable arguments, even if that means disingenuously advancing alternative rationales besides “I want to” (just as the high school student did). A problem of culture arises from the fact that certain warrants do not exist. And, in fact, very often we suspect (sometime rightly) that “I want to” will not be recognised as a warrantable argument for whatever it is we lobby for, socially or personally. A part of social activism, then, requires the invention of new warrants and a debunking of old ones, such as those that warrant State executions, corporate personhood mass incarceration, and the like.

[2] NOTE: Again, rarely do we face a choice only of two alternatives. Between choosing spaghetti or pizza, I might well protest and demand further choices, &c. To find ourselves seemingly limited to such an either/or circumstance, then, points to some structure of power that artificially limits our range of alternatives choosable. This lurking shadow of Power notwithstanding, when it comes to the moment to decide, we do face an either/or: either to go forward with the course of action as framed or not to. Of course, nothing necessarily constrains our ability to immediately revisit the decision upon choosing. Suppose our wagon train comes to a fork in the road. If we elect to go left, nothing prevents us from immediately reconsidering that decision: we might (1) go back and take the right fork, (2) cut across the intervening space between the left and right forks to take the right fork, (3) decide to stay on the left fork after all, (4) blaze a new trail entirely, (5) return back the way we came an go home, or (6) if we live in a magical universe, levitate our wagon train an continue. Of course, some choices made might preclude such re-visitation; if we elect to drive off a cliff, we will not have recourse to go back and take another alternative. Moreover, the ability to reconsider decisions might be artificially inhibited or suppressed by those interested in seeing no change in the decision.

[3] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I want pizza and I choose to get some.)

[4] (Between spaghetti or pizza, while I’d rather choose pizza I choose spaghetti because the pizza is mouldy. A more affective example: the person who chooses suicide because life has become an untenable prospect.)

[5] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I choose pizza because I’ll be caught dead before I’d ever pick spaghetti. A more familiar example: those people who are Republicans because they’d be caught dead first before being a Democrat, or vice versa; or those who are Protestants so as not to be Catholics, and vice versa.)

[6] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I choose pizza because it’s the less awful choice between the two. In a more familiar vein, this is choosing the lesser of two evils.)

[7] Two caveats. (1) Self-evidently, one may still at any moment deny the constraining either/or of the examples above and insist on refusing to accept the two alternatives as presented. Yes. Yet at the same time, one encounters people every day who seem trapped—sometimes happily so—in these kinds of opposed dyads. Moreover, even this “opting out” will often resemble one of the four options above. The person who says, “I’m not play your game with those two alternatives” who nevertheless offers no alternative stance resembles the third type above (like the person who is less a Democrat and more pointedly not a Republican). And (2), while I insist that “a circumstance of authentic choice requires at least two distinct alternatives,” very often how we construct these alternatives seems still a lot like one alternative rather than two. But this, in part, occurs because simply to propose a distinction brings with it not just two but four categories. Consider the distinction attraction; this implies also not attraction (or repulsion). If we substitute the more common psychological terms for these, to position the distinction love seems to automatically bring with it fear. But along with this dyadic pair, we also have the categories love of fear and fear of love, neither of which may adequate be accounted for by either love or fear themselves. More might be written here, but let it suffice to say that the strength and necessity of the contrast in any of the choices noted above plays an important role—e.g., compare the strength of contrast and non-necessity of pizza or spaghetti to the contrast and seeming inevitability of Republican or Democrat (or Catholic or Protestant).


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