Right decisions or happy decision-makers?

Social Epistemology 21 (4):349 – 368 (2007)
Abstract
Group decisions raise a number of substantial philosophical and methodological issues. We focus on the goal of the group decision exercise itself. We ask: What should be counted as a good group decision-making result? The right decision might not be accessible to, or please, any of the group members. Conversely, a popular decision can fail to be the correct decision. In this paper we discuss what it means for a decision to be "right" and what components are required in a decision process to produce happy decision-makers. Importantly, we discuss how "right" decisions can produce happy decision-makers, or rather, the conditions under which happy decision-makers and right decisions coincide. In a large range of contexts, we argue for the adoption of formal consensus models to assist in the group decision-making process. In particular, we advocate the formal consensus convergence model of Lehrer and Wagner (1981), because a strong case can be made as to why the underlying algorithm produces a result that should make each of the experts in a group happy. Arguably, this model facilitates true consensus, where the group choice is effectively each person's individual choice. We analyse Lehrer and Wagner's algorithm for reaching consensus on group probabilities/utilities in the context of complex decision-making for conservation biology. While many conservation decisions are driven by a search for objective utility/probability distributions (regarding extinction risks of species and the like), other components of conservation management primarily concern the interests of stakeholders. We conclude with cautionary notes on mandating consensus in decision scenarios for which no fact of the matter exists. For such decision settings alternative types of social choice methods are more appropriate.
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