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Decision makers set of options

Posted by Ward Fredericks on March 25, 2004

In Reply to: Clean slate posted by Lotg on March 25, 2004

: : : : In a message concerning a decision someone had to make, I used the expression --- 'you now have a clean sheet of paper'. That's a phrase used in the US to denote a situation where a decision can be made without reference to prior events or be limited or affected by past happenings. Most decisions have historical connections and precedent which serve to limit options. Some decisions (they rarely occur) are wholly open -- they can be considered to have no predisposition.
: : : : Is this expression used elsewhere? If not, is there another phrase which indicates a decision which is not dependent on other factors?

: : : What about "carte blanche"? Okay, so that really is the same thing, a clean sheet of paper. Tabula rasa has some of the same connotation, although it perhaps too often connotes by now a condition of the mind. (The theory used to be that the mind of a newborn was a blank slate, to be written on by the experience of life and the teachings of parents and others.) But I'm not sure that there is such a thing as a decision that can be made without reference to prior events and with "no predisposition." Every decision (except perhaps decision by default?) is made by a person. "Carte blanche" or "a blank piece of paper" are usually given to someone who thus receives the authority to make whatever decision he wants. This authority is given to people who are thought capable of making a good decision, that is, have the experience and the sense of responsibility to be trusted with an important decision. If the decision is unimportant then it probably doesn't matter how clean may be the piece of paper, or how blank the slate. And no matter how blank the paper, it's hard to imagine how a human being could make a decision without reference at least to one's own past history, with its accumulation of experience, taste, preferences, habits and opinions. Does a perfect dilemma exist? If so, how can it be solved? Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa, devoted a number of pages to the discussion of different kinds of decisions or choices that an individual has to make, or might have to, with a lot of attention to which ones are "free" and which are contingent. The quotations marks are mine, and reflect my own bias. SS

: : Good point! How on earth can any human being make a decision without utilising prior experiences? (BTW, I can't help but make reference to a previous bug bear of mine, the term "past experience", which seems a tad tautological to me - but others argued otherwise - maybe you were one of them).

: : But, as you've said yourself, somehow carte blanche has a slightly different connotation, eg. carte blanche, usually means, "a blank piece of paper" usually given to someone who thus receives the authority to make whatever decision he wants.

: : I haven't heard the extended term 'clean sheet of paper" before Ward said it - maybe that's the American version. I've definitely however, heard the term "start off with a clean sheet", which I can only assume is pretty much the same thing. And I don't think it suggests, that you do so without making any reference to historical events and experience, but rather that you start off with a clear/clean space to utilise your previous experience.

: : Either way, under the circumstances, I think it was wise advice.

: Actually, I correct myself, the version I'm familiar with is "start off with a clean slate". Pedantic I know.

In decision theory, there are factors internal to the decision maker (past history, intelligence, etc.) and factors external to the decision maker, but related to the decision itself. As Smokey rightfully says, no decision maker does, or could, make a decision without reliance on a matrix of past experience and wisdom gained through survival of similar situations.
The distinction seems to be in the externalities of the decision itself. Most decisions present themselves in the context of a flow of events which sharply delimit the options that a rational decision maker may select. My understanding of a 'clean sheet of paper decision' is one where the decision maker may view the circumstances of the decision highly independant of prior events -- and select that decision that best suits the decision makers objectives or preferences at that time. To say that you have a 'free hand' might also suggest the latitude that the decision maker has to select that set of choices that best suit his/her wishes, although these concepts also relate to some external source of authority or permission to make a decision.