Berkley Forum

Discernment as a Tool for Decision-Making

Responding to Human Behavior, Catholic Social Thought, and Global Development

Reading the 2015 World Bank Development Report on Mind, Society, and Behavior opens a novel approach to understanding how we think and the implications on development issues. In his lecture, Dr. Basu added to this focus on the mind, talking about how economics should take into account irrationalities and how they form part of everyday thinking. Understanding how humans think automatically and socially, and how we are guided by mental models, can be key to shaping public policies that are more responsive and effective in dealing with complex mindsets. 

This leads me to wonder how the Church can respond to this and how it can remain relevant in the dialogue between sociology, psychology, economics, and development. Critics of the Church often dismiss seemingly outmoded forms of thinking within the hierarchy and Church teachings. For them, the Church simply reduces irrationalities to the language of sin and concupiscence, and framing and anchoring as dangerous relativism. The Church's dogmatic stance on certain issues may not take into account different ways of thinking, thereby excluding the Church from global dialogue.

But perhaps we simply need to revisit particular gifts the Church adds to human thought that find resonance with these emerging psychological concepts. One such approach is called "discernment," popularized by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Far from spiritualizing the world, it seeks to find the will of God by becoming sensitive to movements of the Spirit in everyday reality. A discerning person reflects on the different choices available, on the moving motivations and desires, and then makes the best decision. Discernment is not a choice between bad and good; it is a choice between competing goods, akin to economic valuations of utility. A discerner weighs the tugs of consolation and desolation as well as the movements away and to God, in order to choose well. What distinguishes discernment from secular forms of decision-making and game theory is that it is done in the context of prayer with the goal of doing the will of God. Such an incarnational approach, very much contextualized in reality but not reduced to it, might allow a Christian thinker to engage in development issues.

Discernment is not a natural method of thinking, but requires maturity, discipline, and faith. To give an example, a Catholic public official in Manila is constantly faced with systematic corruption. Lawmakers who should be focusing on law-making are given discretionary funds to use for their constituents for development purposes. A recent scam in 2013 exposed how such funds were abused and funneled into bogus NGOs and private pockets. Public money was stolen by virtue of loopholes in the law. Using just game theory, we could plot how lawmakers think and how they weigh the pros and cons of bribery and corruption. But a serious Catholic official might not simply subscribe to game theory and economics as the only forms of knowing. Utility is not the only motivation; values like faith, honesty, and family should also be taken into account. And for this, discernment might be essential in making the best decisions, not just on a personal level, but also on a sociopolitical level.

Jesuit universities could help promote this Ignatian way of thinking, not just as another contribution to the sociology of knowledge, but as a viable way of thinking within the Church. Game theory and behavioral economics might be emerging perspectives on development, but we should also return to Church charisms in thinking, such as discernment, in order to enrich our understanding and decision-making. 
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