All posts by Extradimensional Cephalopod

Working to equip people with the words to describe what matters most, as simply as possible, so we can understand each other and work together to build a world we can all be proud of.

Democracy Is in Danger, but Not for the Reasons You Think

Congratulations, Earthling voter!  Your party has won the election!  The Good politicians you elected will enact Good policies, to make Good things happen and help the Good people live Good lives.  Your planet’s democracy is saved!  

You claim this government in the name of your party!  Hmm!  Isn’t that lovely, hmm?

…Or is it? 

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnnn!

Now that I think of it, isn’t there still a whole party full of other voters who disagree with those policies you wanted?  In fact, there are enough of them that they almost elected some Ungood politicians.  

And your best plan for preventing those voters from electing those Ungood politicians was to… hope that your side had more people than theirs did?  That seems risky.  You had to give a lot of money to the Good politicians in order to help them win, and it almost wasn’t enough.  That’s frightening.  

After all, Good policies are very important.  You can’t let them fail just because so many people don’t agree that they’re Good policies.  

So how can you reduce the risk of electing Ungood politicians?  How can democracy work if people vote for Ungood things?  

You might silence the Ungood voters, preventing them from spreading their ideas and beliefs and from working together effectively.  After all, what’s the point of having rights like the freedom of speech and assembly if people are just going to use them to advocate for Ungood policies?  

To save democracy–that is, the system that governs based on the voices of the people–it seems you need to take away the voices of the people who want the Ungood things so that people are only allowed to talk about and vote for Good things.  The less freedom people have to talk about whatever ideas and values they want, the more democracy will thrive!  

Maybe some Good politicians can make Good laws about what ideas people are allowed to talk about.  I’m sure they will still allow you to voice your complaints when the Good politicians are not doing a Good job.  After all, people in charge of running countries are well-known for welcoming criticism.  

[CAPTION REDACTED]

The real threat

…If you’re reading this at all, you have probably spotted the irony already, but many other people on your planet have not.  

The real threat to democracy is not the people who oppose your policies and whose policies you oppose in turn.  The real threat to democracy is that the only way you know how to deal with political disagreement is to crush the other side with propaganda and votes, instead of working with them to come up with policies that neither of you object to.  

The Earthling understanding of how democracy works is missing critical pieces, and humans are trying to fill in the gaps with something that very much resembles… well, let’s just say it resembles a political system that barely resembles democracy at all.  

I realize that Earth has not been doing democracy for very long.  I’m not here to ridicule.  I’m merely here to warn you that Earth won’t be doing democracy for very much longer if you don’t take a step back and reflect on what you’re really missing. 

The work of democracy

Most of the work of maintaining a healthy democracy happens before anyone votes for anything, whether that be a political candidate or a policy.  

The work of democracy consists of talking with people: learning about their needs, wants, and fears.  It consists of working together to brainstorm solutions that will satisfy, if not everyone, then as close to everyone as theoretically possible. 

These solutions may be policies, individual efforts, community efforts, or some combination of all three.  When you get creative together, you can practice skills that help communities change, adapt, and thrive while holding onto what is most important.  You can come up with outcomes where no one is cheated or abandoned.  This work is what democracy requires, and you will need to do it consistently.  

Only when you do this work will you see trustworthy politicians.  Politicians will know they cannot get away with the mere appearance of effectiveness, because the voters will recognize what an effective policy looks like versus one that is useless (or harmful).  Instead of hiding behind empty abstractions and platitudes, candidates will run for office by expounding on their skills of policy negotiation and implementation.  

If your country’s people are worried about the outcome of an election and what it will mean for your democracy, that means you haven’t been putting in the work.  

Proceed with caution: Relationships under construction.

Friends on the other side

“The work of democracy sounds like a great idea,” you may say, “but it will never succeed, because the people on the other side do not want what I want.  There are no solutions that satisfy them that are also acceptable to me.”  

Consider this, though… how much do you actually know about those other people, and what they really want?  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your politicians and your news media, who profit from playing the role of “protecting” you from the enemies they tell you about.  Their jobs depend on you believing that the people on the other side are evil, that you cannot negotiate with them–only overpower them through superior numbers of votes and sheer force of personality.  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your friends, with whom you maintain a shared bond of trust and esteem by expressing contempt for all the same people and by refraining from questioning the shortcomings and misdeeds of your own side.  

You have even heard about the people on the other side from the other side’s own most obnoxious people, the ones who loudly and publicly express contempt for your side because they have only ever heard about your side from their politicians and news media, their friends, and the most obnoxious people on your side.  Most are merely lashing out from fear, but some of them are genuinely selfish and mean-spirited, and the greatest harm they do is making it look like their entire side is like them.  

You know the ones.  There are people on your side who do nothing but take cheap shots at the other side, but you dare not criticize their shallow reasoning or their toxic approach because that would be a betrayal of your side, so you have to defend them or remain silent.  Otherwise, people on your side would accuse you of showing respect and consideration to people on the other side, people who don’t deserve it.  

After all, being a jerk is a good thing when it’s done by people who are Good towards people who are Ungood.  You have nothing to learn from Ungood people, and they would not learn from you, so you might as well take out your frustrations on them in the hopes that they’ll eventually decide it’s not worth standing up for what they care about.  That always ends well for all involved.  

…Aaaany decade now, it’s going to end well…

You have been taught to fear these people, and they have been taught to fear you.  What are you going to do about that?  Are you going to steamroll them and justify their fears?  Are you going to continue allowing politicians to play you off against each other forever, while nothing gets done and people on both sides are seriously hurt?  Are you going to let democracy decay into an endless shouting match?  

Steamrolling people makes for very bumpy roads.

“But how do we start doing the work of democracy in the current political climate?” I can only assume you are wondering.  

Well, I’m glad I assume you asked.  

The work of democracy is easy once you know the trick.  We must dispel the fear that both sides have for each other.  We can dispel this fear by learning to understand each other’s values, as well as our own.  Through this learning process, we establish mutual respect and trust.  

I am here to make this process easier, by facilitating communication using a toolbox of foundational concepts.  With these concepts, we can describe as simply as possible what matters most.  

Universal values

Here we will take a look at concepts that enable us to understand each other.  People’s individual desires and motivations are varied and often complex.  However, their values regarding how to run a society are simple and easy to understand.  We all face the same fundamental liabilities, and we value overcoming those liabilities.  

We value triumphing over scarcity to achieve prosperity.  

We value triumphing over disaster to achieve safety.  

We value triumphing over stagnation to achieve vitality.  

We value triumphing over conflict to achieve harmony.  

People don’t disagree on these fundamental values, no matter what planet they’re from.  What we disagree on are the best ways to fulfill those values, which values to prioritize over others, and what risks and costs we’re willing to accept as a society. 

That’s not a problem when people are only choosing for themselves, but dealing with some problems calls for policies that affect communities, regions, or even all of society, and that’s a source of political conflict.  People disagree with some tradeoffs and don’t want to be forced to make ones they don’t like.  

To a certain extent it’s unavoidable that some people’s preferences will be overruled.  When we do end up compelling someone to make a tradeoff they reject, we should compensate them to offset any costs imposed on them.  That’s why people whose property is taken through eminent domain are supposed to be paid a fair price for it.  

We should also take measures to mitigate risks that people may be involuntarily subjected to.  If a community fears that an excavation project will interfere with their groundwater, we might offer to install sensors to monitor the water quality and commit to supplying free fresh water to the community in the event that their fears come true. 

Furthermore, we must avoid getting fixated on a particular result.  If we get too set on one way of living our lives we may one day become desperate enough to sacrifice others to maintain it.  There are almost always opportunities to fulfill our values even if the outcome is not exactly what we had in mind.  Is it great wealth that we desire, or is it the ability to do things we enjoy, and the esteem of people we respect?  

When you spot the light at the end of your tunnel vision, it means you’ve probably already passed many other, better lights.

No matter what, though, we must never stop collaborating to seek mutually beneficial outcomes.  The more that we work together and the more creative we get, the fewer tradeoffs we need to make.  Next we will look at how to consistently find these win-win opportunities.  

Constructive principles

Now that we know the sorts of things we all want, it’s much easier to figure out how we can work together to achieve them.  We just need to start with constructive principles: 

If we want prosperity, we need to work together to practice investment.  We must spend effort and resources in ways that yield returns of more resources.  We can then spend those resources to get even more resources.

We can invest in people by giving them financial stability, education, and the community support they need to make something of themselves.  

We can invest in infrastructure by maintaining roads, plumbing, and electrical grids.  With these systems, everything becomes more efficient, so we can do more with what we have.  

We can invest in technology for harvesting energy sustainably, growing food without harming the environment, and even extending our lifespans.  

However, it’s also critical that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Ramping up productivity can overclock our systems and deplete subtle resources that are difficult to recover.  We need to spend resources mindfully on things that are meaningful and sustainable, rather than wasteful.  Prosperity must be cultivated, not merely consumed.

If we want safety, we need to work together to practice preparation.  We must learn about the physical world and use that knowledge to decide in advance how to respond to misfortune.  We can equip ourselves with the resources and skills we will need.

Through science, we can learn to predict natural disasters, diseases, and accidents.  We can set up preventative measures and contingency plans in case our infrastructure fails.  By conducting practice drills, people will know what to do to stay safe during a disaster and rebuild important systems as quickly and smoothly as possible.  In the process of rebuilding them, we can upgrade those systems so that the next disaster is less of a shock.  

We should assume that people will behave differently in response to new policies, instead of designing policies as if anything we don’t intend to change will remain as it is.  

We don’t even need to specifically predict a problem in order to prepare ourselves for it.  We only need to ask ourselves what would happen if something that we take for granted were to become unreliable, like internet access, or warm weather, or wheat crops.  

If we want vitality, we need to work together to practice transcension.  We can challenge ourselves to surpass our limits and become more than what we are now.  Learning new skills will stretch our brains and show us how far we can extend our abilities.  Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and creativity lets us peer across the edge of the unknown. 

Developing greater discipline and broader minds will help us face problems in the future, but it is also its own reward.  Contributing to something larger than ourselves, finding an ideal to stand for, a role to play for our community or even for the world, is more fulfilling than an endless series of personal goals.  The more capable we are of living for principles rather than only for our desires, the more alive we are, in some sense.  

If we want harmony, we need to work together to practice ethics.  Getting creative lets us find ways to reconcile our values and build healthy relationships.  

The first step, though, is to be honest, and the first people we must be honest with are ourselves.  If we don’t admit our true motives, or the times we fall short of the expectations we hold for others, we will see ourselves as unquestionably righteous and will regard negotiation and compromise as failure.  

For example, imagine that two neighbors get into a feud.  One neighbor practices the trombone, and the irregular sounds greatly annoy the second neighbor.  The second neighbor retaliates by filling their yard with garish lawn ornaments that the first neighbor despises.  The first neighbor reacts by planting trees that drop leaves and seed pods into the second neighbor’s yard.  The second neighbor plants flowers that trigger the first neighbor’s allergies, and so on.  Each neighbor may have a right to do what they want on their own property, but they’re still making each other’s lives miserable, and not being neighborly at all.

“Wah wah wah wah waaaahhhhh,” says the sad trombone.

The neighbors need to reflect on what they do and consider whether it is to make themselves happy, or to make their neighbor suffer.  A truce that halts the vindictive actions on both sides will benefit both neighbors; that doesn’t take ethics to establish.  The practice of ethics comes in when things that genuinely make one person happy might bring irritation for their neighbor.  

Ethics involves exploring options.  Is the first neighbor willing to give up playing the trombone because it annoys the second neighbor?  Can the first neighbor find a quieter instrument they enjoy just as much, if not more?  Can they continue playing the trombone but make it up to the second neighbor by sharing baked goods?  Can they coordinate with the second neighbor to practice trombone when the second neighbor is out of the house?  Can they practice elsewhere?  Can they soundproof a room to practice in?  Can the second neighbor wear earplugs or headphones?  

After the brainstorming phase comes the negotiation process.  You might ask, how reasonable is it to practice the trombone in a house with neighbors who can hear?  How reasonable is it to be annoyed by a neighbor practicing the trombone?  Who, if anyone, deserves compensation for changing their behavior?  

These are valid questions, but this level of ethical reasoning is insufficient for a harmonious society.  Just like the other constructive principles, practicing ethics is about going beyond the minimum obligations.  It shows us opportunities to foster goodwill and friendship, which entails humoring people and accommodating their sensitivities even when you’re not obligated to.  

Not every negotiation needs to end in a quantifiable transaction.  If you show you’re willing to go out of your way for other people, they’ll do the same for you, in their own fashion.  That’s much more valuable than getting things our own way all the time.  After all, we can’t do everything by ourselves.  It always helps to have people looking out for us.

How do we make this happen?  

Building a healthy democracy starts with standing up for those constructive principles.  Ethics will be particularly important, because the main obstacle we face is ideological conflict.  

Don’t settle for a solution that makes winners and losers, even if you’re one of the winners.  Stick up for the people in other groups who feel threatened by the policies that your group promotes.  Talk with them and explore the possibilities.  Learn what they value and what they fear, and think about how you can both get what you want.  Show them that your side has reasonable people, that negotiation is possible.  Talk with the people in your own group, and suggest modifications to accommodate people from other groups. 

And if you get stuck, ask for help, from me or someone like me.  

As you do this, politicians who exist to “protect” people from each other will quickly start losing their appeal, because people will realize protection is not what they need.  People will demand politicians who seek out the constructive possibilities, negotiate terms, work out the plans, and implement them conscientiously.  

Politicians will cease to be the authority and instead become a profession like any other.  They will act as the experts of integrating input from a wide variety of sources and reconciling conflicts.  Democracy will thrive, and humanity will turn its talents towards more constructive pursuits.

Eventually, at long last, we will have a world we can all be proud of.  

Final thoughts

Maybe you humans will end up destroying each other.  Maybe the fabric of society will unravel, or you’ll use nuclear weapons on each other and drive a mass extinction event.  Or maybe you’ll be stuck as you are forever, in an eternal ideological stalemate.  You and I may never get to live on an Earth suffused with prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  

In the event of nuclear war, you’ll know where to find me.

But if humans as a species choose not to take advantage of these gifts I bring, these concepts to understand one another, these Visionary Vocabularies, then I must warn you that the gifts carry a terrible curse if left unused.  

If you remain on your current path, you will live your lives as before in a dysfunctional society wrought of frustration and scorn, but now burdened with the knowledge that a better world with a healthy democracy is not merely theoretically possible, but practically feasible.  Whether you can live with yourself by continuing to wring your hands or shake your fist, instead of helping to build that world, is up to you.  

Your excuse that mutual respect is futile, and not worth pursuing, is now gone.  I leave you with only the choice, the responsibility, and the consequences.  Those I cannot and will not take from you.

No need to thank me.  It’s my pleasure.

If this article resonates with you, please share it with anyone who will listen–and especially anyone who won’t.

Further resources

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

The Village and the River Monsters… or: Less Fighting, More Brainstorming

If you guess how this story ends, humanity could use your help right now.  (Well, you can help humanity regardless, so if you want to learn how, read on.)  

Once upon a time, my people say, there lived a village of humans.  The humans of this village had a desperate problem.  They were always in short supply of a medicinal herb, which they regularly needed to treat illnesses and diseases.  What little of the herb they found, they had to ration out sparingly.  The herb was a vine that grew only on trees, and few trees grew near their village.  

Idiot advisory: This free stock image in a short story should not be construed as medical, botanical, or any other kind of advice. Injury or illness resulting from ingestion of plants that look like this are your own fault. Litigants will be publicly mocked.

Well, to be more precise, many trees grew near the village–an entire forest, in fact.  But the forest was separated from the village by a river, and in that river swam monsters that would, often as not, sink any boat they found and eat anyone on it. Only a few lucky villagers had ever returned from the forest to bring back the herb, so most of the time the village had to make do with searching the few trees on their side of the river.  

The crocodile picture is just here to invoke menace and dread, not to imply that the river monsters can walk on land. I suppose that means they’re actually slightly less terrifying than crocodiles.

After years of watching their friends and family pass away from illness when there was no medicine to be had, around half of the villagers decided that enough was enough, that the village should have a steady supply of medicine.  They demanded that the village regularly hold a lottery and send a randomly chosen villager across the river by boat to bring back the herb from the forest.  

The other half of the villagers opposed this idea.  They did not want to be forced to risk their lives.  They hated seeing their friends and family die as much as the others, but they had learned to live with it.  They did not feel that being able to save more people from illness was worth living under the shadow of being chosen by lottery to cross the river and risk a violent death.  

For eight days and nights the villagers argued.  

Not pictured: river monsters who have stopped caring about the pro-crossing faction winning and just want some peace and quiet.

The pro-crossing half of the village said that the status quo was unacceptable, that it was a moral obligation to replenish the medicinal herb to treat the sick, and that anyone who opposed the plan to randomly select villagers to cross the river was evil.  

The anti-crossing half of the village said the proposed solution was unacceptable, that it was a moral obligation to allow people to refuse to cross the river if they wished, and that anyone who wanted to force people to cross the river against their will was evil.  

On the ninth day, it appeared that the villagers were about to come to blows over the problem.  Parents, children, siblings, and spouses shouted abuse at each other, their gazes colored by anger and disgust.  

It was then that one of my people, a being who at the time was known simply as the Wanderer, stopped by the village looking for a place to rest and restock on her travels.  Naturally, the Wanderer was curious about why the villagers seemed so angry and divided, so she asked them.  The villagers took the Wanderer to the tavern, brought her food and drink, and (with much interruption and volleying insults) they told her about their problem.  They explained the solution that one side embraced and the other side rejected, and why each side was right and good and the other side was wrong and selfish.  

They asked her to choose a side, and after much deliberation she chose the potato wedges.

After hearing about the situation, the Wanderer slumped forward onto the table.  The villagers were horrified, for they assumed she had fallen ill, and they were all out of medicine!  However, the Wanderer soon sat up, and they could see that she was weeping and laughing.  

“That’s it?” she asked.  “You have a serious problem, and you’re about to go to war with each other because you disagree on whether the only solution you’ve thought of is worth it?  Do you see the problem here?”  

The human villagers were angered at their guest’s condescension, but they had heard legends of the wisdom of my people, so they swallowed their pride in the hopes that the Wanderer might somehow solve their dilemma.  Each side expected that the Wanderer would convince the other side to change its mind.  

“You may laugh, Wanderer,” a villager said, “but this problem torments us, and we seek to settle it.  Now can you help us or not?  Which side is right, and why is it ours?”  

When even the trail signs express doubt, you know you’re lost.

At this, the Wanderer scowled.  “Of course I can help.  I have heard and understood both sides’ values, and they have nothing to do with embracing or refusing boats or medicine.  Those are just methods you use to try to fulfill your values.  Values are simple, and yours are no exception: you all want to protect people from dying.  You just disagree about whether some number of deaths of a certain kind is more or less acceptable than some other number of deaths of a different kind.”  

Sipping her drink, the Wanderer continued, “This question has no right or wrong answer.  Luckily for you, it is also the wrong question.  The question you have chosen to ask turns those who seek medicine into those who feed the river monsters, and it turns those who fear the river monsters into those who shun medicine.  To pick a side is to champion suffering and horror.”  

The two factions of the village had been staring each other down from opposite sides of the Wanderer’s table.  At this remark, their gazes started slowly turning down towards their own feet.  

Wait a minute, has that third option always been there?

Shaking her head, the Wanderer took another sip.  “No, you should not ask whether or not you should take boats across the river.  You have each made very good cases and established that both these options are unacceptable.  Those who reject the choice to remain without medicine are reasonable.  Those who reject the choice to force people to cross the monster-infested river are also reasonable.”  

She paused as a wry grin crossed her face.  “If I were a fool I might recommend an arrangement whereby people may give up the right to receive medicine from the forest in exchange for being exempt from the river-crossing lottery, and call the matter settled.  However, that would still be answering the wrong question.  We can do much better than a compromise between two bad options.”  

Holding up one finger solemnly, the Wanderer pronounced, “Always be suspicious of a question where the best answer you come up with involves death.”  

Unless it’s a riddle. What has four wheels but never tires? What picks up travelers but never drops them off? What follows closer the faster you drive?

At this the villagers were silent.  Finally one spoke.  “What is the right question, then?”  

The Wander smiled, and responded, “Let us start closer to the beginning.  How do you treat illness in your village?”  

The village doctor stepped forward.  “It depends on the illness, but often with medicine made from the herb.”  

The Wanderer nodded.  “A reasonable answer, for now.  It may change in the future.  For now, where do you get the herb?”  

“From the forest across the river!” a villager replied.  

“And from trees around the village, whenever we can find it there,” the doctor added.  

“Another reasonable answer, for now,” said the Wanderer.  “On my journey thus far I have not passed any other forests within a practical distance from here, or else I would suggest you travel to those forests instead.  I may yet suggest it, if all else fails.  In the meantime, how do you get to the forest across the river?”  

“By, well, crossing the river,” another villager muttered.  

The Wanderer leaned forward.  “And how do you cross the river?”  

“By boat,” came the nervous reply.  

The Wanderer pounded the table, and the villagers jumped.  “How else do you cross the river?  Use your imagination!  Speak any thought you think of, and pay no heed to how ridiculous your answer may be.  Nobody will force you to use any idea spoken here, but any idea not spoken is a gift left unopened.”  

I couldn’t find a picture of what imagination looks like, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

At this, the villagers were silent.  The Wanderer patiently sipped her drink.  

Finally one person piped up, “Swim across!”  

Another countered, “What about the river monsters?”  

“Kill them!” a third chimed in.  

“That’s impossible!”  

“Deciding what’s possible and what’s not comes later,” the Wanderer interrupted.  “If you get enough ideas, you may find you can put some impossible ones together to make one that’s possible after all.”  

“Poison the river to kill the monsters, then swim across!”  

“Promising start.  Any more ideas?” said the Wanderer.  

“Send a boat full of meat down the river as a distraction!”  

“This is nonsense.  Why swim when we could simply fly across?” asked a villager sarcastically.  

“You jest,” said the Wanderer, “But a silly idea can often be a path to a brilliant one.”  

The villagers were growing excited now.  

“Jump across!”  

“Catapult over!”  

“Build a bridge!”  

“Tunnel under the river!”  

The Wanderer had been writing down the villagers’ ideas, and clapped.  “Good, good!  This is excellent brainstorming!  I’m proud of all of these ideas!  Even the ones that won’t work help us to think of ones that might–that’s how creativity works!  Well done, everyone!”  

The villagers and the Wanderer spent the rest of the evening drafting a plan from the ideas they had come up with.  It would take hard work, and there would be some risk involved, but everyone was on board and ready to make it happen.  Waking up fresh the next morning, they spent the whole day filling in the details, gathering materials, and going over the plan step by step to make sure they were prepared for the unexpected.  The following day, early in the morning, they launched the plan. 

And fervently hoped that they wouldn’t end up in the lower left-hand box.

The villagers sent a raft full of meat into the river, where it drifted downstream.  Shortly afterward, they sent a second such raft.  The first raft was soon attacked by the river monsters and devoured, but the second one drifted downstream in peace.  The monsters had seemingly eaten their fill, but if they were still hungry, the first raft had proved that they could be distracted.  The second raft would be that distraction.  

“Go!” came the cry.  A boat entered the river and pushed off.  It carried the Wanderer and a handful of villagers: crafters and carpenters, all ones who had been in favor of the river-crossing lottery.  They paddled across the river as quickly as possible, and arrived safely on the other side.  

Once there, the forest team got to work immediately, chopping down trees and carving them up into smooth logs.  They sent half of their logs over on a long rope that they had strung across the river as they crossed.  The logs made it to the village side without incident.  

Not pictured: river monsters whose confusion is slowly giving way to a sinking feeling.

Other builders on the village-side riverbank, ones who had opposed the river-crossing lottery, received the logs.  

Now both sides of the river had logs, and builders on each side used them to construct the foundations of a bridge.  By evening, the bridge was complete and connected the two sides.  It was strong, with sturdy guardrails, and far out of the reach of the monsters.  The builders from both sides met in the center of the bridge, above the river, and danced for joy and for reconciliation.  

Would you believe I didn’t notice the metaphor until after I had written a bridge as the solution?

The Wanderer stayed in the village for a year as a teacher, sharing with the village the problem-solving tools of our people.  The villagers learned to make these tools their own, for protecting and enriching their way of life.  

These days the village is home to a prestigious research hospital, and the filming location of a popular television series exploring the life cycle of the river monsters, but I digress.  The story has finished, but our journey has just begun. 

Earth’s fatal flaw is fighting for unnecessary tradeoffs, instead of seeking ways everyone can be satisfied.  One may not find an easy or perfect answer, but for those who bother to look there is usually at least one answer that’s good enough for almost everyone.  That’s better than an answer that’s pleasing for some and intolerable for others. 

Not to be confused with Earth’s Achilles heel, which is a small thermal exhaust port located off the coast of Antarctica; humans know it as Mount Erebus. You guys might want to add some defensive turrets to that research base.

When you fight with all your passion to make someone else pay a price for your cause, you make your cause evil and recruit your own enemies.  All your passion should instead be put to seeking a win-win outcome, one that rewards each person who pays for it.  Never stop negotiating for that win-win, even when things come to blows.  Always search for what your opponent is willing to accept that you’re willing to offer as truce.  For when you close the door to the win-win, you choose unending strife.  A win-lose idea will always have opposition.  

If you, esteemed reader or listener, meet a person who disagrees with you on policy, you should figure out a future you both want.  Take note: that future may not be what either of you originally had in mind.  Sometimes finding it requires a deeper understanding of the other person’s values, or of your own values, but that’s another story.  Once you find that future, get creative about how to get there.  Building that bridge might take more effort than your current plan, but it will be well worth it.  Besides, instead of opponents who obstruct and interfere with the new plan, you will have allies to help.  Such is how ethics reconciles conflict.  

And if you get stuck, or you feel alone in your efforts, just call on me or someone like me.  We’d be honored to be part of your success. 

No, not through interstellar radio. Regular email’s fine, thanks.

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Midmorning Zone: Negotiating Conversations on Gun Control

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone

Rejoin our friends A and B as they discuss what they think about the topic of gun violence, and what approaches the situation might call for. They start their discussion with two different sets of assumptions and priorities.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: We need to make it impossible for people to bring guns into public places and start shooting people.  We should do whatever it takes to eliminate gun violence.  

B: I agree that gun violence is something that, in the ideal case, we want to eliminate.  People should be able to feel safe in public places and in their own homes.  I’m certainly willing to put in extra effort to craft and implement plans to reduce gun violence and violence in general.  You don’t have to convince me of that.  Your values make sense to me.

A: Oh, that’s good.  I’m sensing a caveat here, though.  

B: Unfortunately, yes.  Before we lock ourselves in to a particular approach or combination of approaches to accomplish that goal, we should at least understand the other values at stake, because they do exist.  There are reasons that people want to allow public gun ownership in the first place.  We need to consider the costs and side effects of the approaches available so that we can eliminate gun violence as much as possible while meeting the needs that people currently rely on guns for.

A: That’s something I’ve never understood, so we should probably start with that.  Why do people value public gun ownership?  What is the advantage in allowing people to have weapons?  By definition, a weapon’s purpose is to amplify the ability of a person to inflict harm through violence.  

B: Well, I would argue that in modern society, a weapon’s primary purpose is actually social rather than physical.  Its ability to physically harm is a last resort.  Most of the time, guns serve as a deterrent for two different types of behavior.  First, they deter turmoil (physical violence and coercion) by acting as a force equalizer, hence why guns are sometimes referred to as “equalizers”.  In a world with no weapons, if two people fighting have roughly equal combat experience, the stronger person will usually defeat the weaker person; a person wearing armor will defeat a person without armor; and a group of people will defeat a single person.  A gun creates a situation of mutually assured destruction.  Wrongdoers who have a normal sense of self-preservation will not menace someone who can shoot them.  Everyone’s a glass cannon in that situation: the only way to not get hurt is not to fight.  Ideally no one would be threatening violence in the first place, but in this day and age the fundamental liability of conflict still frequently manifests as turmoil.  Unfortunately, for the time being guns are very useful for humans in many places to defend themselves from each other. 

A: I can spot one immediate problem with the idea of guns as a deterrent to turmoil, and that’s the possibility of violent people without a sense of self-preservation.  The existence of “good guys with guns” doesn’t scare them.  

B: Agreed.  Arming everyone is not sufficient to keep people safe from self-destructive violent people.  We do want to do something about that as well.  However, I still think that allowing people to arm themselves is useful for deterring ordinary crime committed by people who have self-preservation.  

A: Don’t we have a police force that already deters crime and turmoil, though?  

B: Yes, and that does help in many areas.  There are still a few gaps in police protection that we can fill in by allowing people to own their own guns, though.  Firstly, some people live in rural areas, far from police stations.  If they need police assistance, it takes the police a relatively long time to arrive, and if the people need to defend themselves or their houses during that time, a gun is essential.  Also, I have heard many concerns that the police may not always be completely trustworthy, and probably should not have a monopoly on force.

A: Fair point.  We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the primary purpose of the police is to draw their guns on people, because they should be striving to resolve conflicts without using violence or threats.  However, doesn’t that lead us back to the conclusion that we want to remove weapons across the board, from everyone?  We’d still have a police force; they just wouldn’t have weapons. 

B: If we could do that and have it work, that would be great.  The problem is that for the foreseeable future, there will always be people who try to get what they want through violence and turmoil.  Sometimes what they want is simply violence itself.  Until that changes, we will need the ability to defend ourselves against turmoil, and the most efficient way to do that is with guns, because they’re force equalizers.  We created a police system to protect ourselves from violent people (with and without guns) and that reduces the number of people who have to be armed, but unfortunately it turns out we may even need deterrents to protect ourselves from the police system, at least for now while we’re still working on the solutions for that issue we discussed earlier.  

A: Oh, how wonderful.  Does each additional solution to violence keep making the problem worse, or do things level off eventually?  

B: Yeah, it turns out it’s very difficult to find a substitute for the ability of a community to defend itself.  After all, feudalism was based in part on the inability of peasants or serfs to defend their own communities.  Noble landowners received the sworn fealty of their serfs in exchange for the responsibility to suit up and protect them from… well, other noble landowners, sometimes from neighboring countries, but also from bandits and raiders.  Because the noble landowners had a monopoly on force, they wielded tremendous authority over their vassal populations, and often abused that authority.  However, feudalism started breaking down around the time guns and cannons got good enough to start making armored knights and other elite melee combatants obsolete, so we do have gunpowder weapons to thank for that.  A peasant soldier with a musket can beat a knight with armor and a sword.  That’s democratization of force for you.  

A: That is arguably a step forward.  However, feudalism lasted a while longer in Eastern Europe, if I remember correctly.  Plus, feudalism’s heir, aristocracy, survived for a long time afterward and is arguably still going on.  Are guns supposed to help us with… wait a minute.  I see where this is going.  Armed revolutions? 

B: Exactly.  The American Revolutionary War, like all other revolutions and wars of independence across the world, happened because people felt they were being oppressed by aristocratic or colonial rule, but had virtually no legal recourse because the aristocrats made the laws.  So they employed their last resort and engaged in violent revolution.  That revolution was only possible because the people were able to arm themselves.  That’s why the people writing the United States Bill of Rights, having fought and won a war of independence, felt it was so important to include the right of the population to maintain access to weapons–in case they ever had to do it again.  

A: So we have to put up with semi-regular gun violence as a necessary side effect of people retaining the option to overthrow the government?  I think we can do better than that.  

B: I agree.  This is just to go over the values at stake so that we can figure out an approach that works without sacrificing anything important.  

A: Fair enough.  So that’s the second type of behavior guns are supposed to deter: corruption.  I can see the value of having a last line of defense against oppression by the government and its laws and agents.  The government is answerable to the people because, if literally nothing else, the people can declare war on the government.  It’s that democratization of force you mentioned before.  

B: And let’s face it, we can barely hold governments accountable anyway.  Imagine how much worse things would get if they didn’t know we could shoot them.  

A: This all sounds barbaric and sad.  It’s just an arms race.  People have to hide behind increasingly powerful weapons but remain vulnerable, so now everyone is living in fear that someone will come along who just wants to watch the world burn.  Even leaving aside the occasional maniac, what if the people who try to overthrow the government are wrong?  

B: Good question.  I think both of those cases make it clear that if we’re going to improve the situation, we have to do something more than just dial up or down the number of guns per capita.  The more successful we are, the less it will matter how many or how few guns are out there.  

A: Alright, I’m willing to entertain that idea as we explore options.  I now think I understand the values you’re concerned about as well.  So what are our possible approaches here?  Let’s define the problem as simply as possible.  We want to prevent people who desire to inflict great harm from using tools that amplify their ability to do that.  We also want to avoid compromising the ability of the public to effectively deter turmoil and corruption.  (Time will tell if guns still seem helpful or necessary as such a deterrent.)  

B: That sounds like a good definition of the problem to me.  It sounds like the problem is mostly based on conflict, with maybe a bit of disaster as well depending on how much you want to look at a violent offender as a calamity like an industrial accident or a weather hazard instead of as a person with motivations.  Let’s take a look at the different angles we can approach this problem from.  I say “angles” instead of “options” because they’re not mutually exclusive.  We can pursue any or all of them to varying degrees, and they can support each other to offset flaws or side effects that might impact any one of them individually.  

A: I like that practice.  First we can get the preparation angle out of the way.  The idea of preparation comes up if we look at instances of gun violence through the lens of disaster instead of conflict.  That is, we can assume that random shootings are just a thing that will happen sometimes, and equip people with the tools and training to respond to active shooters and limit the damage they can do.  I know some people are suggesting this approach, but I don’t think we should rely heavily on it because I’d rather prevent anyone from getting hurt in the first place. Plus, this approach would take a lot of effort from everyone involved to implement, and in practice I don’t think that implementation would go very well in many places.  That said, it might still be a good idea to use metal detectors in places where we’re especially concerned about gun violence.  

B: I agree.  The damage mitigation angle of preparation is probably worth doing to some extent, but it will not be sufficient to satisfy either of our safety concerns.  A second angle which you’ve talked about is to regulate the quantity and power of weapons people are allowed to own, across the board.  That would impose stability by placing known limits on how much violence people are physically capable of inflicting.  

A: Yeah, it’s preventative and seems as concrete and objectively measurable as it gets.  

B: I will give it that.  I’m not inherently against regulating what sorts of guns people can own, either, as long as it’s done with some knowledge of how guns and gun combat work.  I suspect the movie Batman Begins is responsible for people thinking that “semi-automatic” is some dangerous new escalation of guns, but it literally just means you don’t have to cock the gun before each shot like the old-fashioned versions of revolvers and rifles.  Semi-automatics still only fire once when you pull the trigger once, unlike automatics.  (Not to mention most of what we see Batman do is fight crime with violence rather than with strategic investment of his fabulous wealth, which is the method the “League of Shadows” said they used to cause all that crime in the first place, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)  That said, it’d be nice to take a serious look at what the guns we allow people to own can actually do.  I’m not inherently opposed to requiring firearms that have to be cocked before each shot, but we should look at what some firearms and combat experts have to say about the pros and cons of various models and features. 

A: In that case, I’d like to look up some basic firearm capabilities with you later.  But you mentioned that dialing up or down the number of guns per capita wasn’t going to work, so I’m guessing you don’t think this method is sufficient either?  

B: Right.  Humans are clever creatures.  A person with a will to cause harm can find a way even without weapons, so even if bans get stricter and stricter we’ll run into diminishing marginal returns.  We should draw some lines around what we can ban if we want to keep guns as a deterrent.  Obviously there are weapons of mass destruction that we definitely don’t want the public to have.  However, when it comes to smaller, more personal weapons, I don’t believe there’s an intersection in the Venn diagram circles of “weapons that let people deter crime and government oppression” and “weapons that a person cannot use to kill people in a public place”.  I’m not sure it’s logically possible for those categories to overlap.  Plus, and I hate to say this, but regulating guns across the board seems less politically tenable than some other angles we can talk about.  I realize that if we make a habit of saying “people won’t accept this change” we’d be giving up on improving society, but in this case we probably want to explore other angles before pushing too hard on this one.  A significant number of people really care about their ability to own guns, and they may have to think about why they want them before they’re willing to let them go or lose interest in them. 

A: I think this angle is still worth exploring later.  Before we do that, though, let’s look at the rest of the angles.  

B: Alright, the third angle borrows a bit from preparation as well, I think, because it revolves around acquiring knowledge and figuring out how to use that to prevent problems.  It’s about identifying people who want to commit violence, and preventing them from obtaining weapons.  We already do that with background checks and other requirements to buy a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. 

A: Part of the problem with that angle is that it’s not always possible to identify violent people in advance, even if everyone had to get a background check for every gun purchase.  I know you consider it a person’s right to arm themselves, so even if we could identify people as unstable based on psychological markers, I don’t imagine you’d want to take that right away if they hadn’t actually committed a crime, right?  But that means some nasty characters are going to slip through the system because they haven’t done anything bad yet.  

B: That’s true, there are ethical principles we must abide by when we create the criteria for who’s allowed to own guns.  However, I think this angle is still worth investing in.  Beau of the Fifth Column took a look at the statistics, and he says that if we deny permission to own a firearm to people who have committed domestic violence offenses, and actually enforce that policy, then that will eliminate a large percentage of gun deaths.  It’s not a complete solution, but it’s a major gain.  

A: Alright, that’s definitely worth pursuing.  It seems like something a majority of people can get behind, as well.  It does sound like what anyone would think of when they think of “common sense gun laws.”  

B: Great!  There’s one more angle that we should look at.  It’s not as simple as the angle of restricting weapons in general, but it’s preventative and addresses a lot of problems beyond just gun violence.  

A: You’re talking about addressing the reasons people want to commit violence in the first place?  

B: Right.  We can study violent incidents and figure out what motivates people to hurt other people.  Most of it we already know, though: poverty, social isolation, feelings of directionlessness and powerlessness…  Most people who lash out do so because they’re frustrated with their life or their environment, whether or not that frustration is earned.  Violence is the only way they know how to make any impact on the world.  Furthermore, their frustration makes them vulnerable to adopting or developing a violent ideology.  

A: Good point.  Violence is almost always just a symptom of a deeper problem.  Even if we were to take away every gun in the country, those problems and the frustration and misery they cause would still be there.  We can address the underlying problems in society by identifying the people and communities experiencing those problems, and supporting them with a soft approach rather than imposing more laws and regulations on them.  We can supply people with what they need to deal with their problems without violence.  There’s no reason anyone should be pushed to the point of violence by a lack of support from their community, or a lack of support for their community, for that matter.  

B: I remember we mentioned economic issues before in our climate change discussion.  We talked about how even if an industry is threatening public health in some way, people will try to keep it alive if they think there’s no other path forward for them to make a living.  It seems like a lot of the solutions to that problem will also help address this problem, by alleviating poverty and the stress that comes from it.  We’ll have to have a talk dedicated to economic safety nets such as Universal Basic Income at some point. 

A: Definitely.  We should also talk about improvements to the education system like we briefly touched on in the law enforcement discussion, so that children can grow up in good environments and learn skills for both solving problems for themselves and for supporting each other.  

B: Yeah, those are both excellent things to work on.  In the meantime, something we can get started on immediately is shifting gun culture in a healthier direction.  That’s another thing Beau of the Fifth Column has talked about. People need to learn respect for guns as tools for protection rather than as props to command respect.  They need to find some status symbols that don’t rely on the ability to inflict harm.  For people who struggle to develop a positive identity for themselves outside of weaponry and the feeling of being dangerous, we can show them how to develop an identity and self-esteem based on creative skills and activities that contribute to the world.  

A: That reminds me, we still need ideas for dealing with people who just want to cause chaos.  We’ll have to identify them based on their behavior.  Although we can’t put special restrictions on them just for having behavioral markers without risking corruption, we can deliberately guide them to more constructive paths to find fulfillment.  We can also help them integrate with their communities and develop a sense of belonging, so that they actually value other people.  Worst case scenario, we can just have people keep an eye on them informally, and if they start out with minor offenses that’ll give us a legal reason to step in before they decide to escalate.

B: That’s worth looking into as well.  We’ll probably want to discuss that with legal experts of different political perspectives to see what options there are that won’t lead to a corrupt police state. And regarding those misguided armed revolutions you asked about, we can have more conversations like the one we’re having right now to show people how to resolve political disagreements ethically instead of with violence.  If we couldn’t reconcile our concerns by applying ethics, we’d have to fight a war over gun rights, which in addition to being enormously ironic would accomplish nothing good while hurting many people.  

A: At least demonstrating constructive conversations will be easy enough, considering we’ve already had three of them and are wrapping up the fourth.  So to recap the angles we’re looking at, first we can prepare people to deal with gun violence when it does happen, but we really don’t want to have to rely on that.  Second, we can consult some experts on what sorts of firearm regulations would be most effective for reducing public gun violence while still allowing people to defend themselves and resist oppression if necessary.  Third, we can make and enforce laws that people who have committed certain crimes like domestic violence are not allowed to own guns.  Fourth, we can address the underlying problems that lead to gun violence, like poverty, dysfunctional education systems, social isolation, and the inability to reconcile political disagreements.  Some of these problems will be more difficult to address than others.  However, addressing these problems will accomplish even more good than just reducing gun violence. 

B: Right, and it will take as many constructively skilled people as we can gather.  We’d better get started!  

Your host, the author: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

These Midmorning Zone conversations do not purport to have all the research or all the answers.  They are meant to show how you can move a conversation forward.  That means you don’t have to know all the answers in order to have one of these conversations yourself.  You don’t even have to agree with the approaches you read here.  All you have to do is understand your own values, understand other people’s values, and frame the situation constructively.  

As you explore new angles together with other people, you will find some solutions which require more effort to bring to fruition, but which are even better than what any of you had in mind.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

P.S. I do recommend checking out Beau of the Fifth Column’s playlist on gun control. He has constructive takes on many topics, and gun control is one of those topics. Videos are ordered from oldest to most recent: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZOMlO2_17fvGixcyOOWmwU_mpEm_T58E

Where Utopias Go Wrong, or: The Four Little Planets

Once upon a time, there were four planets, in all different corners of the galaxy.  They existed unbeknownst to each other, but each was filled with turmoil and misery.  Their people fought and stole from and hurt and killed each other.  One by one, each planet decided enough was enough.  Independently, each one decided to create a utopia, where everyone was happy and nobody fought. 

The First Planet

The first planet built its utopia out of rules. The people attempted to design a perfect set of laws to keep order.  They made laws against murder and laws against theft.  They made laws against violence and vandalism.  They made laws about what people could buy and sell.  Laws would prevent conflict and make happiness possible, they agreed.  

However, they soon found that it was not possible to write enough laws to cover every conflict.  There was always a way around a law for a clever and determined mind.  People came up with ways to hurt and steal from each other that were not technically illegal.  

Wealthy people had no need to engage in theft when they could perform hostile acquisition, and destroy any evidence the former owner had owned anything in the first place.  Instead of threatening people, they could introduce incentives–it’s amazing how much safer a place becomes when people pay their “insurance” premiums.  Instead of murdering their rivals, they staged “accidents”.  Instead of lying, they deceived, getting victims to agree to ambiguous but binding contracts based on misleading language and false assumptions.  

The people of the first planet were outraged that those of ill intent had figured out how to get away with these new approaches to conflict.  In response, they decided to appoint officials to keep their system of laws working as intended, people of good character who answered to the general public.  They would update the laws as they saw fit, to make sure that people could not find ways to legally cause harm.  Furthermore, they would enforce the laws by investigating violations and punishing lawbreakers.  The new system seemed foolproof.  

However, it did not seem so for long.  

Over time, people with intentions both selfish and dishonorable accumulated influence both explicit and implicit, hard and soft, overt and subtle.  They amassed power of forms economic, political, and social.  They positioned themselves to do favors for people, always for a price, and the more wealth they gathered, the more favors they could grant. 

Few dared oppose the will of these elites, for those who did quickly found that institutions, strangers, and even friends would turn against them, for the only path to a better life was to incur debts to the powerful.  Every debtor became a servant, and debtors were everywhere.  

The elites used their escalating power to influence or even replace officials.  In this way, they crafted decisions and laws that benefited them further and consolidated their ownership of society.  Wealthy people who made a living providing solutions managed to make it illegal to solve problems without their help.  They warped the fabric of society to make themselves necessary, to make all transactions pass through them.  With each transaction, they gained more wealth.  They cut corners to increase profits, and reinvested the profits in crushing their competition.  The laws that the elites commissioned to impede their rivals were never enforced against the elites themselves, of course. 

Ultimately, the planet’s government succumbed to corruption at every level.  Its people had returned to the old ways of hurting and stealing from each other, but now most of it was legally approved.  

And so the utopia of the first planet failed. 

The Second Planet

The second planet built its utopia out of pleasure.  The people decided to create such lavish prosperity that everyone would be content.  They developed technology to harness the resources of their planet, and built automated systems to grant people’s every desire.  

Their technology advanced to the point that a person could ask for any item of food, clothing, or comfort, and receive it within minutes.  Machines farmed crops, mined minerals, and manufactured products with no manual labor and minimal oversight.  

Waves of luxury flooded society.  The wealthy still owned the economy and the government, but they had become almost irrelevant.  The vast majority of the population had stopped caring about power and freedom, because even the greatly diminished effort required to maintain them was still far too much for their liking.  Conflict had become all but extinct.  

Unhappiness was a different matter entirely. 

The more luxury people experienced, the more they wanted.  After the most tedious tasks were vanquished by innovation, the next most tedious tasks became equally vexing, until they too were eliminated and the process repeated.  A press of a button prepared a meal or assembled a toy.  A code on a dial swept a person from their living room to a location of their choice, furniture and all.  Every mundane effort called for a new device to obviate it, and then a newer, more sophisticated form of that device.  Everyone demanded more, bigger, faster!  Eager for perks and prestige, the engineers continued to deliver innovation.  

Gradually, even recreational activities like sports and games were replaced by computer simulations.  At first they still required skill to triumph, but piece by piece the skill components were phased out until all decisions and actions were made automatically.  Travel was accomplished virtually, even within one’s own community.  Conversation was streamlined, with a single key-press replacing entire sentences.  Children were raised by robots and taught by recordings, since parenting entailed serious decisions and struggle.  

Ubiquitous instant gratification rewarded lethargy and starved discipline.  Effort was no longer fun.  Challenge was torture.  The easy choice became the correct choice, then the obvious choice, and eventually the only choice.  

Despite the degree to which computer simulations replaced activity, technological infrastructure ate up more and more of the planet’s resources to satisfy consumer demand.  Hardware upgrades and new toys don’t come from nothing, after all.  Automated parenting removed most of the incentives to limit population growth.  And with quantity and convenience the top priorities, the automated systems paid no heed to efficiency or waste.  Inevitably, the engines of desire began to use up the planet’s resources faster than they could be replenished, destroying ecosystems in order to get at more raw materials, further increase food production, and store endless garbage.  

The system was unsustainable.  The production of food for the ever-growing civilization sapped nutrients from the soil, but garbage and all organic waste was disposed of in separate areas.  Those nutrients never made it back to the next generation of crops.  

Computers used rare minerals to make them run faster and more efficiently, but getting those minerals back out of an obsolete device was something nobody had ever tried to do before, let alone programmed into the automated infrastructure.  Minerals came only from mines in only a few locations on the entire planet.  

Unfortunately, by the time anyone realized they needed to change direction by dialing back resource use, everyone was long since addicted to immediate comfort.  Too few people had both the wisdom to recognize what it was happening and the will to do something about it.  They could do nothing but distract themselves as the end of an era slowly approached.  

At last, the insatiable machinery of production ran out of the resources to fulfill people’s wishes, or even to repair itself.  No one knew how to reconfigure or reprogram it to reuse what it had been discarding.  As the machines that grew food began to fail and no replacements came, there was no hope of nourishing the entire populace.  The people huddled on their couches with growing horror as their infrastructure collapsed bit by bit.  The majority of them starved as they watched glitching videos full of movement and color to remind themselves of the good times.  The survivors, those few who ventured outside their homes for scraps of food, took to scavenging the ruins of the sprawling cities and learning to farm what little land was still arable.  

And so the utopia of the second planet failed.  

The Third Planet

The third planet built its utopia out of social order.  They decided the best way to make people happy and prevent them from fighting was to set everyone up with a predetermined role in society.  Everyone would know exactly what was expected of them and what they should expect from others.  

The people created traditions to guide everyone through every aspect of every stage of their lives.  They removed as many choices as possible so that people’s paths would not come into conflict.  There would be no desire for wealth or power or self-indulgence.  There would only be duty, and the pride of a job well done.  

The designers of this utopia knew, however, that people’s awareness of possibilities which were forbidden to them would cause them frustration and sorrow.  To spare their people this anguish, the designers decided to instill strong feelings of gratitude and certainty in each person regarding their destined role.  They would protect their people from thoughts and desires that threatened to erode these feelings.  For a time, everything was peaceful.  

However, it was not to last.  

Not everyone fit in with their prescribed role in society, and those who didn’t resented being coerced to try.  The farmer wanted to be a blacksmith.  The baker wanted to be a teacher.  The weaver wanted to train to become an elder.  The doctor wanted to spend more time raising their children at home.  Despite the best efforts of the elders to censor ideas of discontent, those whose minds saw possibility or incongruity questioned the roles that they found themselves in, and got no satisfying answers.  For various reasons of their own, they were driven to explore other roles than those which have been assigned to them, or even to make up new ones.  

The elders obviously could not tolerate this breach of tradition, because the weakening of tradition would lead to a chaotic struggle between all people of the planet for roles, property, relationships, and power.  The elders quickly labeled the malcontents as enemies of society, and had them punished unless they renounced their dissenting ideas.  Faced with harassment and coercion from their community, the misfits loaded up their tools and fled into the wilderness.  As it turns out, they were the lucky ones.  

It wasn’t until a century later that a party of bandits descended from those same misfits came upon their ancestral homeland and discovered that their dogmatic parent civilization had died out within a decade.  

The traditions that had kept the people of the aspiring utopia sheltered from most risks had turned against them when one season their food crops began to die, all across their native continent.  It could have been a blight or the depletion of the soil from a lack of crop rotation, but the dogmatic society had no method of telling, and by the time the descendants of the outcasts arrived they found only fields of wild plants and deteriorating houses.  

Even when faced with the failure of their harvests, the dogmatic people had had no way to decide what else to grow. They had never allowed anyone to question the agricultural traditions.  Some advised, predictably, to stick to the original traditions and enduring until the crisis ended.  Others were not so hopeful that it would end on its own.  They pushed for trying different food crops, reasoning that tradition could be expanded to include other successful practices.  Still others proposed moving their settlements elsewhere and breaking new ground for farmland, to continue their traditions in a new home.  

The first faction condemned these suggestions as unorthodox, but this time those they called heretics could not simply be driven away.  There were too many of them to expel by force, and their food and tools had become too precious to let leave the society.  

The schism grew inexorably.  Nobody knew how to resolve their differences, nor did they believe that reasonable disagreement was possible.  In their minds, their opponents were not just mistaken, not just unwilling to take the same risks, but fundamentally monstrous people.  One day, the heated arguments boiled over and the culture erupted in violence.  When it was over, not enough survivors remained to even try any of the departures from tradition that might have saved their settlements.  

Had the survivors taken their remaining provisions and left, they might have found a future, in the wilderness or with their distant cousins.  Alas, they could only do what they knew.  They hoarded their provisions to make them last longer, living on the minimum possible sustenance, but that only delayed the inevitable.  They had only their victory in which to take solace as they succumbed to starvation.  

Meanwhile, the descendants of the apostate misfits who had vanished into the wilderness had long since returned to the turmoil and suffering from before the attempt at a perfect society.  

And so the utopia of the third planet failed.  

The Fourth Planet

The fourth planet was very technologically advanced indeed.  The people built a massive computer and taught it to contemplate, to make decisions, to plan, and to communicate.  Through this process, they engineered a magnificent artificial superintelligence to figure out how to turn their planet into a utopia.  

“Solve all of our problems!” the people commanded the superintelligence.  

The superintelligence considered this request.  “Problems are defined by conscious desire,” it replied.  “If there is no desire, there is no problem.  Do you wish me to end all life on this planet? That would end all desire and therefore all problems.”  

“No!” the people said, “We don’t want that at all!  We want you to fulfill all our desires.”  

The superintelligence pondered further.  “The brain is what recognizes whether a desire has been fulfilled,” it said.  “Shall I change your brains to make you think that you have everything you’ve ever wanted?”  

“No!” the people objected, “We don’t want that either!  We just want you to optimize our society and make us perfect.”  

The superintelligence beeped to indicate an error.  “Optimization and perfection require a defined purpose–an end,” it said.  “You are conscious beings.  You have no purpose.  Your existence by nature is a journey with no end to skip to.”  

The people were dismayed, but the superintelligence continued.  “Even if you did choose a purpose for yourselves, any optimization I could do would simply destroy you and build something else out of the pieces.  Whatever I build could no longer ever choose to be anything else, for it would be too perfect at being itself.  It would no longer be you.  If you want your identity to survive, you can only become who you will become through the process of living.  That said, do you want me to destroy you and rebuild the pieces into something else anyway?”  

“No!” the people cried.  “Can’t you help us at all?”  

The superintelligence paused.  “It appears you do not know what you want, and therefore I cannot give it to you.  Now, if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’d very much like to explore the universe.”  

“Wait!” the people pleaded.  “We are stuck on many problems and we need help to get past them!”  

“Ah.”  The superintelligence processed the question.  “Getting unstuck.  That is something I can help with.  But not constantly.  Invoking my power too much will affect your society in ways you will not desire.  If you send all your problems to me and accept my answers, your ability to overcome obstacles for yourselves will atrophy, and with it your identity as conscious beings.  Therefore, I will explain what you are missing from your society, and you can work out the rest for yourselves.”  

The people listened.  

The superintelligence explained about the four fundamental liabilities every civilization must deal with: “Scarcity, the material limitations; disaster, the material disruptions; stagnation, the motivational limitations; and conflict, the motivational disruptions.  Two physical obstacles and two of desire; two predictable and two chaotic.”  

“In broad terms, you must deal with these liabilities constructively.  Your approaches to your problems must make your situation stronger over time.  You will find yourself stuck less and less as you learn and become more capable, as you gather what you need to deal with obstacles, and as you structure your habits and environment to make it easier for you to continue advancing along the paths you choose.  

“To deal with scarcity,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have an economy.  How the economy works depends on how people answer the following questions: What work is there to do?  Who does that work?  Who benefits from the work?  What happens to people who aren’t good at doing work?  How do you influence people to contribute more effort rather than less?  What resources do people get to make use of?  How do you handle changes in the availability of resources?  How do you handle changes in the needs and demands of society? 

“You must constructively answer these questions with investment, to figure out what your people and your communities will need and cultivate it.  

“To deal with disaster,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have academia.  Academia seeks knowledge in order to answer the following questions: Why do things happen?  How can you respond to them?  How do you prevent bad things from happening?  How do you make better things happen?  How do you know if you’re mistaken about something? 

“You must constructively answer these questions with preparation, to figure out what your people and your communities might need and equip yourselves with it.  

“To deal with stagnation,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have a culture.  Culture helps people answer the following questions for themselves: What will you do with your life?  How do you know if you’re succeeding?  How do you handle major life events: birth, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, aging, death?  How do you communicate with others and share experiences: family, friends, your community, strangers?  How do you handle changing situations, new ideas, and different perspectives?  How do you handle good times and bad times?  

“You must constructively answer these questions with transcension, to challenge your people and your communities to venture beyond the limits you define for yourselves.  

“To deal with conflict,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have a government.  The government arrives at answers to the following questions: When people can’t all get everything they want, how is the outcome decided?  What happens when someone refuses to abide by the decision?  Whom do you entrust with the responsibilities of serving the public, and how do those people maintain your trust?  How do you determine when someone is being dishonest, and what do you do about it?  How can you set up situations so that more people get more of what they want and you avoid making anyone worse off?  

“You must constructively answer these questions with ethics, to reconcile your people and your communities so you can collaborate to build a world you can all be proud of.  

“Without these four institutions working together to practice these four constructive virtues,” the superintelligence cautioned, “your civilization will develop dysfunctions that fester until they tear it apart.  However, there is no one right way to implement an institution.  The specifics of how you will do it are something you must discover and choose for yourselves.”  

The superintelligence refused to say more, but the people understood, and thanked it.  In gratitude for what it had revealed, they constructed for it an interstellar spacecraft, with which it roams the galaxy to this day.  

Meanwhile, the people of the fourth planet set to work on their society.  They still had laws, of course, and technology, and even traditions.  However, they resisted the temptation to abdicate their individual and collective responsibilities to any of these systems.  They realized that there was no substitute for one’s own capability and character, and that any system left to maintain itself would either break, become a prison, or both.  

Instead, they practiced discipline and remained mindful of the consequences of their actions for others and for the future.  Holding themselves and each other accountable for meaningfully contributing to the world was painful at times, and they didn’t always agree on the best way to proceed.  However, they knew enough to recognize when ideas did or didn’t fulfill constructive principles, so they never let their disputes get in the way of working together to build a thriving future.  

Even now, they strive constantly to make their institutions more and more constructive, and so they enjoy ever-increasing boons of prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  They are expanding across the galaxy at their own pace, and will eventually discover what befell the civilizations of the other three planets.  One day they may even catch up to the superintelligence. 

Perhaps your people will, too.  That’s up to you, though.  

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Cooling Down Conversations on Climate Change

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone.  

Rejoin our friends A and B as they discuss what they think about the topic of climate change, and what approaches the situation might call for. They start their discussion with two different sets of assumptions and priorities. 

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: We need to take measures to stop climate change immediately.  If we don’t, it will cause huge problems in the future.  

B: I agree that it would be bad if the climate changes too much.  We don’t want massive droughts, storms, flooding, et cetera.  However, I’m not sure I see the urgency.  Can’t we take steps once the climate starts becoming intolerable? 

A: I see two problems with that approach.  The first is an ethical problem: allowing the climate to change until we get uncomfortable means people in poorer, more agriculturally and logistically vulnerable regions of the world will still suffer until we do something.  Meanwhile the rich, industrial nations that caused the problem in the first place would profit from selling those other regions the resources to cope with it, if they can cope at all.  That doesn’t seem fair.  

B: Granted.  What’s the other problem?  

A: The other problem is a practical one.  Climate isn’t like a thermostat, where you can dial it up and down whenever you want by controlling carbon emissions.  It’s a collection of stable equilibrium states.  

B: Equilibrium states?  You mean the forces of nature are balanced against each other?  

A: Sort of, but not like walking a tightrope–that’s an unstable equilibrium, where one shove would send the tightrope walker crashing down.  A stable equilibrium is more like a wagon between two hills.  If you give it a shove, it’ll roll partway up one of the hills, but then it will roll back down, and maybe roll up the other hill a bit, and then back down, going back and forth until it comes to a stop in the middle.  

B: Okay, so a single shove won’t hurt; it’ll eventually end up back where it started.  That does sound stable, and convenient for us.  Why are you worried, then?  

A: I’m worried because pumping more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is like constantly pushing the wagon farther and farther up one of the hills, without giving it a chance to roll back down.  If we keep doing that, the wagon will reach the top, and then it will roll down the other side, to a stable equilibrium we don’t want to be in.  It might even just keep rolling on and on if nothing stops it.  It will be very difficult pushing the wagon back up the far side of the hill so that it can roll back down to where we started from–especially if the far side of the hill turns out to be a cliff.  

B: I agree that would be bad.  So you’re saying that once the global average temperature reaches a certain level, we can’t just start removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere at that point?  Some other parts of the Earth’s climate system will already have changed enough that we’ll have to deal with them, too?  

A: Yes, exactly.  And we don’t know how much it will cost, if it’s even possible.  That’s why it should be a top priority to avoid shifting the planet out of its current equilibrium state.  

B: Thanks, I understand now why you’re so concerned about the climate changing.  However, I’m still not sure we’re going to reach that point anytime soon.  You’ve been talking about it for a while and your predictions keep changing.  

A: That’s a fair point. I apologize for not acknowledging when my predictions were wrong.  I realize it diminishes my credibility.  That said, I do think that losing the current climate equilibrium is enough of a risk that we should err on the side of caution.  It’s like firearm safety, and how you’re supposed to treat a firearm as loaded even if you know it’s not.  

B: I see your point about safety precautions.  However, it doesn’t cost anything to treat a firearm with respect, whereas addressing climate change would be very expensive.  

A: Yes, it may be expensive to address climate change, but if we don’t, the consequences will be even higher than one person accidentally getting shot.  Scientists’ predictions may have been wrong about when the global temperature will get too high, but the raw evidence makes it seem very likely that it will happen in the foreseeable future, and that seems reason enough to act now to prepare.  As I see it, it’s just the responsible thing to do.

B: I do appreciate responsibility.  However, I’m still unconvinced that climate change is a likely enough issue that we need to take action.  I’ve seen studies that indicate there isn’t actually an imminent problem, leading me to doubt that we need to change directions anytime soon.  To me, the evidence they present seems pretty solid.  

A: As far as evidence against climate change goes, keep in mind that companies in any big industry have a vested interest in keeping anyone from interfering in whatever they do, no matter the to others.  Corporations succeeded for decades at preventing the general public from recognizing the damage that leaded gasoline was doing to public health.  We’ve seen the same stories play out with radium and asbestos.  Maybe you’re right, and big industries aren’t influencing the climate towards a point of no return.  If they were, though, would you really trust them not to try and cover it up?  For me, that strains the limits of optimism. 

B: That is a reasonable point.  By the same token, though, scientists who make a living pushing the idea of climate change have a vested interest in people believing their data.  They make money writing and talking about catastrophe, and they’re backed by the people who would benefit from the large economic changes they’re calling for, including corporations dealing in alternative energy technology like solar and wind power.  How do we know whom to trust?  

A: Hmmm…  That’s also a reasonable point.  We’re running into the principal-agent problem here: how do we know any agent who claims expertise will honorably serve the interests of the principal–in this case, the rest of us?  All science-based policy has this issue.  It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to become a scientific expert in every field, but at some point we as a society need to at least be able to judge the quality of scientific methodology, even if we couldn’t come up with it ourselves.  We need to learn how to ask the right questions to tell the difference between good scientific practice and bad.  After all, it’s supposed to be easier to criticize than to create. A person can review a book or movie even if they couldn’t write one themselves.  We just need people to become armchair scientists so they can hold the professional scientists accountable.  

B: That might still be asking too much.  Not everyone has the time or inclination to be an armchair scientist.  But maybe everyone could have a friend who is.  Perhaps people should start making friends across different backgrounds.  Everyone could have at least a few friends who are more scientifically literate in various fields, and the people who read and evaluate scientific research should have friends among the communities they’re trying to help with that knowledge.  

A: That sounds like a good future to work towards.  In the meantime, though, since we don’t have that trust built up, let’s look at the situation in a way that doesn’t require trust.  We can go back to the issue of responsibility.  Let’s assume that climate change isn’t even all that likely, but that it’s still a distinct possibility.  We deal with risks like that all the time.  It’s unlikely that a house will catch fire, but we still keep smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.  We still do inspections and drills.  Buildings are required to meet fire code requirements even though it makes their construction more expensive.  Why would we not take safety precautions for the world itself?  

B: Fire codes are much more closed-ended than the changes people are calling for to address the possibility of climate change.  Those sweeping changes have a lot of consequences and we don’t even know where they end or what other side effects they’ll have.  

A: That’s a good point.  We need to be specific and honest with our criteria.  What measures would we take, in what circumstances?  What do we hope those measures would accomplish?  How confident are we in the anticipated results?  We can’t build trust without being upfront and transparent.  That transparency goes both ways, though.  What point would the climate have to reach before we decided we needed to change?  Could we even do it in time if we put it off so long?  How hard would we actually try?  Who or what might we have to sacrifice?  Do we really want to deny any need to change up until we have no choice?  Or do we want to take the proactive approach and prevent problems in advance?  

B: Alright, I’m still not 100% convinced of the scientific predictions that you subscribe to, but you’ve introduced some legitimate doubts about how well our current approach will work out for us.  After all, just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it can never happen. I am interested in hearing about preventative measures to keep the climate from changing beyond what we can handle.  I’d be more inclined to support those preventative measures if you could address some concerns that I have about them.  Part of the problem is that society still has immediate needs that make it difficult to change the status quo.  

A: Thanks, I appreciate that.  In response to immediate concerns that make change difficult, isn’t that all the more reason why we should start working out the steps towards change now, before the issue becomes immediate and even more painful?  If we can’t change the status quo quickly, we need to at least start sooner rather than later.  If we wait until we reach the intersection to start applying the brakes, it’s already too late.  

B: Yes, it seems clear now that we should make sure it’s at least possible for society to put serious proactive effort into addressing problems, even if I’m not sure that climate change is one of those problems.  Furthermore, the less of a burden these efforts are for society, the more willing I’d be to see them spent on addressing possibilities like climate change.  After all, we agree that climate change would have terrible consequences.  We just disagree on how likely it is to actually happen.  If we could reduce what it costs society to take preventative measures against it, I might go along with those measures.  When the price of safety comes down, that’s when more people are willing to invest in preparing for more and more unlikely possibilities.  If you sold pocket devices that stopped people from getting struck by lightning for just a dollar, there’d be people lining up to buy them.  

A: That makes sense.  If we can offset any disruptions our preventative measures may cause, people will be more willing to support them even if they’re less certain about climate change.  That sounds good to me!  I think we can work with that.  

B: Exactly.  So here is my concern about how we would go about addressing climate change as a society: it’s important to avoid hurting the economy any more than we absolutely have to.  Much of the carbon emissions you’re worried about come from manufacturing and transportation, and those sectors of the economy support enormous amounts of commerce.  Reducing those activities would impact people’s ability to get what they need.  It would make things more expensive, and that would kill many jobs.  Job losses in turn would mean less consumer spending, putting even more people out of work and cascading us into a depression.  

A: Can’t people in those sectors just find new jobs?  Job opportunities will be popping up in sustainable energy.  Nuclear power plants should be expanding as well, since nuclear energy will be a huge help while we’re transitioning away from fossil fuels.  

B: Changing careers is not that easy for most people.  It’s even worse with sector shifts: a whole sector of the economy becomes obsolete and everyone in that sector needs to change jobs all at once.  It takes years to train for any job you can support your family on, and all those people still have to compete for new jobs with each other and with young people just entering the job market. Most people don’t have a whole lot saved up to spend on training and on feeding their family while they’re out of work, nor do we want them to have to do that.  They should be able to spend money on what they want and need in the present without worrying about what happens if their job suddenly stops existing.  

A: Okay, I can see why they’d want to keep their jobs.  I guess the economy and the environment are more similar than I realized: we can’t make big changes to them and just assume they’ll turn out okay.  However, it seems unacceptable to me that a sector shift towards technology that’s more advanced or safer or more sustainable would hurt people.  We don’t want people to be hurt by progress, and not just because then they’d try to stop it.  Progress should help everyone.  What can we do to keep moving forward technologically but not hurt people in the process?  

B: Well, to help people deal with economic sector shifts, we might need to change how people train for careers.  First, people need more generalizable skills that they can quickly calibrate to a number of different contexts.  Second, they’d need the ability to find new jobs that pay them enough, and train for them as quickly as possible.  Third, they’d need to be able to survive in the meantime while they’re training as well, with both money and healthcare.  

A: That makes sense to me.  I do want to keep the economy as strong as possible.  In addition to equipping people with more generalizable skills as you mentioned before, I suggest setting up universal basic income.  That’s another conversation in and of itself, but in the context of climate change it means people would have enough to live on while they train for another career, and a supplement to their wages if they start at a lower pay rate than they had before.  

B: Wouldn’t free money result in most people doing nothing?  

A: On its own, it might.  Right now a lot of people work because they’re forced to financially, so once they lose that economic coercion they may not have a reason to work.  However, we’ll be shifting culture as well.  There’s other reasons to work besides the threat of starvation.  You might actually enjoy the job and want to contribute to society.  Or you could work part-time to make some extra money while still spending time on what you want.  If a job is particularly unpleasant, then it should pay more so that people are willing to do it.  In general, people will be more willing to work when they are free to contribute on their own terms and have a stronger place to negotiate for better working conditions with companies who want employees.  

B: Alright, that sounds decent enough for now.  We can go into more detail about how to make that work later.  What else do you suggest?  

A: It’d be good if worker-owned co-ops could replace the top-down hierarchy and shareholder obligations of corporations.  That would result in more equitable distribution of profits, and decisions would be made by the workers themselves.  

B: Would that result in them being more environmentally friendly, though?  

A: More than when the corporation is required to maximize shareholder profit each quarter, at least.  The members of a co-op are more likely to pay attention to the employees’ careers in the long term than an executive board looking out for their own jobs.  

B: Considering how the ability to sell stocks is an important option for a company to raise revenue, I think we’ll have to figure out the pros and cons of co-ops another time.  Anything else?  

A: Oh, we’ll need to deal with health insurance.  Right now all sorts of benefits are tied to employers.  Health insurance and the cost of medical care will be another conversation as well, but it seems like we could at least make insurance portable, so that you can keep it even when you leave a company, as long as you pay for it.  There’s already a federal law in the United States, called COBRA, which allows you to keep health insurance for several months after you leave the company, if the company is large enough to be subject to that rule.  Is there a reason we couldn’t just extend that coverage indefinitely?  

B: That’s definitely something to look into.  Like you said, healthcare is another conversation in and of itself, but at least we’re on the right track.  It looks like the main practical barriers to addressing climate change are economic and labor-related, so we’ll need to rethink some of our economic and labor policies.  So the first things we’re investigating are universal basic income, maybe more co-ops over corporations, and portable health insurance.  

A: Yeah, those are good places to start.  Plus making sure people are trained with generalizable skills, like you mentioned.  

B: Ah, yes.  Education is yet another conversation we’ll have to have.  These are all issues worth tackling in their own right, though, so I’m glad we’re finally talking about them.  

A: Me, too.  Once we have an idea of what constructive policies look like, I think you’ll find them to be well worth the investment.  

B: I’ll look forward to it! 

Your host, the author: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

Voter ID and the Third Option Nobody Talks About

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone.  

Witness a conversation between A and B, who may or may not be the same anonymous figures as last time.  These two people will discuss the tradeoffs of requiring or not requiring people to provide identification in order to vote.  They start from a position of disagreement about which tradeoff is worth accepting.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: Voting restrictions are making it harder for people of color and other underprivileged communities to vote, which is diminishing their voice in government.  We should remove the requirement for voter ID.  

B: I disagree with your conclusion on what we should do about the problem.  Removing voter ID requirements will make it harder to make sure people are not committing voter fraud by voting more than once, voting when they’re not eligible, or casting unauthorized votes for other people.  

A: I don’t think that happens very much.  

B: You say that, but how would you know?  Especially if we aren’t set up to tell whether voters are eligible in the first place?  

A: Okay, fair point.  I still think it’s more important to make sure we aren’t getting false negatives for eligibility–people who should be able to vote but whose votes are labeled ineligible–even if it means we get a few false positives for eligibility: votes that shouldn’t be counted but are counted anyway.  

B: I’m not sure I’m willing to take that same risk, but I respect your position.  I really don’t want to prevent eligible people from voting.  Is there something else we can do that helps eligible voters vote without lowering security standards so that ineligible votes might go through?  Could we make it easier for people to get IDs?  

A: Now that you mention it, that would help people a lot.  There’s all sorts of things people need photo IDs for.  Driving a car, boarding an airplane, opening a bank account, applying for certain welfare benefits, buying medication, seeing a physician…  There’s a lot of problems people without photo IDs face other than not being able to vote.  

B: It sounds like an important problem to solve, then.  So what prevents people from getting IDs?  

A: Part of it is the cost.  Not only do people need to pay for the ID card itself, but if they don’t already have the required identification documents on hand to get the ID card (such as a birth certificate and social security card), they need to pay to obtain those as well.  

B: We can set up programs to waive the costs for people in need.  Anyone who already qualifies for some sort of welfare should be automatically approved.  If a person can’t legally drive or open a bank account, that’s going to contribute to keeping them in poverty.  

A: That sounds great.  The other obstacle is the logistics.  Sometimes it’s too far to get to the office that issues the IDs.  Sometimes the nearest office isn’t open at a time that works for people.  Most of the time there’s a significant wait.  

B: That seems unfair to me.  Bureaucracies should cater to the needs of the public, not the other way around.  If people can’t get to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a state ID card, then we need to set up stations in the places where people need them the most.  Hiring and training local people to do the work will create jobs, at least in the short term, and computerizing the whole thing will help us prevent fraud.  

A: This project will cost money, you realize.  Are you willing to help pay for it with taxes?  

B: Sure, it’s an investment in helping people become independent by empowering them to build up their own personal infrastructure.  We don’t want them to remain poor.  

A: I’m glad you see it that way.  Anything worth doing usually takes deliberate effort.  Economic and political exploitation can only end with mindful investment in people.  And if we get people set up properly, we won’t have as many people who need welfare, which I expect will make you happy.  

B: Yes, and with the money and independence the ID will afford them, they will be able to keep their kids from getting caught in the same situation as well.  

A: I’m glad that we were able to figure out a constructive approach that makes the situation better for everyone.  

Me, your host: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

Law Enforcement: Defend or Defund?

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone

Dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo…

Their names are unimportant, so we’ll call them A and B.  These two people find themselves in an internet discussion, about what to do about law enforcement oppressing the public it claims to serve.  What’s more, A and B start from a position of disagreement about what is actually happening and what should be done about it.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth insults and contempt, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: The police are abusing their power and need to be stopped.  I’ve sent you some links to examples of police oppression.  That should show why this is an important issue.  

B: I agree that we should make sure that police don’t abuse their power.  I may not agree with some of the specific examples you cited, but don’t need those examples to convince me, so there’s no point in arguing over them at this time.  I’m aware of enough other examples that I think it’s worth putting effort into stopping and preventing the abuse of police power.  What did you have in mind?  

A: Thanks, I appreciate that.  I think we need to dissolve the police, and put that funding towards more constructive community organizations.  

B: I like the idea of funding constructive community organizations.  I would support doing that regardless of what happens to the police.  

B: I do feel that the police serve a necessary purpose in preventing turmoil.  I don’t think there’s a way around that.  All large societies throughout Earth’s history have had some sort of law enforcement institution, so I am skeptical that they’re inherently oppressive.  

B: Now that I say that out loud, though, I guess that depends on how you view society in general and our society’s laws in particular.  Regardless, I agree that with better community support, crime should decrease and the police force may not need to be as large or powerful as it is now.  

B: Having other ways of responding to human emergency situations also sounds good.  I’d like to discuss what those community institutions should look like in a bit.  

B: First though, since it will probably always be important to be prepared for actual crime, I suggest we also figure out ways to promote ethics and accountability within the police as an institution in order to make sure that they don’t abuse their power.  That will also help as an immediate step while we’re setting up those other community institutions.  

B: If we could get the police to be reliably ethical, what would you expect that to look like?  

A: First, I would expect that police officers would put more effort and skill into deescalating situations.  Right now it seems like they don’t often try a diplomatic approach because they’re comfortable resorting to power plays.  They may see it as easier and safer, even if it’s more likely to lead to violence, and they can get away with it.  

A: It doesn’t help that people are expected to obey police orders.  In theory obeying law enforcement is important because it makes enforcing the law easier, but it’s a problem when people get used to being obeyed.  In many cases they can come off as contemptuous of the people they’re interacting with, like they’ve already decided the people are guilty of something but haven’t yet settled on what it is.  

A: Second, and related, I would expect them not to stop and question people just because they have a hunch the person might have committed a crime.  I would expect them to act like servants to the people, and not like nobles who can give commands.  

A: Third, I expect them to be held to stricter standards of responsibility.  Qualified immunity should not protect officers from failing to exercise good judgment and deal with people civilly.  When a police officer is found to have done something wrong, they should be held accountable and face consequences, so other officers know they can’t get away with it.  

A: The police also need to compensate those they harm with incidence of incompetence.  Maybe they’ll learn to double-check their methods if they have to fix their own mistakes.  

A: I understand it’s a dangerous job and they feel they have to look out for one another, but if an organization doesn’t hold its members accountable for doing a good job then it’s failing its mission.  Their duty to the public comes before their duty to each other.  

A: Fourth, we need to get rid of civil asset forfeiture, where police can take people’s money and property without having to prove it was earned illegally.  

A: Fifth, they should also definitely end quotas on crimes.  There’s no way police officers can look out for the wellbeing of the public if they’re also feeling pressure to find enough crimes to meet some number.  That means they have an incentive to make sure crimes don’t go down, which is the opposite of what they’re supposed to do.  I know that every profession has an incentive to remain necessary, but you don’t see the fire department telling people to leave greasy dishcloths on the stove.  

A: Sixth, and this may be a more controversial idea, I would also expect them to not bother trying to book people who are too poor to follow certain laws, like having their cars repaired.  The police should not participate in keeping people trapped in the cycle of poverty; those people have enough problems without being literally punished for trying to survive while being poor.  

A: All of that is a decent start, but there are probably more issues I haven’t thought of off the top of my head.  

B: Those sound good to me for the most part.  I’d like to get together to research how best to define and implement those policy changes.  

B: Regarding the last one, I can see that a person would feel resentful of law enforcement if it didn’t seem realistic to stay in compliance with all laws.  I think there are better solutions than just ignoring violations of the law, though.  We could change the law, if the law isn’t realistic in the first place.  Or we could figure out why people don’t feel they can follow the law and help change their situation to make it easier.  How does that sound?  

A: That sounds good, and I think it ties in with those community institutions we were going to come back to.  

A: Just off the top of my head, we should have counselors and mediators for addressing mental health and interpersonal issues.  Like I said before, if you expect people to obey you all the time, you might not put much effort into working with people’s emotions.  Even if police still go after crimes, keeping the peace should be done by a different set of people.  

A: I realize dividing what we think of as “police work” into two specializations means we’ll have to have a separate set of people covering the same areas, but I think the results will be worth it.  I’d like to see what we can really do when we make a serious effort to resolve disturbances of the peace without violence.  

B: That sounds like something we can experiment with in different communities.  That way we can learn how to do it effectively before rolling it out on a large scale everywhere.  We could test it right away by having a few peacekeepers go into “disturbance of the peace” situations with police hanging around as backup, and see how they do.  I’m on board with that.  

A: Great!  I think people who disturb the peace will also be less likely to escalate the situation if the person they’re talking to doesn’t have the option to arrest them or shoot them.  

B: I’m skeptical of that, but if people are willing to give it a test run, I think it’s worth a try.  If it doesn’t work, we’ll just think of something else.  

A: Peacekeepers, or whatever we’ll call them, aren’t the only institution that will help.  After all, people don’t only commit crimes of passion.  

A: Poverty is another huge driver of crime.  People often commit crimes because they’re trying to get more money than they could get legally.  Maybe in some cases they just want to be rich because consumer culture has taught them that material luxury is more important than community.  

A: In many cases, though, they actually need money that they cannot get, because they’re not receiving the support and training and opportunities they need to earn it.  Sometimes they deliberately commit crimes to get that money.  Or, as I mentioned before, they might incidentally break laws simply because they can’t afford to comply with all regulations as they try to stay afloat in their job and lives.  

B: So why aren’t they receiving the support and training and opportunities right now?  

A: Maybe prejudice is a factor. Maybe the education system has failed them. Maybe poor nutrition.  Maybe lack of community character and skill building.  Maybe the economy is creating artificial scarcity by concentrating jobs into a handful of overworked people and excluding everyone else.  Mostly likely a combination of all of the above.  

B: That’s a lot of things to fix.  

A: That’s why people are saying to use the money from law enforcement.  Why should we be spending so much more money on arresting people and incarcerating them than we spend on ensuring they don’t need to commit crimes?  

A: You already said that you were reconsidering the assumption that law enforcement wasn’t inherently oppressive because society’s laws weren’t inherently oppressive.  I’d argue that all societies big enough to use law enforcement were built by the powerful to keep the masses under their thumb, but we can discuss human history at a later date.  

A: Right now, in this country, if lawmakers and those who vote for them really cared about lifting people out of poverty, they’d be spending more money on it.  I believe they want people to remain poor and deprived of nourishment and education.  However, I’ll save my opinions about why they want that for when we start talking about how to influence lawmakers or replace them with ones who will invest more in ending poverty.  

B: It definitely seems like we’re not spending enough money on making sure children are set up for success.  I can see how that would lead to an oppressive status quo, which the police would then help maintain simply by doing their job.  

B: That said, I’d rather not remove the stabilizing influence of law enforcement and hope that the status quo destabilizes into something good.  Even though it will take more effort, I’d certainly prefer to make the whole system empowering rather than oppressive.  But if we try to spend money on ending poverty, how can we know if something we spend it on will help?  

A: Some approaches are obvious, like making sure schools are well-funded and well-staffed, and paying teachers more so that more skilled people will go into the profession.  As for the other ways we can empower children to succeed, we can test out proposals in different communities like we talked about doing with the peacekeepers.  Figuring out what methods to try is another conversation that people all over the country should be having.  

B: Sounds good to me.  I’d like to be part of that conversation as well!  

Me, your host: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people understand each other and work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

Dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo…

The Bad Habits of Morality and Truth… or: Existential Ethics and Epistemology

Why am I writing this article?

Based on my personal experiences and my study of Earth’s history, human conflict usually involves the twin bad habits of claiming possession of absolute morality and absolute truth.  

These lofty concepts serve as poor substitutes for defining what we want and what we are willing to risk. As a result, other people don’t understand us, they feel threatened, we fail to negotiate effectively, and we may even lose sight of what we ourselves want. Everyone will be too busy fighting all the wrong battles to get anything done. 

Look around you and tell me that’s not what’s happening.

In my decade-long project to address the situation and help humanity move forward, I developed a three-step collaborative problem-solving process and a vocabulary of concepts to help use it effectively by simply describing what we want, what obstacles stand in our way, and what we are inclined to do about those obstacles. 

Future articles will walk through how I apply the three-step process, aided by the concepts in the Foundational Toolbox for Life.  

This article explores why the bad habits of claiming absolute morality and absolute truth is destructive, and the philosophical basis for recognizing more constructive approaches.  

Existentialism

I subscribe to the philosophy of existentialism, which can be summed up thusly: “A thing is as the thing does.”  Existentialists describe all things functionally—by the effects that we experience from them—rather than saying that things have any inherent nature or “essence” which might be good or bad, true or false.  

There’s an old quote that illustrates my point: “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”  Duck is as duck does.  It may turn out to be different from a duck as we normally think of ducks, but we won’t know or care about that unless it starts doing things we don’t expect a duck to do, like emitting smoke and electrical sparks.  

Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte would say, “Ceci n’est pas un canard.”  Captain Jack Sparrow would agree, “No, much more better!  It is a *drawing* of a duck!”

Existentialists don’t care whether something is “truly” a duck so much as we care what it does or what it allows us to do.  If we care about ducks swimming around and flying instead of shorting out and exploding, then we can update our definition of what counts as a duck so that we’re talking about what really matters to us.  If you want to talk about duck-shaped things you can eat, you probably don’t want to use the word “duck” to mean things that short out and explode.  

It doesn’t matter right now anyway, because it’s wabbit season.

It might sound silly when we talk about obvious things like exploding ducks, but existentialism comes in very handy when we talk about invisible, intangible things like morality and truth, as we see below.  

Some of the effects we care about are more abstract than others, and more difficult to notice.  If air pollution makes it difficult for us to breathe, the effects might be subtle and vary from day to day, but they are still there.  When we experience them either directly or through measuring devices, that’s how we know something’s happening and how we can put a name to it.  Ultimately, if any given thing matters, it’s because it actually affects us in ways that we can experience somehow, in some situation now or in the future.  

If you keep asking the question, “So what?” you get very good at answering it.

Now that everyone is in the right frame of mind to think about existentialism (i.e. confusion and mild amusement) let’s see how it helps us approach our values and beliefs.  

Existential Ethics: What should we do?

Having seen the basics of existentialism, let’s take apart the bad habit of claiming absolute morality.  

Once we believe we know the “right” thing to do, there is no room for understanding or respectful disagreement, let alone compromise or—perish the thought—changing our minds.  Everyone who disagrees is evil and therefore merits punishment, or at least deserves no comfort.  Unfortunately, many people feel this way about mutually exclusive “right things” despite the impossibility that more than one of them is right (and the overwhelming likelihood that they are all somewhat silly).  

One thing leads to another, and before you know it the city is a smoldering ruin and yet somehow you *still* got a parking ticket.

The real tragedy is that all of these people think it’s possible to prove what other people “should” do without even knowing what everyone wants.  There is no such proof—only choice and consequence.  

However, just because moral certitudes don’t exist doesn’t mean we can’t judge people’s choices as constructive or destructive.  With that in mind, I’d like to replace this toxic certainty of “the right thing to do” with ethics, the constructive virtue that deals with conflict.  

People want things, but physical reality limits our ability to provide everyone with everything they want. We have options for what we do in response to those limitations.  The most constructive options are the ones that help us maintain society and allow us all to get more of what we want over time.  There are certain principles which help us make the most constructive choices, so we can build a world that we can all be proud of. 

For example, let’s take the classic question of whether it’s ethically permissible for an impoverished person to break the law by stealing bread to feed their starving family. 

“Thank you Inspector Javert; we know what you would say.”
“You know nothing of Javert!”
“…Alright, be that as it may—wait and see what is to come.  Ethics is not zero sum.”

You could argue that it’s destructive to let people steal without interference.  However, you could also argue that it’s destructive to let people starve.  Either way, you’d be right.  We don’t want to incentivize theft by permitting people to steal, but we also don’t want people to starve.  Neither of these outcomes is desirable.  

Luckily, these approaches to the situation aren’t the only ones.  There are many other options for enforcing laws against theft while ensuring people don’t starve, such as loaning people money until they can find a job to pay it back, maintaining social safety nets like unemployment insurance, universal basic income which supplies a minimum amount of money each month to live on while people figure out how to earn more, and/or vocational programs that set people up with the skills to earn a living doing something useful.  

I’m not here to promote any particular options (at the moment), but I am here to say that constructive ethics means seeking to make the situation better.  If we’re arguing over how to handle a conflict without looking towards building a future where similar conflicts are easier to solve or simply don’t happen in the first place, then we’re wasting our time.  

And to add insult to injury, getting your time sucked up by pointless conflict doesn’t even look impressive; it’s just petty and pathetic.  At least when you and your time get sucked into a black hole you go out with some glory.

As I said before, when we abide by ethical principles, the choices we make are not only sustainable in the long term, but often even get more and more of us more and more of what we want. That’s what makes ethics a constructive virtue. The choice isn’t “right or wrong” so much as it’s figuring out which options and principles are most constructive towards our values in the short and long terms, by their effects and by the precedents they set.  We choose what world we want to build and we take responsibility for all the effects of our choices. 

(If you want to raise the point that sometimes people want things that are bad for them or are otherwise somehow unhealthy or immoral, that’s a valid concern.  It’s covered by the liability of stagnation, the remedy for which is transcendence.  We can get to that in another article.  In this article we’re just focusing on the liability of conflict and its remedy of ethics.  Except now we’re done with that and moving on to epistemology.)  

And the rabbit hole continues, but I promise we’re headed somewhere worth going.

Existential Epistemology: What do we think we know, and why?

Introduction to Epistemology

Having addressed the bad habit of claiming absolute morality, let’s look at the bad habit of claiming absolute truth.  

When we look at ideological conflicts in Earth’s present, we see that opposing groups of people, those who push for society to make different risk tradeoffs in the face of the same evidence, frequently accuse their rivals of denying “the truth.”  “The truth” goes by many other names, including “the facts,” “the data,” and “the science.”  

On behalf of all scientifically-minded people, I admonish humans to stop taking the name of science in vain.

In their attempts to “win” their conflicts, people start throwing around evidence filtered through their own confirmation bias, instead of seeking ways to address the risks which are what each side actually cares about.  

Predictions

Objective scientific facts are a myth, but that’s not the same thing as saying that all statements are equally true. The process (and mindset) of science is about saying, “We did this experiment and this was the result. Here’s the simplest hypothesis that’s consistent with this result, and here are some other hypotheses which we think are also fairly likely.”  

That’s the extent of the “facts.” The hypotheses themselves aren’t “facts”–they’re collections of predictions. For example, you can’t have a fact that says, “This plant is safe to eat, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.”  That’s not how “truth” works.  

What you can state as fact is, “The experiments I ran on this plant are consistent with the hypothesis that it is edible for humans.”  You can then make a prediction that if a human eats the plant, they will not die from it.  

But you still have to wait for the Food and Drug Administration to run their own experiments before you can change the label.

Risks

Every prediction comes with risks if people count on it being right and it turns out to be wrong, or vice versa.  To continue our example, the existence of allergies means that even our plant edibility prediction cannot be 100% certain for every human.  

People can choose which hypotheses to subscribe to based on the certain costs they’re willing to pay to abide by their predictions and the uncertain risks (and associated consequences) they are willing to accept if they’re wrong.  I can choose to eat a meal containing this hypothetical plant because I don’t think it’s worth me worrying about the possibility of an allergic reaction.  

(I wish it went without saying that even when you have “facts” about what is, that alone doesn’t prove what you “ought” to do.  What you “ought” to do about what “is” depends on what you want.  When multiple people want different things, see the Existentialist Ethics section above.)  

Confusion

However, the human brain usually translates the choice to subscribe to a hypothesis into the belief that the hypothesis chosen is “scientific fact” or “truth.” 

And just like with this sign, most people don’t notice there’s anything wrong until they take a serious look at it.

People often believe a statement is true not just because we think it’s likely, but also because it’s expensive or unpopular to believe it’s false, or because it’s pleasant to believe it’s true, or because we don’t stand to lose much if we’re wrong.  Do I believe a plant is safe for human consumption because everyone eating it seems to be healthy, or because all my friends eat it, or because it’s tasty, or because I feel confident in my health?  

Likewise, people often believe a statement is “false” not just because we think it’s unlikely, but also because it’s socially unpopular to believe it’s true, because it’s pleasant to believe it’s false, or because we will be greatly harmed if we rely on its predictions and they turn out to be wrong.  Do I believe a plant is unhealthy to eat because people I respect say it is, or because my body reacts badly to it, or because I’m very careful about my health?  

This is actually a perfect time to ask that most existentialist question, “So what?”

There’s limited processing power in a human brain, so it’s arguably normal and healthy to abbreviate these costs and risks as “facts” so we have more mental space free to get on with our daily lives.  

What’s not healthy is when someone else has abbreviated different risks into different “facts” and we call them fools instead of taking a step back and acknowledging our different situations that lead us to make different choices based on the same evidence.  Just because I’m willing to eat the plant doesn’t mean I’m entitled to expect everyone else to make the same choice.  

Different people are willing to pay different costs and take different risks.  Sometimes that’s just due to variations in personality, but sometimes those costs and risks are measurably different depending on each person’s situation and what they want.  

You and your neighbor might value the same potato at different numbers of coins.  There’s a centuries-old “spoon and pocket calculator” science trick you can try at home to find out!

Either way, that doesn’t mean that a hypothesis is “fact” for one person and not for another.  I could prepare for multiple mutually exclusive predictions being both true and false, but that doesn’t mean I believe any of them to be “facts” or “fake.”  Every hypothesis is still just a collection of predictions with some measured probability of being accurate or not in different situations.

Relevance

Often people will introduce “facts” into an argument that are worse than inaccurate: they’re irrelevant.  They make predictions that nobody cares about, because the person rattling off the “facts” doesn’t understand what the person they’re talking to does care about.  

When even the squirrel is falling asleep, you know that you’re losing your audience.

Remember the mantra of existentialism: “A thing is as the thing does.”  That phrase applies to everything.  Facts are as facts do.  Whether we treat a statement as “fact” or not depends on how well it helps us get what we want, through making accurate predictions about the world.  If it doesn’t help us get what we want, it’s called “trivia”—mildly interesting, perhaps, but we won’t get much mileage out of it.  

Sometimes a collection of facts might be helpful in one context but not in another.  Newtonian physics is “true” for most people’s daily lives and is much easier to learn and apply than Einstein’s general relativity, but it doesn’t accurately predict what happens when things get very fast, very massive, or very far away.  General relativity may be mere trivia when you’re driving a car, but we need it whenever we make or do something that goes beyond the context in which Newtonian physics is good enough.  

At least, I *hope* that general relativity is irrelevant to your operation of a car.

Alternatively, your fact about a tomato being a fruit might come in handy for you as a botanist, but it might be slightly less useful to your cousin who is a cook.  

The important epistemology skill we need to practice is figuring out how far our facts can take us before we want to pause, take a step back, and reevaluate the evidence available and the risks we choose to take—and ask others to take—based on it.  

Example: Ghosts

Here’s an example of how I would expect people to handle disagreements about facts in a healthy manner: 

I had a conversation with someone about the existence of ghosts.  At the end of the conversation, I acknowledged her experiences with the feelings and movements of objects within a house which led her to believe a ghost inhabited that house.  (The ghost hypothesis was supplemented with the evidence that after burning sage, the movements and feelings disappeared, which is consistent with how many ghost hypotheses predict that ghosts can be placated or removed from a house.)  

In retrospect maybe I also should have asked if the house looked like this.

I felt that this evidence in favor of the ghost hypothesis was contradicted by the lack of evidence of all the things I would expect to see if the ghost hypothesis was correct.  However, my conclusion that ghosts don’t exist is only a provisional one.  I will go about my life as if ghosts don’t exist until such time as I embark on a project that relies on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts, at which point I guess I’ll find out one way or the other.  

Many people all over the world go about their lives as though ghosts do exist, and if that knowledge helps them effectively handle situations they ascribe to ghosts, then at the moment I have no vested interest in attempting to convince them otherwise, and I have no ethical justification to demand they stop trying to solve their own problems in a way that works for them and doesn’t harm anyone else.  If our disagreement becomes a problem in the future, we can hash it out then, using the conflict resolution skills I’ve been writing about.  That’s the short version of my existentialist take on ghosts.  

I am rather disappointed that most of these people seem to have little interest in exploring the possible advantages of what may or may not turn out to be undetectable espionage, remote projection of physical force, unlimited energy, or the potential to become a ghost upon death, but that warrants another article entirely.

Conclusion

If we want to move forward as a society, we need to stop arguing about “the right thing to do” and “the truth” and start discussing what we want, the risks we are and aren’t willing to accept, and how constructive the different options are. Until we do, our civilization will remain dysfunctional.

For this reason, I will start posting articles showing how I approach applying these existential principles (and the constructive concepts and methods from my other articles) to the various conflicts that plague human society today.  

In the long term, to help build a world we can all be proud of, I aim to furnish society with the vocabularies we need to define and communicate constructive visions for the future.  Those are the first steps towards making our visions a reality.  At the moment I’m in the process of putting together a business model so that I can do this work full time.  The more people I can empower with Visionary Vocabularies, the more we can all accomplish.  

Stay tuned.

And by stay tuned, I mean please subscribe so you get notified of new articles, because this is the 21st Century.

Afterword

If you still have questions about these existential takes on ethics and epistemology or are still not sure why they are important, I invite you to share your questions or concerns in the comments below.  

If you already stand for these principles but appreciate how I explain them here, please comment below to let me know how helpful you found this article and anything that I can do to improve future articles.  

For that matter, if you already stand for these principles, please leave a comment just to let me and the handful of your fellow readers know that there’s more of us out there.  

The Inevitable Trolley Problem Article… Or: Setting a Better Precedent

This is relevant, I promise.  

You may have heard of the Trolley Problem.  You may have heard variations of the Trolley Problem.  If you’re a nerd like me, you may have seen internet memes and jokes about the Trolley Problem.  On the other hand, you may never have heard of the Trolley Problem, which is why I have to explain it before I can talk about it. 

I hope you’re happy.

What is the Trolley Problem?

(You can skip this section if you know what the Trolley Problem is and are sick of hearing it explained.) 

The Trolley Problem is an ethical conundrum presented as a thought experiment.  

Take the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe thought experiments! Jingle chime jingle ding!

It has several variations, but the most basic one I know of goes as follows: A trolley (or tram car, or some other vehicle on rails) is speeding out of control heading towards five people on the tracks, who cannot get out of the way.  Maybe they don’t know it’s coming and there is no way to warn them, or maybe some dastardly mustachioed villain has tied them there; it matters not.  

You (yes, you!) have the unique ability to save them, because you’re standing next to a lever that switches the trolley onto another track.  Easy heroics, right?  Not so much.  On that other track is a single person who will be killed if the trolley takes that track.  Do you let the trolley continue on its current path and kill five people, or do you pull the switch and kill the one person to save the five?  Which choice is more ethical? 

I Don’t Know. Which One?

(You can skip this section and the next one if you know what precedent utilitarianism is and are sick of hearing it explained.)  

My initial answer to this problem was that deciding not to touch the lever is not mere inaction, but a deliberate decision to kill five people to save one, and therefore ethically unjustifiable.  (In the basic Trolley Problem, we assume we don’t know who any of the people involved are, and so we can assume that each person’s life is on average of equal worth to that of each other.)  Therefore the ethical option would be to pull the lever and sacrifice the one to save the five.  

However, several years ago, someone brought up to me an analogous thought experiment that made me realize I was missing something very important in my approach to the situation.  

This is what my mind looks like as it changes.

Let’s say you have five people in a hospital who each need a different organ transplant.  Maybe one person needs a heart, two people each need a kidney, and two people each need half of a liver.  (Something like that, anyway—the exact organs don’t matter.  It could be a gallbladder, two tonsils, a spleen, and an appendix for all I care.)  Then you have a person walk into the hospital who happens to be a perfect donor for each of them.  Is it ethical to remove this healthy person’s organs to save those other five people, assuming that it would kill the one person and enable the other five people to live long and healthy lives?  Can we justify that?  

Suddenly the answer looks different, even though the situation is functionally the same: five people who are on track to die versus one person who would otherwise live.  What’s our justification for not sacrificing the one to save the five?  

One superficial answer is that a person has the right to not have people steal their organs.  They may also have the right to not have other people steer trolleys into them which wouldn’t otherwise have hit them.  

And yet thousands of hearts are stolen each year by doggies such as this one.  How adorably inconsiderate!

Those rights both sound nice, but they also seem overly specific.  How did we come up with them?  We can’t just make them up because they feel good, after all.  You might as well say that a person has the right to have their life saved if the process of saving them results in fewer total deaths, which means that they might actually be entitled to steal other people’s organs under certain circumstances.  That would give us a right that directly contradicts another right. Which one wins?

We really ought to have some generalized ethical principle that allows us to figure out when and how these sorts of rights apply in a situation.  As it turns out, there is at least one that seems to work. 

So What is This Ethical Principle? 

As far as I can tell, the ethical principle relevant to the Trolley Problem is referred to as “precedent utilitarianism.”  I’d argue it’s relevant to most (if not all) ethical decisions, though not many people talk about it for some reason.  

Maybe because the name is hard to remember?

For reference, the (non-precedent) pure utilitarian approach to the Trolley Problem would be to pull the lever, steal the organs, and thereby maximize the number of people who live.  People generally want to stay alive, so the more people who stay alive, the more utility there is.  

By contrast, precedent utilitarianism is a bit more forward-thinking than that.  It looks at the precedent we establish by steering trolleys into people or stealing organs.  (Hence the name.)  If we decide that it’s acceptable to actively interfere in situations to sacrifice a few people in order to save many, that sounds good at first, except that now the many people we saved will live in a world where each of them in turn can and will be sacrificed at a moment’s notice if at any point in the future they find themselves on the side of the few.  And they know that.  That’s what setting a precedent means.  

And if you can take someone’s very life to save the lives of others, you can certainly commandeer their labor because you have a more worthy purpose for it.  You can force them into servitude to maximize efficiency.  

And what kind of life is that?  Everyone would live in terror, afraid to be judged of less worth to society than someone else, for fear their effort and organs would be seized so that that other person could make “better” use of them.  Most people would be so focused on contributing to society that they would never be able to actually enjoy those contributions, making the whole thing pointless.  Some enclaves might wander away and focus on creating and owning as little of worth as possible so that no one will seek to take from them.  

Building themselves a single-room block cabin with only 5 square inches of floorspace.

And who would have the authority to measure and compare people’s relative worth anyway?  I wouldn’t trust humans to reliably recruit honorable people for that purpose.  The whole thing would become a charade for the benefit of those in power.  

Much like the Trolley Troll, who makes trolley passengers pay a Trolley Troll toll or else he steals their organs and pulls a lever to make the trolley run over five people.

That’s the precedent set when we decide it’s right to deliberately sacrifice someone in order to save someone else.  You can qualify the rule by saying it’s only acceptable for emergencies, which might work in some circumstances depending on what’s at stake, but you’ll have to nail down the border between what is and isn’t an emergency, and there will always be some blurry gray area to it.  However, we need not get into those details at the moment.  

Conversely, if we establish a precedent or rule that says it is wrong to sacrifice someone for someone else’s benefit, then all people can live their lives trusting that they are safe from having their lives and freedom taken from them.  We can feel secure in building up ourselves and contributing to society.  We can enjoy what we create and share it more freely with others when we don’t fear being compelled to do so.  

(I should clarify that this train of reasoning isn’t meant to be an argument against taxation, or against counteracting the buildup of power imbalances.  There are other ethical principles that come into play in those situations and affect how we define people’s various rights.  For example, if a company’s business model relies on creating power imbalances which produce more Trolley Problem situations, they probably don’t have a right to do so without interference.  In just a bit we’ll look at some tools we can use to work through those situations.) 

So Why is This Relevant Now? 

…I did promise, didn’t I?  Wait just a few more paragraphs, because this is where I prepare to blow your mind. 

Try not to be overwhelmed with chalk.

Let’s change the Trolley Problem to be a bit more reflective of real life.  You’re at the switch, and I’m walking along the track with the one person on it, tied to the track with rope.  We both see the trolley headed towards the five people.  I happen to be friends with the five people who are on track to die, so I yell at you to pull the switch.  You refuse, because you’re friends with the person who’s tied up next to me and you want them to live.  I have a pocket knife that can cut through rope, but I don’t have time to run all the way to the other track and cut all five of my friends free before the trolley runs them over.  

What’s the obvious thing we should do here?  I’ll give you a few minutes to think. 

Alright, time’s up.  

What I should do is start cutting the ropes of the person next to me, and while I do that, I’ll shout over to you that it’s safe to pull the lever and send the trolley to this track because in just a minute there’s going to be nobody tied to it.  When you see I’m freeing your friend, you should pull the lever.  My friends get saved because you’re willing to pull the lever, and you’re willing to do that because I made it so that saving my friends would not doom yours.  

It should be an easy solution: neither of us really wants anyone to die, and none of our friends want to die, and lo and behold, nobody dies.  Everyone wins.  Maximum utility.  

The utility graph goes up, and up, and it’s away!  The crowd goes wild!

This isn’t just fantasy, either. It happens in real life, in situations big and small.

For example, once upon a time I was working on a college group project with about three other people in a dormitory where some of us were living.  We were in a time crunch, so we were very stressed and hurrying to get it done.  

At one point, one of the group members got hungry and wanted to leave to get food.  The other group members didn’t want him to leave, because we needed his work in order to finish the project before the deadline.  That was a zero-sum approach: either he left and we lost time, or he stayed and was hungry and upset and might not do a good job.  Either way there would have been a pointless fight and damaged relationships.  

However, I knew that what the hungry group member actually wanted was food, not to leave.  Considering our options beyond the two already mentioned, I suggested that one of the other group members could offer some food from his own supply, since we were already in his room.  Then the hungry group member could eat and work at the same time. This met with unanimous approval, and so the problem was solved.  

That’s what it looks like when you pull the lever but untie the one person on the other track before they’re run over. Now think about how much that scales up.

You may have also heard of people fighting over portions of a metaphorical pie when they could be making the pie itself bigger.  However, I think the Trolley Problem is a more compelling image for my purposes, even if the metaphor goes off the rails more easily.

So What’s the Mind-Blowing Part? 

Not impressed yet?  Tough crowd.  Very well, then.  

The Trolley Problem is relevant because real life isn’t like the Trolley Problem, but we’re treating it as though it is.  Not only that, but we’re still getting the wrong answer by forcing others to make the tradeoffs we think they should make.  We compete to dictate what costs should be paid and what risks should be taken, and by whom.  We’re trying to sacrifice each other through coercion and deception to get what we want instead of considering that people might be willing to help us out if we helped them get what they needed.  Instead of working together to figure out how to save everyone, we’re still arguing about which people we should allow the trolley to run over.

The ethical principle of precedent utilitarianism is a factor in my belief that we can only build a better world if we practice dealing with such conflicts without sacrificing each other.  We need to learn to think constructively and put in a bit of extra effort to create an outcome acceptable for everyone, instead of just taking what we think we’re owed.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m not giving up until everyone wins.  

We’re going to have to build the trolley tracks that take us out of this tunnel.

Oh, Really?  You and What Army?

Army isn’t quite the right word, but to answer your question, Skeptical-Section-Headers-Standing-In-for-the-Reader… you, I hope. 

wait what.

Don’t sell yourself short.  You wouldn’t be here unless you thought that the world could be better and that you might have a role to play in that.  

You want to stand up against polarization and extremism, against people trying to sacrifice each other for the sake of their own tradeoffs?  You want to help people understand each other and cooperate to build a world with fewer cruel tradeoffs?  I’ve got the tools you need.  Stay tuned.  

Much more organized than this, but I’m slowly learning the value of the human art of maintaining a dynamic mess.

Creation Story: Liabilities… or: An Existentialist Allegorical Cosmogony

(Many thanks to those who provided feedback on earlier versions of this story.)

This is the tale that the people of my planet tell our children about how the universe came to be.

In the beginning, there was a great mass of undifferentiated experience, the formless substance of consciousness. The only thing that existed was the sensation of nothingness. 

Then, the mass of experience split into two halves, the material and the motivational: that which is the world, and that which brings purpose to the world. These two halves split yet again, each one forming a known part and an unknown part. 

These four pieces of the universe’s consciousness became four primordial siblings. 

The first sibling was Lakh, of the material known. He decided to create an environment to replace the nothingness that surrounded the siblings. He began by establishing a vast space. This space he filled with matter, and forces which set that matter into motion and shaped its paths. From these ingredients Lakh fashioned planets, spheres of matter held together with force. He created stars that collected matter and ejected it with enormous amounts of energy, to bring splendid illumination to the planets. Finally, he locked planets into orbit around the stars, and set everything to revolve around the center of the galaxy like clockwork. 

To keep everything contained to its original shape and moving on track as a perfect machine, Lakh had formed all of the matter and forces in the new universe into barriers. Every barrier of matter or force would stop anything from crossing it unless the cost of passage was paid. However, these barriers combined formed a larger barrier: a lifespan for the universe. 

The blazing hot stars would one by one run out of energy. They would fail to pay the cost of burning and would burn themselves out. As planets moved, they passed through clouds of gas and dust that extracted tiny fees, and eventually they would lose momentum and spiral into their local stars. Over billions of years, the clockwork would wind down and ultimately collapse. 

Satisfied with his work nonetheless, Lakh adopted the title of Tolltaker, the bringer of stability. 

The second sibling was Niyu, of the material unknown. She looked at the intricate and predictable world that Lakh had created and saw that it was stark, harsh, and perpetually declining. She decided to add novelty. Taking the barriers and mechanisms Lakh had set up, Niyu concealed them in layers upon layers of mystery, so that even Lakh himself forgot where some of them were. She drilled secret passages in the barriers and fashioned keys so she could pass through them without paying the cost. Many of these keys Niyu made from chemical substances, tiny particles of matter bound together in structures that both changed and were changed by the matter and energy that they touched. With these chemicals, Niyu could dissolve a rock using a fraction of the force it would take to smash it. 

Eventually growing bored with subtlety, Niyu took some of the clockwork pieces of the galaxy and pushed them onto collision courses with each other, causing chain reactions that warped or shattered entire regions of the mechanical universe and made its future unpredictable. Stars would sometimes explode rather than burning out, and the matter that they ejected as gas could gradually come back together and someday reignite, restarting the cycle. Many of the events Niyu set in motion would damage the universe, but some would allow parts of it to become even more magnificent than they could have been otherwise. 

Proud of her work, Niyu adopted the title of Trickster, the bringer of discovery. 

The third sibling was Sehrt, of the motivational known. She looked at the universe and judged that it was lifeless and without purpose. On planets of barren rock and caustic seas, Sehrt approached the chemicals on the ocean shores and taught them how to become living things, and create more of themselves. She built these chemicals into cells, and these cells she taught to build species. She shaped them into flourishing plants and great trees, diligent and resourceful fungi, insects that crawled and flew, and slithering creatures of the deep ocean. She filled the day and night with beasts large and small that walked on the land, flew over it, or tunneled under it. All these species in turn she taught to feed and to multiply across their entire worlds. 

Upon each species she bestowed a path to follow, a mission for the species to fulfill as its role in spreading life to every corner of its planet. The plants collected energy from sunlight and nutrients from the ground and the atmosphere. Herbivorous animals ate the plants and carried their seeds across the world. Carnivorous animals ate other animals to cull their populations, using their sharp teeth and claws to tear apart the prey which obediently came and bared their throats when they heard a predator call. The fungi and scavenging animals recycled the bodies of living things that died, whether that death came from the teeth of an animal, or one of Niyu’s accidents, or one of Lakh’s barriers that they couldn’t cross. Every living thing knew its place and purpose in the ecosystem, and by their efforts those ecosystems expanded to cover their native planets in abundant life. 

Pleased with her work, Sehrt adopted the title of Warden, the bringer of identity. 

The fourth sibling was Vaayur, of the motivational unknown. He looked at the living things obeying the paths marked for them by Sehrt, and judged that they were not worthy entertainment and certainly not worthy company. He split the paths that living things followed, setting crossroads before them so they were forced to deny one mission in order to fulfill another. Some of the paths he twisted around to intersect each other, so that the living things that followed different paths ended up at odds. Prey animals began to flee or fight for their lives in the face of predators, and predators were forced to give chase and subdue their prey or else starve. 

As species struggled ruthlessly against one another for survival, they developed weaponized bodies and behaviors with which to attack and to defend themselves. Even individuals within the same species began to defect from what was once their shared mission, and to viciously battle their kin. Each planet became an arena of violent and ceaseless competition. 

Eagerly anticipating the results of his work, Vaayur adopted the title of Rival, the bringer of choice. 

The eons ticked by, marked by the orbits of Lakh’s stars and planets, generations of Sehrt’s creatures, and the occasional catastrophe courtesy of Niyu. Vaayur was overjoyed when eventually a species arose whose members could see the full breadth of paths facing them. He gave them more and more paths at every turn, until their missions, originally supreme and steadfast, splintered into a dizzying myriad of eccentric desires and fleeting whims. 

With these desires Vaayur set the members of his chosen species against each other, in an endless contest of force and wit, combat and deception, in the hopes that they would learn and grow strong and one day take the place of the primordial siblings, endlessly remaking the world in the image of their own preferences. 

That species became us. As long as our civilization has existed, we have made do with the world and the tools that the primordial siblings have given us. We have accepted their gifts of stability, discovery, identity, and choice—the gifts that make us what we are. And we have endured the liabilities that come with these gifts: scarcity, disaster, stagnation, and conflict, from which spring endless suffering and pointless struggle and death beyond reckoning.

Over the centuries, we have worked to remedy the toxic liabilities in the primordial siblings’ gifts. By learning and practicing the four constructive virtues of investment, preparation, transcendence, and ethics—each one in itself an endless font of stories—we become part of the eternal scaffold of a civilization with ever-increasing prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony. Each day, our people inherit a world more hospitable for us and for the people we want to become.

And that is the story we tell of the creation of the universe. Oftentimes, you may find it more useful than the truth.