Most major things people do are done through action. Whether it is eating, graduating, getting a job, getting married, or winning a Nobel Peace Prize, these things can only happen by actually doing something. Even great intellectual advances which are mostly done through thought, which is not included in this context as “action”, must be followed by publishing their work. All of these things are done through physical actions that change the world around us.
Many people think that since action is necessary to do something, that it is also more important than thinking. This is not true, as the process through which you act is more complex than just that. Whether or not your actions are justified or are even good ideas depends on many factors. The stages of proper actions are shown below
- Step 1- Knowledge
- Step 2- Motivation
- Step 3- Decision
- Step 4- Starting
- Step 5- Finishing
Part 1: Deciding
There are certain steps you must take before acting, otherwise your actions may be fast, but there is no assurance that your actions will do what you want. In order to act correctly you must first know what you want and how to get it, otherwise your actions will not reflect what you want and might not achieve your goals. You must also verify and justify what you want and what your actions will do.
Step 1- Knowledge
One cannot perform an action without knowing what the action is, unless they do it by luck.
Furthermore, actions require proper knowledge to be justified. When deciding what action to take and whether or not you should take it, you need as much information as possible to come to the best conclusion you can. This is done through scientific method.
If you have wrong information, you might take the completely wrong action. If you’re looking for something, and you’ve been told it’s in your house but it actually isn’t, then you will waste time looking in the wrong place.
Step 2- Motivation
Once you know what actions are possible, and you have the knowledge required to make a decision, you need motivation to act at all or to choose which action to do.
You can only play the lottery if you know that it exists, but once you learn of it you have to ask yourself if you want to play it. If you don’t want money, then there is little motivation to enter the lottery.
Your goal, or what you want, is your motivation. Even if you have a rough idea of what you want, unless you know exactly what you want your, then what you get through your actions might make you realise you made a mistake. If you’ve been taught that you need money and that money is necessary and good, then you might choose your career based on what makes the most money as easily as possible. It might take you years to realise that you hate your job, don’t need that much money, or that you feel you aren’t accomplishing anything in your life. This is common with highly paid jobs such as lawyers and business and economics jobs, which quite often have little to no positive impact on the world. Teachers, one of the most important jobs that have huge positive impacts on a lot of people, are paid a lot less, but are far more important than being the CEO of a company which has the sole purpose of making money. However since money does have some importance, being a teacher might result in you regretting not having become someone who still helps people but is paid more.
If you have multiple possible actions, then you decide between them by deciding which ones are needed to achieve your goal, and which ones will do it best. There are often many ways to do something, but you need to decide which ones to do. To do this you need to know as much as possible about each option to make sure you do not miss a better opportunity or accidentally choose a bad one.
Step 3- Decision
Once you are certain of what you want and are not confusing it with what other people or what your subconscious wants, you can make a decision using the information you have about each option. This step is too complicated to go into detail here, but this is what game theory and strategy try to answer.
Deciding between various options requires that you analyse each option to determine every effect and requirement of it, and then decide which combination of requirements and effects is best.
This is not a simply utilitarian matter. “The ends justify the means” does not mean that you can select only one of the ends and claim that it justifies all means. The “ends” include every effect of an action, for example, take a terrorist group that wants to kill all people in a country. A military operation that stops the genocide can succeed by stopping the terrorists’ plans, but if that victory requires sacrificing your own people, then the “ends” do not necessarily justify the “means”.
The ends of this scenario are not simply that genocide was averted, that would be willful ignorance and selective thinking where you only look at the parts you want to see.
The ends in this case are:
- The terrorists genocide was stopped
- You sacrificed many of your own people.
It is illogical to say that sacrificing your people is simply a means to the end of avoiding genocide. The sacrifices you made are also ends, because now you have victory and many dead, and many grieving families. Such an action could be considered justified if the -only- alternatives involved more people dying, but even this is highly debatable.
Sometimes while there might be many moves available to you, there might be only a few that really work because you are put in a situation where something threatens your goal. This is analogous to a check move in chess, where the enemy has put a piece in a position that could take your king in the next move unless you stop it, which would lead to you losing the game. In chess you are required to either move a piece to block the enemy from taking your king, or to take their piece that is threatening your king. It is a rule because while the enemy might decide not to take your king and finish the game, that is actually contrary the to point of the game. If your goal is to win the game, and you don’t stop the enemy from taking your king, then you will let the enemy win, which means that you lose so you did not achieve your goal. If your goal is to fix your computer, but someone is about to throw away your computer, then you need to stop them because if you don’t you won’t be able to achieve your goal. Even if it may cause some additional problems, check moves must always be avoided because the alternative always results in you failing your objective.
If presented with the choice between allowing you to continue going towards your goal, and failure, then if your goal is still worth it, you must always choose the move that allows you to continue. Even if it makes things worse, if it gives you a chance of attaining your goal then it is better then immediately failing. This whole argument though of course relies on your goal being more worth it than the results of getting there and than failing.
Part 2: Performing
Once you have made your decision and are as sure as possible that it is the correct choice, you act on your choice.
A common mistake that extremists make is to either act without thought or think without action. Acting without being certain can lead to having made the wrong choice. Not acting either due to indecision or lack of initiative will lead to the action not being done, even if it should be.
Clearly both of these mistakes are bad. Not acting can either let good things happening without intervening, let bad things happen without preventing them, or have nothing happen. Acting recklessly can lead to either good or bad things happening, but it is hard to know which it will be. Both inaction and reckless action can lead to making the wrong choice and regretting it.
Step 4- Starting
Once you know what you need to do, you must have the initiative to start it. Not doing so would lead to inaction, which is clearly bad if you know that you should act.
While acting often requires a lot of preparation, one must also be careful not to waste too much time doing things that are not needed such as too much preparation. However, one should also not spend too little time on preparation because if not then your actions might not be successful because they were not properly set up.
Contingencies are also important, since you cannot necessarily predict everything that could go wrong. Back up plans are always a good idea because you can’t know when you will need them. When you act without allowance for mistakes, you are being arrogant if you think that you can predict that mistakes will not happen. By their very nature, mistakes are things that -unexpectedly- go wrong.
Step 5- Finishing
A lot of people do not finish their actions, such as projects because they either lose interest or because it gets too hard. Neither of these are good things.
Stopping a project because you lose interest or because it gets too hard is only justified if you are sure that it is no longer worth it.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
The opposite is also true, when someone wants to continue a project despite it being not worth it anymore. One reason for this is the “sunk cost” fallacy. There is a mistaken belief that if you have spent time, effort, money, or anything else on a project, that not finishing it would mean wasting everything you spent on it. This is not true, because this has a mistaken understanding of waste.
For example, food is not wasted when a child is full. If the child finishes their meal despite them being full, then you are doing something bad. If the child neither wants to eat the food, does not enjoy eating the food, and gets fat, or even gets sick from eating too much, then you have done a bad thing by forcing the child to do something that didn’t have any benefits. The food that is less over is not wasted because the child won’t eat it, the food is wasted because the child was given too much food. Food waste is caused by the food having no good use.
Eating too much food has negative consequences, while throwing food away does not cause any problems. The only problems it causes are people mistakenly believing that that is a waste. Throwing food away is sometimes the best choice available to you, sometimes better than eating it. It would be better if you could find an alternative use for the food rather than forcing someone to eat too much, such as having someone else eat it, or waiting it when you are not full. If these options are not available, then throwing it away is better than having it expire. Ideally, you should only buy and cook as much food as you need.
Sometimes continuing to fight “so that your sacrifices aren’t for nothing” will have a worse outcome than not fighting. The idea of sacrifices being worth it or not isn’t as meaningful as a lot of people think.
Hindsight and Sunk Cost
Since you can’t always control all the variables and circumstances in a situation, you often have limited options. For example when a sacrifice is made in order to achieve something, it is often done out of a lack of other options. Once the sacrifice has been made though, whether or not is achieved anything or meant anything becomes arbitrary. The sacrifice has already been made given the information and circumstances at the time. Whether or not it was meaningful becomes a matter of hindsight; obviously if the person who made the sacrifice knew what you know now, they might have acted differently, but future information isn’t viable for decision making, since you can never have it. One can only make a decision with the information they have at the time, so they have to get more information before making a decision if they want to be better informed. Any information you get after making the decision is useless to you if your decision making was properly done. Even if you think you should have waited longer to get that information, there was likely a reason you chose not to.
If you have all the information you can get, have the logic to process that information, and use as much time as needed to make sure you come to the right conclusion, then your decision was made correctly. Even if what you chose turns out to be wrong, there is no way you could have done better unless it was by luck. If you are limited by time, information, or logic, then all you can do is the best you can do. Once you know what you should have done, it is always too late to change it, so there is no point telling yourself that you should have acted differently because it’s impossible to have known that. Even if you had to arbitrarily choose something, the fact that it is random means that nothing you could have done would have assured success.
The only time you can have justified regrets for a decision that you got wrong is when you didn’t follow the appropriate decision making process.
The point of this theory is to make sure your actions are correct. This means that you first of all know what you want, because if you don’t, then your actions will be trying to get something that you might not want. It also means that you know what you want is justified so that you don’t make any moral mistakes. Once you are sure of what you want, you must know how to achieve it. This requires planning, information, logic, time, and resources. When your plan is ready you must carry it out efficiently and have back up plans in case it does not go as you expected.
If any of these things are not done properly, you might regret it. Regret is the second point of this theory. If you make the wrong choice, it will be your fault and you will regret your actions. This is never a good thing, as you should always try to do what you truly want without having regrets
One must know what they want and have the information, reasoning, and time to develop a plan to attain their goal, and then do what is needed to make sure they get the best result.