While not always seen in this light, members of congressional or parliamentary bodies are regularly faced with moral choices when deciding how to vote in situations where the answers to questions like the following may point to diametrically opposed courses of action.

  1. What's best for my country?
  2. What's best for those whom I represent?
  3. Whats best for those who voted and/or may vote for me?
  4. How to best hold on to this incredibly powerful microphone which is so personally rewarding to use?
  5. How best to pay for my kids' education in expensive schools, several houses and cars, etc...

Are there scholarly works (books, monographs, memoirs) by those who study this conundrum or have faced it personally that provide guidance to others who may face it?

update: In the absence of answers with those (this question is now six months old), are there at least clear public statements about how elected officials that provide such guidance?

  • 2
    Scholars far more often write descriptive work from which conclusions can be drawn than "how to" works.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 19, 2020 at 22:22
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    What you're really asking is about the moral development of political figures — see Kohlberg's stages to get the gist — and how that development can be fostered, mediated, or engaged. You'll find people struggling with that in critical theory, social theory, and some rare corners of Anglophone philosophy, but it is not a popular line of research. E.g., try arguing that most of the current crop of GOP leaders are morally preconventional (stage 1 or 2; which seems accurate), and see how much headway you make. Nov 20, 2020 at 1:06
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    @uhoh The point is that in all likelihood no such scholarly document exists. But it isn't an answer because if it difficult or impossible to search all possible scholarly documents that have ever been written.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 21, 2020 at 1:31
  • 4
    If you were a student of philosophy this could be a homework question. This question is much too big for a quick answer and I can only refer you to the philosophy section of your local library. Start with Plato.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 1, 2020 at 7:39
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    @RedSonja Not just the philosophy section. ##2-4 could just as well be answered in the economics or history sections. Whether you should start by reading Plato, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, or Adam Smith is a matter of opinion.
    – alephzero
    Dec 3, 2020 at 1:16

2 Answers 2


I have a rough theory of optimal stopping for decision making.

The first observation is that, given a difficult choice, you of course should do as much research on the topic as possible, use rational principles that underpin philosophy (to value human consciousness and life above all), and try to find the best solution for those you're responsible for.

This plan of study may be better explained by a political scientist or philosopher, but some heuristics I can think of are looking for prior art, studying the underlying political and economical theory, and studying ethical philosophy.

I think the question can be phrased as: How to understand when we've reached a good enough solution? This is an economic problem (related to 'optimal stopping').

A theoretical solution is surprisingly simple.

  1. Obviously research has a generalized 'cost': the more time you spend on research (or say, an idle or passive activity), the less you are furthering your goals through actions. If your decision is time-critical, that is, if the more you delay it the greater the harm, or the lesser benefit accrued, then you may be able to estimate this cost.

  2. The research also has a benefit, or 'utility': the more time you spend on research, the better hopefully will be your decision. In economic terms this may be called a marginal utility.

The solution then is to choose a time when the marginal 'utility' gained by research minus the marginal 'cost' lost by it is maximal, i.e. when you gain the most in terms of achieving your goals.

You can harness your intuition and ask "In the period of X months, how much do I expect to have learned about the issue? How much will that improve my decision? What do I (in terms of objective) lose from delaying until then?"

(1) Self-Historical analysis:

If you've been studying for a decision for T time (1 day, 1 month, etc.), how much has your decision improved compared to lost opportunity?

If you feel it has improved significantly, continue studying.

That said, I would not say this is an exhaustive analysis of decision making of course, and really there isn't one. I would advise a cross-disciplinary approach for long term study. Other important considerations are risk analysis from financial theory, as well as the field of game theory and strategy. The modern Rationalism community condenses some of those topics quite well.


Writings or public statements advising elected politicians on how to make hard choices

In the new video Rep. Adam Kinzinger on the Future of the GOP and If Trump Will Be A Part of It | The View (cued at 04:15) to a question asked by Meghan McCain, Representative Kinzinger says (transcribed from closed captions):

Do I fear about my own future? Not really. If I lose I lose. You know I’ve been doing this... this is my eleventh year; whenever you go into congress, whenever you get elected, I actually myself and John McCain the same, made a commitment that we’re doing this for the country, and we’re doing this for the right reason. And so no matter the cost.. I mean if you ever take into account personal cost when you’re making a decision in politics about the constitutionality of stuff — things like January 6th, then I think you lose your moral ability in essence to you know go out and praise the troops that are willing to fight for the country if you aren’t willing to put your career on the line for a similar cause.

Looking at the five items enumerated in the question, Kinzinger suggests that one should indeed put one's career on the line and take the high road when faced with having to "take into account personal cost when you’re making a decision in politics about the constitutionality of stuff — things like January 6th..."

Essentially country before career.

This answer is based on a careful, considered public statement consistent with many others by Kinsinger, but I am certain there are more answers to this question possible based on:

scholarly works (books, monographs, memoirs) by those who study this conundrum or have faced it personally that provide guidance to others who may face it?

and hopefully this answer will pave the way for even better ones.

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