Tag Archives: reconciliation

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

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 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.