Harold’s Story – Part 2

By Stuart J. Whitley | Bio

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 differently.

Current strategies in intellectual discourse talk about how we ‘tell the truth’ about others and ourselves. Postmodern 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 an issue have been imbued with near divinely-inspired truth, and that hasn’t always necessarily been a good thing. Conservatism, liberalism, feminism, capitalism and 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 (which is 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, we have 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 in a 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 occupy.

More tomorrow… 

© 2009 Stuart J. Whitley. All rights reserved.