On Making Choices: A Thought Experiment

What are the determinants of our choices? Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy evolved into a discussion on whether the natural resources in tribal lands ought to be mined in the existing conditions. After over a hundred comments, we are better aware of the issues involved but still left with many unanswered questions. In this post I propose a thought experiment that would explore in more detail the factors that can influence our choices in such matters.

The difficulty in using real life cases (like that of mining in tribal lands) is that they are characterized by ambiguities and uncertainties that influence our thinking about them. For example, in the case under discussion we do not know the extent to which the tribals are willing partners, the extent to which they are being coerced by external agents, the extent to which the state and the mining companies can be trusted, and the extent to which the resources extracted would actually be used for the welfare of the tribals. Our subjective judgments of these uncertainties have a bearing on the selection of our preferred choice.

A thought experiment has the advantage of removing most of such uncertainties so that the determinants of our choices become explicit and thus subject to more rigorous analysis both by others and by ourselves.

In the proposed thought experiment we wish to focus on two explicit determinants of choice:

1. The value attached to the outcome or result.
2. The value attached to the commodity that has to be given up to achieve the result.

Consider the following thought experiment:

A new survey reveals the existence of a very valuable resource under a specific location (L). The extraction and use of this resource would guarantee a specific result (R). The extraction of the resource would require irretrievably demolishing the structure above it.

The locations could be any one of the following four:

L1 – The Taj Mahal in Agra
L2 – The site of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya
L3 – The Golden Temple in Amritsar
L4 – The Rajghat in Delhi

The results could be any one of the following two:

R1 – The use of the resource would eliminate poverty in India
R2 – The use of the resource would eliminate river blindness in Africa.

The reader is required to undertake the following two exercises:

Exercise 1: Consider all eight possibilities (L1-R1, L1-R2, L2-R1, L2-R2, L3-R1, L3-R2, L4-R1, L4-R2) and decide which ones are acceptable to you and which ones are not. Note these on a piece of paper.

[Note: L1-R1 denotes the resource is under the Taj Mahal and the result would be the elimination of poverty in India. L1-R2 denotes the resource is under the Taj Mahal and the result would be the elimination of river blindness in Africa. The other combinations can be inferred using the same schema.]

Exercise 2: In this exercise we want to assess how your identity, loyalty or belief system (B) affects your choices. Identify yourself as belonging to any one of the following five categories:

B1 – Hindu
B2 – Muslim
B3 – Sikh
B4 – Adherent of a faith other than the above three
B5 – Atheist or Agnostic

Now check if the choices you made in Exercise 1 would be different if you belonged to any of the four belief categories other than your own.

At the end of the two exercises record your responses/reactions to this thought experiment in the space provided for comments.

Does this thought experiment alter in any way your feelings about the issues involved in the mining of natural resources in tribal lands?


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6 Responses to “On Making Choices: A Thought Experiment”

  1. Vikram Says:

    Great idea.

    I identify as B1. For me personally, all the choices are acceptable, because humanity supersedes any religion or nationality.

    However in general,
    B1 (upper caste) will probably accept: L1 for R1, R2, might accept: L2, L3 for R1, will not accept: L2

    B2 will probably accept: L2, L3, L4 for R1, R2, will not accept: L1

    B3 will probably accept: L1, L2, L4 for R1, R2 will not accept: L3

    B4 will accept L1, L2, L3, L4 for R1, R2

    B5 will accept L1, L2, L3, L4 for R1, R2

    I am not sure how Dalits will respond. I dont know how strongly they feel about Ram Mandir or Mahatma Gandhi.

  2. sreekumar kv Says:

    I would identify as B1/B5 (culturally Hindu & religion wise atheist). For me irretrievably demolishing L1, L2, L3 and L4 is acceptable for both R1 and R2.
    I think most people would accept all locations for R1, at least publicly.

    Allowing mining in the area inhabited by tribals would provide the government with some funds, which could then be used for reducing poverty. But it would definitely not eliminate poverty in India.

    So gauging the reactions of other groups to the choice/outcome scenario would be more apt if R1 is defined as ‘The use of the resource would reduce poverty in India’.
    Then I think, L1 would not be acceptable to B2, L2 would not be acceptable to B1(caste Hindus) and L3 would not be acceptable to B3, for R1. But L4 would most probably be acceptable to all, for R1.

  3. Vinod Says:

    SA, this is a very hard choice for me. I cannot see historical monuments being compromised even if the result is as significant as the elimination of poverty. I choose the monuments. Poverty will have to wait for more feasible options. This is not a happy choice for me.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: There are no right or wrong answers here. The thought experiment is intended to make explicit the determinants of choice. In this case we are considering the value of what is gained, the value of what is given up, and the decision-maker’s relationship to both. You can play around with the example and see what would have to change to switch your decisions. Hopefully, this would sharpen your understanding of your own decision-making process.

      I have presented this experiment because of an unease arising from the fact that we were deciding on behalf of the adivasis without a representation of their voice. Let us replace the locations in the experiment with the tribal forest and re-evaluate our decision. To an adivasi, the forest may hold the same significance as a historical monument does to you – it could be the resting place of ancestral spirits, for example. Also, an adivasi might assign a low value to the outcomes of the experiment. How would we interpret such a decision? On what basis would we determine that it was an incorrect choice that needed to be ignored? What would justify our assertion that national development took precedence over non-economic considerations?How would be go about entering into a dialogue over the choice?

      • Vinod Says:

        SA, I have made my choice – the results are not worth what is given up in the destruction of any of the locations.

  4. Anil kala Says:

    I identify as B5

    I think resources in every case should be exploited. Even though you have not left any scope for brick by brick transfer of these monuments to some other place if such possibility exists I would consider that a great option.

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