Herbert A. Simon: Helping Professionals Find Themselves

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Herbert A. Simon: Helping Professionals Find Themselves

Jude CHUA Soo Meng and Alejo G. SISON1


Educating professionals (“designers”) includes communicating the prescriptive rationality which guides the design process. This rationality, Herbert Simon explains, is bounded, and hence tutors and students must be open to the need to satisfice for a variety of possible and permissible design solutions, instead of optimising for a best design solution. Such openness to a variety of design solutions leaves designers free to choose to craft their final design and so allows them to constitute and discover themselves in the process of design. Educators of professional students should therefore support their students' authentic self-constitution by supplying a context of freedom. Nevertheless, this freedom is not licence: when reason can inform about end-values and disvalues, educators will also need to alert students to versions of self-constitution that are irrational and hence should be absolutely avoided.


There are schools of the natural sciences, but there are also schools of the science of design. And what we usually understand by professional schools are schools of the latter. A school of the natural sciences concerns itself (even if not exclusively) with teaching and learning about how natural things are and work. But professional schools, or schools focused on the science of design, are concerned (even if not exclusively) with how things should be. In this way Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon sums up, in a helpful manner, two ways of looking at education and two major involvements of educators. Of the second, which is our focus in this essay, he writes:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design (Simon, 1996, p. 111).

The notion of a “science of design”, or what is a “science of the artificial”—Simon uses the terms interchangeably—hints at the discovery and demonstration of some set of objective, defensible directives for design, or for crafting the artificial. Such a science, if it were possible, would include the employment of rationality to discover the correct means to achieve various kinds of ends. At least, it would try to avoid any unscientific arbitrariness in the process of designing. Professional education therefore would seek to articulate how rationality, when applied carefully, can guide designers in seeking these correct means.


Even such a minimal conception of what is required by a science of design cannot be easily achieved, and sometimes cannot be achieved—at least to Simon. Saying that it is difficult or even impossible to discover the right means to an end, believe you me, in great part contributed to Simon's winning the Nobel Prize. This, of course, might appear somewhat surprising: are we venerating a man for telling us that he does not know, just as philosophers honour the wise Socrates, whose legacy is to have alerted us of his and our own ignorance? Perhaps Simon makes too much of the difficulty of design. Consider the following scenario. If I have to get from one place to another, then—barring any obstacles—the best means, and hence the correct means, would be to walk along the shortest path. So I examine all possible available paths, compare them and choose the shortest. There seems nothing mysterious about discerning a right means to an end. The principle at work is optimisation (maximisation): getting the most of the end with the least of the means. Simon calls this optimiser the “economic man”, since classical economic theory recommends his way of deliberating. But consider Simon's observation regarding how decisions are really made by the “administrator”, who represents for Simon the person who acts in the real world. Although he speaks in the context of administrative science, Simon's basic point against the real-life practical impossibility of optimisation is generally applicable:

Whereas the economic man supposedly maximizes—selects the best alternative from among all those available to him—his cousin, the administrator, satisfices—looks for a course of action that is satisfactory or “good enough.” Examples of satisficing criteria, familiar enough to business people, if unfamiliar to most economists, are “share of market,” “reasonable profit,” “fair price.” … Economic man purports to deal with the “real world” in all its complexity. The administrator recognizes that the perceived world is a drastically simplified model of the buzzing, blooming confusion that constitutes the real world. The administrator treats situations as only loosely connected with each other—most of the facts of the real world have no great relevance to any single situation and the most significant chains of causes and consequences are short and simple. One can leave out of account those aspects of reality—and that means most aspects—that appear irrelevant at a given time. Administrators (and everyone else, for that matter) take into account just a few factors of the situation regarded as most relevant and crucial. In particular, they deal with one or a few problems at a time, because the limits on attention simply don't permit everything to be attended to at once. Because administrators satisfice rather than maximize, they can choose without first examining all the possible behavior alternatives and without ascertaining that these are in fact all the alternatives. Because they treat the world as rather empty and ignore the interrelatedness of all things (so stupefying to thought and action), they can make their decisions with relatively simple rules of thumb that do not make impossible demands on their capacity for thought. Simplification may lead to error, but there is no realistic alternative in the fact of the limits on human knowledge and reasoning (Simon, 1997a, pp. 118–119).

The central point in this very densely packed paragraph is that human rationality (constituted as it were by knowledge and reasoning) is limited—or “bounded”, as Simon is more famously remembered to have coined. And bounded rationality makes optimisation (or maximisation) unattainable, thus the other realistic alternative (and hence what one should indeed do) is to “satisfice”, that is, reach for a solution that is generally acceptable but which may not be the theoretical best. The suggestion that one should satisfice rather than optimise in complex decisions (and hence in designing complex projects) is nicely illustrated by the task of finding a needle to sew with from a bundle of needles randomly scattered into a haystack. Seeking the most optimal needle may entail digging out each and every needle, comparing them and choosing the sharpest. But what one would rather do is to simply look for a needle, discard blunt ones and stop the search when one finds a needle that is “good enough” to sew with, knowing that there may be even sharper needles out there and that the needle one has, even if good enough to sew with, may not be the sharpest—that is, one would rather satisfice (Simon & March, 1993).


If the project is complex, designers sometimes arrive at only one satisficing solution; other times they may achieve several possibilities. A pool of designers, working independently, may each arrive at a limited number of satisficing possibilities, but taken together they would offer several possible acceptable solutions. Thus, someone planning to decorate his apartment may pick up an IKEA catalogue and find in it many varieties of chairs, tables, beds and so on to be mixed and matched in an infinite number of ways and hence is awed (and at times overwhelmed!) by the infinite number of ways of arriving at a final interior design. If one is confronted by this open array of possibilities, none of which is reasonably the “best” (or the right way), then moving forward with any one satisfactory decision has really in the end to be an act of free, autonomous choice. Nothing settles the choice except one's free, autonomous movement. This has to be the implication of any satisficing decision before an incommensurable array of options (Boyle, 2002). One can speak of such free choices as “gifts”, as I have done (Chua & Juurikkala, forthcoming), or as one's “style”, as Simon does:

When we come to the design of systems as complex as cities, or buildings, or economies, we must give up the aim of creating systems that will optimize some hypothesized utility function, and we must consider whether differences in style … do not represent highly desirable variants in the design process rather than alternatives to be evaluated as “better” or “worse” (Simon, 1996, p. 130).

Style. This very idea is pregnant with philosophical as well as practical implications, some of which I will develop here. A student who makes personal stylistic choices in his or her designs where rationality can no longer determine, is with necessity designing in a manner consistent with sound rationality. As educators who shape and build professional students, and who help them design well, we need to give them the freedom, consistent with Simon's theoretical insights on design, to move forward in ways that only they can decide. In practical terms, this may not merely mean saying “Alright, beyond this it's your own call, so I'll let you be”—as it were, permitting them, reluctantly, to be free. It may mean, in relation to the timid and reliant, urging them with enthusiasm to move on courageously by themselves: “Here on, you need to decide, to go this way or that.”


But most of all, what is born amidst the pangs of free choice is the student's very “authenticity”, his “individuality”, his own “identity”—indeed the student him-self, which the educator or tutor must draw out of the student with midwifery persuasion. For, as each choice is made, the student's very “self” is born and enters into the world; in that choice before incommensurable possibilities, that student becomes just as he chooses—he constitutes himself with his free choice. Because, just as he settles by himself in free choice to move in this rather than that direction, he is he-who-chooses-this-rather-than-that. His very identity, and his very self—who he is—emerges in that choice, and is revealed. Also, in that very same instant of that dynamic birth, the student also finds “himself”, which is constituted and revealed just in that very free choice. After all, before that choice, I-who-choose-this-rather-than-that was not yet; it had not yet emerged, and therefore the self then was not that self-that-chooses-this-rather-than-that. Indeed, in that moment of limbo when the choice had not yet been made, the self was unknown: “Which way would it go, and so what would it be?” Yet, only when it makes its choice, and so constituted itself accordingly, then shall it be revealed both to others as well as to the student himself: “Ah, I am he-who-chooses-this-rather-than-that.” Put in another way, as the student crafts according to his style, he discovers himself (see also Finnis, 1983, pp. 135–142; Finnis, 1997). As tutors, our business is, among other things, to help the professional student find the gift of himself.2 And it is our business, also, to hope that he would continue to do so into the future. The student may be an artist, a fashion designer, an interior decorator, an engineer, an architect, a leader of an institution, or a social planner, where some measure of design features. He is a professional. In those various fields and arenas, we hope, he will discover and reveal himself.

A professional's revelatory self-constitution need not be individualistic; it can be communal, and be achieved in collaboration with other freely self-constituting persons. A member (e.g. leader) of an organisation can invite his or her colleagues (e.g. employees) to freely choose (through some form of democratic forum) to join him or her in moving in a freely chosen direction. In this way, a coordinated group of persons, forming a professional organised entity, can freely choose to act in a certain (policy) direction, and constitutes itself accordingly (Finnis, 1998). Notice here that both the members and the group undergo some form of self-constitution. Each member of the coordinated group freely chooses to join others (in acting in a certain freely chosen direction) and therefore constitutes himself or herself to be a member of the collective group; as well, the coordinated group constitutes itself as one that goes in that particular freely chosen direction. For example, recently the prestigious soccer club Barcelona F. C. decided to invest a certain percentage of its profits in UNICEF. One can of course be cynical and think this was no more than a publicity stunt engineered for self-seeking interests. Even if we grant that, we would still have to admit that, in truth, no analytical science could possibly determine whether this was the most (or less than!) optimal thing to do; wherever else the money could have gone, what would have been promoted would be a different and incommensurable package of benefits. Rather, only a free choice from Barcelona could have enabled this decision. At the end of the day, this is its style—this is Barcelona. Thus also, Barcelona is revealed: the Barcelona-that-gave-to-UNICEF.


As educators of professionals who struggle with the complexities of decision making under conditions of bounded rationality, we will have to help them acknowledge the need, and also recognise the opportunity, for finding and discovering themselves. I end, however, with some caveats. The freely chosen self-constitution is, I think, a value much agreeable to the modern mind (Taylor, 1991). Accounts of the value of freely chosen self-constitution can include those which celebrate any kind of freely chosen self-constitution going in absolutely any direction. More common, however, are others which celebrate all kinds of freely chosen self-constitution except those which harm others (see Richards, 1982). Herbert Simon, it seems to me, would in principle be open to both accounts. He defended the idea that what constitutes one's ultimate values is an empirical matter. By that he meant the ultimate values of a person are subjective facts, to be discovered empirically. In saying this, he was eager to emphasise that ultimate values are not the products of reason. Though in the end he abandoned the logical positivism which had influenced him in his early days, he continued to warn against attempts to derive prescriptive norms and value claims from non-normative claims. Apart from prescribing the oughts and ought-nots of some instrumental means, he believed that reasoning is basically non-normative, and as such it can never yield any prescriptive or value judgments insofar as final ends are concerned, short of committing the naturalistic fallacy. This being the case, one's final ends, and therefore final directions, are really up to the self-constituting agent or agents, and these final ends are motivates which are not reasons and where reasons have no say (Simon, 1983, 1997a, 1997b).

This is where I would part ways with Simon. My own account of reason's capacity is less pessimistic. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, I would argue that there are reasons which respond positively to inquiries about what are choiceworthy end-values (Finnis, 1980, 1983, 1998). Like Simon, I would deny that one can infer prescriptions from non-prescriptive claims. But I distinguish theoretical reasoning from practical reasoning. The first accounts for our capacity to reason logically about factual truths and their relations and to judge suitable means to a given end; this kind of capacity is what Simon refers to when he speaks of reasoning. The second accounts for intelligence's direction towards choiceworthy ends. (Indeed, Aristotle would say that Simon reduced all prescriptive reasoning to techne, which discerns instrumental means to an end, and failed to attend to praxis, which discerns worthwhile ends informed by the moral disposition of the agent.)

This capacity of practical reason to guide us intelligently towards such ends has its source in a plurality of underived, self-evident first principles. These first principles of practical reason are each fully prescriptive, in the sense that each identifies goods and bads and prescribes their promotion or avoidance. In other words, each principle prescribes that such and such is good and ought to be sought and done whereas its opposite is bad and ought to be avoided (ibid.). Such a claim must seem very controversial in a climate where scepticism about reason's capacity to distinguish objective values and disvalues dominates. Nonetheless, if such scepticism can be overcome, then reason's capacity to prescribe final values would need to be fully integrated into the deliberative life of the professional who reasons carefully, and so employs all that reason can offer. And when reason identifies bads that are not worth seeking, then its direction to avoid acting for such bads needs to be obeyed, even if such bads harm no one else, and one's self-constitution would need to accordingly avoid versions which result from choices aiming at such bads (see Finnis, 1991; George, 1995; Chua, 2006). (Having taken into account the difference between intentional actions and consequences resulting as an unintended side effect, directions to avoid [intentionally] acting to realise bads can always be obeyed, and therefore such directions are effectively absolute and admit of no exceptions.) Taken together, whether individually or as an organisation, professional self-constitution and self-discovery can take on a variety of forms, but not any and every form, for there are places where reason would rather you not find yourself. If all this is defensible, then as educators we should not evade the responsibility of alerting our professional students of reason's direction to avoid bad forms of self-constitution through choices that reason prohibits; we should not shy away from teaching ethics. And our hope should be that our students, when they take on positions of leadership, will be influential in the self-constitution of the communities which they lead and will help such communities constitute, discover and reveal themselves in forms that are truly valuable. Such communities would then be found and known (through their various forms of legal and structural arrangements, discourses and policies) to be communities which facilitate (without self-defeat) the achievement of authentic benefits and thus of human flourishing (see George, 1995, 1999; Gregg, 2003; Chua, 2006).


1 Alejo G. Sison provided collaborative assistance to this essay while he was a visiting scholar at Policy and Leadership Studies, National Institute of Education. The opinions expressed here are Jude's and are not all shared by Alejo. Jude takes all responsibility for any errors or omissions.

2 John Finnis considers self-constitution an intrinsic and necessary effect of free choices, but not typically a motivation for intelligent action (see Finnis, 1983). I would, however, consider if the ideal of self-constitution (in accordance with the limitations of moral absolutes) may not be an instantiation of the good of practical reasonableness, one of the seven basic goods and an intelligible end for action. Consider the fact that one can seek, within reason, the good of being such and such a person among other morally permissible alternatives and therefore choose to act to realise that ideal. When one does this, one is seeking to be (practically) reasonable— that is, to act as reason directs—and where reason cannot further direct, to act with that understanding as well, instead of irrationally acting as if reason can still direct. Either way, the argument in this essay is not affected by whichever position one takes on this issue. One constitutes and discovers oneself in free choice, either as an effect or as an aim.


Boyle, J. (2002). Free choice, incomparably valuable options, and incommensurable categories of good. American Journal of Jurisprudence, 47, 123–141.

Chua, S. M. J. (2006). What is a school? An answer consistent with human rights. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 5(3), 225–234.

Chua, S. M. J., & Juurikkala, O. (forthcoming). The personal gift in sound business enterprises: Bounded rationality, incommensurable values and economic agency. Re vista Impresa Y Humanismo (Enterprise and Humanism Review) (in Spanish translation).

Finnis, J. (1980). Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finnis, J. (1983). Fundamentals of Ethics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Finnis, J. (1991). Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.

Finnis, J. (1997). Commensuration and public reason. In R. Chang (Ed.), Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason (pp. 215–233). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Finnis, J. (1998). Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George, R. P. (1995). Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George, R. P. (Ed.) (1999). Religious liberty and political morality. In In Defense of Natural Law (pp. 125–138). New York: Oxford University Press.

Gregg, S. (2003). On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Richards, D. (1982). Sex, Drugs, Death and the Law. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.

Simon, H. (1983). Reason in Human Affairs. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Simon, H. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Simon, H. (1997a). Administrative Behavior. 4th ed. New York: Free Press.

Simon, H. (1997b). Models of Bounded Rationality: Empirically Grounded Economic Reason. Vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Simon, H., & March, J. (1993). Organizations. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further Reading

Finnis, J. (1983). Fundamentals of Ethics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Simon, H. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sison, A. G. (2003). The Moral Capital of Leaders: Why Virtue Matters. London: Edward Elgar.

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Herbert A. Simon: Helping Professionals Find Themselves

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