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Given a purposeful human action, can a meaningful and unambiguous judgment be made of that action in retrospect?

Example --

You decide to start smoking at age 15 and get lung cancer 50 years later. Was the decision a mistake?

Same question, but you get run over by a truck a year before you get cancer.

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Yes. "The race goes not


"The race goes not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

I'm sure Patri could come up with excellent examples from his Poker Wars, where he made the strategically correct (odds-maximizing) play and still lost. But that doesn't mean he made a mistake.

Whether an action was a

Whether an action was a mistake or not depends on what the intentions were that motivated the action. Because intentions are generally fudged in hindsight, we need a definition of intentions that is as non-subjective as possible. This in turn is a hard question -- whether a non-subjective definition of intentions is possible is a matter that is quite debatable. The best you're likely to do as define a person's intentions with respect to an act as the reasonably forseeable consequences of that act in its context.

So -- 35 years ago, at age 15, could you have reasonably forseen that cigarettes would somehow kill you? Yes. In 1970 that was certainly common knowledge. So your death from lung cancer cannot be considered a mistake: It was your intention to make yourself likely to die of cancer, you succeeded, ergo no mistake in your decision to take up smoking.

Of course you could have made an earlier mistake -- your choice of instrumental values that led you to value smoking over likely death, for instance, may not have intended you to make that choice. All the logical consequences of particular values are not forseeable to even the cleverest people. So it may have been a mistake that led you to the particular values that underlay your decision to smoke, even if your decision to smoke within the context of those values was not itself a mistake.

Really, though, we should set the bar quite high before we call a forseeable result a mistake. "Unintended consequences" are usually just a dodge for intended consequences that someone was caught trying to get away with.

"Given a purposeful human

"Given a purposeful human action, can a meaningful and unambiguous judgement be made of that action in retrospect?"

Please clarify. What are my criteria for judging the action? I could make a judgment regarding whether the action were ethical, prudent, practical, rational, wise, well-informed, etc.

Yes, I can judge the action in retrospect. What I cannot know is the actors original intent, the circumstances at the time, and the information available to him. My judgment can be meaningful and unambiguous, but it may also be flawed. That does not mean that I, or someone else, will not get some insight or other value from the judgment. However, it does mean that I should recognize the speculative element in my judgment and comport myself with requisite humility.

For the smoker example, I could judge his action as a mistake, but underlying that judgment is a valuation that long life is of greater value than 35 years of enjoying cigarettes. That valuation is subjective. If the actor originally thought, "I'll just have one cigarette and quit," or "I'll never get cancer anyway" I would judge the action differently than if he thought, "I know the risks, but I value smoking more, so I'm going to smoke."

So, if you meant, "Given any purposeful human action, can an objectively true judgment be made of that action in retrospect?" then I would answer, "No."

This reminds me of a

This reminds me of a question that I posed to my brother, a supporter of the war in Iraq: What set of circumstances would have to come about in order for the war, in retrospect, to have been a bad idea?

The inevitable 1.5 hours of debate ensued and then came the answer: none. There is no combination of awful things to directly result from the war that will make the decision to have attacked Iraq a bad idea at the time.

Put another way, given what we knew at the time of the attack, it simply was a good idea, and even though we now know that, on balance, the war was a bad thing, it still will have been a good idea at the time.

I found my brother's logic difficult to assail. And it's frustrating that "I told you so" just doesn't do the trick like I thought it should.

(For clarity, I opposed the war from its outset and still do.)

This question reminds me of

This question reminds me of people playing poker who decide based on the outcome of a hand whether they made the right decision in folding or raising. The only thing that matters is whether you made the right decision based on what you knew at the time. The odds, for example, don't change based on the outcome of the hand. You can, however, have misjudged the psychology of the other players. Likewise, if you start or continue smoking knowing it drastically increases your risk of lung cancer, it's a bad move regardless of whether you actually get lung cancer later (RIGHT DAVE?)

...a meaningful and

...a meaningful and unambiguous judgment..

I don't know what that means. One can judge any action (or any situation, or any thing), and such judgements have meaning to the judge, and are unambiguous to the judge.

Such a judgement may not be shared by others. Such a judgement may not be communicated meaningfully and unambiguously unless it can be seen in actions of the judge.

I suspect you're not asking about meaning or ambiguity, but about objective sharable judgement. I suspect the answer for most will be that judgements about an action are exactly as objective as the values that led to the action.

Dagon, I suspect you’re


I suspect you’re not asking about meaning or ambiguity, but about objective sharable judgement. I suspect the answer for most will be that judgements about an action are exactly as objective as the values that led to the action.

Actually, no.

Any purposeful human action is the result of a subjective decision that the action will be preferred to any alternate conflicting action or no action.

Being subjective, it is hard to argue that anyone else with his own set of subjective valuations can judge that action except for his own entertainment purposes.

But the actor himself has his own difficulties in making a retrospective judgment. Most actions have multiple consequences over time. Some of these consequences are subjectively favorable and some are the opposite.

Just as subjective utilities cannot be compared or summed between or among different individuals, subjective utilities at different times for a given individual cannot be mathematically combined.

This means that years of smoking pleasure cannot be easily offset by future years of cancer suffering, including or not the issue of time preference. When the inherent uncertainty of the future is added to the mix, as for example you never happen to get cancer by chance or by an independent premature demise, any retrospective judgment is inherently questionable.

Regards, Don

Not enough information.

Not enough information. Did the "victim" think it was a mistake at the time he got the cancer? What was his reasoning. If he reasoned correctly at the end and decided it was a mistake then it was, if not then it wasn't.

It could have been a mistake if he didn't ever die of cancer and he regretted it a few days after trying it for the first time. The discovery that he couldn't quit might have been enough to make him realize he had made a mistake.

This is a subjective decision. One that can only be decided objectively by getting more information.

I am making decisions right now that I know will shorten my life and I know I will not think them a mistake later. I don't want to live my life as a granola crunching, exercise nut. I have better things to do like eat ummmm... baaaacon.

This is "the trouser-leg" of

This is "the trouser-leg" of time debate, no?

If I make a "yes/no" decision, there are the two possible outcomes. At that point reality divides to follow each of those possibilities.

One can look back and say "Right decision" or "wrong decision". That will in no way alter the outcome of the decision.

To regret a wrong decision is consequently futile.

However, it is also madness to not correct a wrong decision at the earliest opportunity - at least to limit the consequences of the error.