Discernment: Harold’s Story II

By Stu Whitley

This is the second in a three-part series.

Einstein is supposed to have said that the most important decision we
ever make is whether the world is a good place or a bad place. I don’t
believe that we consciously make that decision – we are taught to
believe it, one way or the other, and the most difficult lesson of all
to unlearn is that we live in a hostile universe. There are just too
many confirmatory events that tend to erode our courage to think

strategies in intellectual discourse talk about how we ‘tell the truth’
about others and ourselves. Post-modern social theory considers that
this is the changing terrain of politics, literature and other
intellectual work that addresses the way in which power is exercised
and made visible. It is to conform to a ‘habit of truth’, which means
information-seeking and the vigorous constructive questioning that
ensures the chosen course is the right one. It calls for close inquiry,
of course. But it also demands that we consider other perspectives;
there is an obligation in human relations that we be open to be
persuaded. In a rational age, a time when science and the scientific
method are supreme, we have become addicted to certainty. Some of the
polemics of the late last century (and this one, for that matter)
suggest that disputants on either side of the issue have been imbued
with near divinely-inspired truth, and that hasn’t always necessarily
been a good thing. Conservatism, liberalism, feminism, capitalism,
self-determination, are examples of this. One need not consider more
virulent debates around religious subjects to find further examples of
minds made up in advance.

I am not calling for a less rigorous
approach to the manner of our discussions among ourselves about matters
that concern us. In addition to the challenge of stepping outside our
biases – no small task – I believe it’s helpful to articulate a
rational framework for thinking about how we deliberate over problems.
Several questions come to mind:

  1. Can we fix it?  Make the
    problem big enough or the objective sufficiently abstract, and
    solutions will evade us (in other words, have we already decided that
    this problem cannot be solved?). How can we usefully define it so as to
    make it manageable, and what are the obvious sources of information
    that we need to explore to move toward some sensible conclusions? Is
    what we are thinking about a move forward, or a step back?
  2. Is
    it complex, or is it really a simple issue at root?  Can we find
    consensus on that which needs to be done, or at least, on some
    strategies to address critical parts of the problem?
  3. Are
    solutions matters of scale?  Can the problem be solved in one fell
    swoop, or single (corrective) measure? Or are incremental steps needed?
  4. Can
    the problem be coherently fractioned?  This provides the greatest
    opportunity for collaboration.  Unfortunately, it also provides an
    excuse for sloughing off the larger pieces elsewhere. Breaking up the
    issue makes it more manageable, and helps identify key players. But it
    also enables avoidance of responsibility for resolving the larger issue.
  5. Does
    the best solution depend upon interdependent cooperation?  In almost
    all situations, the answer is ‘yes’.  From a purely legal perspective,
    as I am prone to take, it is true that legislation, litigation and
    enforcement have their roles. However, we know by now that these are
    not necessarily the best solutions.  
  6. What will it cost? Money
    always follows a good idea.  But like business, governments and other
    sources of funds are from Missouri – they need to be shown.  Quite
    often, this means the demise of the proposed solution.  So it is
    important to be realistic on the one hand, but at the same time
    demonstrate creativity in the presentation of solutions. Where’s the
    business case, yes, but where’s the vision?
  7. Does it feel
    right?  This is not the proverbial ‘gut-reaction’, rather it’s how I’m
    terming the need for conscience. We get this by experience, of course,
    but also by meaningful consultation.  As a legally-trained person, I’ve
    often felt that non-lawyers serve a valuable role in the selection of
    legal alternatives, because they act as the conscience of the group, if
    I can put it that way.  By this I mean the need to question the
    hypothesis (or the experiment) by its consequences in discourse, not
    simply viewed through a legal lens. Sometimes I think we need to
    remember that interdependence is the spring within the movement of our
    civilization. We explore and move constantly to ask: is this so? Why?
    This is the moral component to discourse.

These points go
to an attempt to put some sort of sensible framework around problem
resolution. Thinking about things in a careful, rational way, has the
additional benefit of taking up the space that emotion would otherwise

 © 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.