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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