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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© 2022 Alex Weissenfels
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