Good decisions vs right decisions – an important distinction

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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Years ago I read a book about military decision-making, and the author made a point I have never forgotten: the difference between “good decisions” and “right decisions.”

  • A good decision means you made the best decision you could at the time, given the knowledge you had at the time and the urgency of the need to decide.
  • A right decision means that after the results of your decision were known, it turned out that what you decided had the desired effect.

In other words, whether a decision was good or bad could be determined pretty much in the moment. There might be opinions one way or another, but the quality of the decision was apparent at the time it was made.

On the other hand, whether a decision was right or wrong could not be determined until some time later, perhaps even much later. If you looked at the intelligence you had and ordered a certain military action, only to realize it was a trap, you made a decision that could be both good and wrong.

Obviously, the goal should be to make decisions that are both good in the moment and right in the long term. But when it comes to judging our leaders, we should focus on whether they are making good decisions, and hope that they turn out to be right as well.

Thus, we come to Governor Beshear and his administration, and their actions in regard to the coronavirus. Are they making good decisions? Given what we know, it seems they absolutely are. They are proceeding with steadiness but also with speed, and basing their decisions on the recommendations and insights of professionals. We may not like the decisions, but we cannot fault them for being bad decisions.

Are they making the right decisions? We will not know the answer to that for some time. It may be that they should have moved even faster, or taken other actions that we cannot even imagine.

But it seems to me that the state’s leadership is meeting the only criteria we can reasonably expect: given the intelligence they have, they are making the good decisions we need.

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