Monday, December 12, 2011

Duh. Of course the answers are outside the envelope.

Have you, by any chance, checked out the tabs across top of this blog?  One of them is EcoCurious, my blog about matters of the environment and sustainability.   If you've visited EcoCurious, you might have noticed a flip comment across the top, "If only the answers really were inside the envelope."

Well, duh.  Of course the answers are outside the envelope.

If we look at the world we know as though it's the only possible world, if we look at the rules we operate by as though they are the only possible rule set, then we will remain stuck inside the envelope.

To find solutions that could create a different, better, healthier, more sustainable world, we have to believe that our world is just one possible version, that our rules are just one set of possible rules.  We have to shake it up and find the alternatives.  Shake it up!

Today I bring you Anthony Weston, a philosopher who spends his professional life helping people see beyond our mental obstacles to enable us to rethink our biggest, most complex ethical and practical dilemmas.  He's mastered a method for enlarging the realm of choices, figuring out how to apply different sets of rules than the "usual set" to expand the possibilities for ethical problem-solving.

Let me give you a quick Weston example. You may have heard about the Heinz dilemma.  It's an ethical quandry used by psychologists to test children for their level of moral reasoning.  Since it's written for kids, it's will be easy for us to follow Weston's logic, as he deconstructs his process.

A woman is dying of cancer.  There is a medication available to her, but she needs several treatments at $2000 per treatment, and she and her husband do not have that kind of money.  The husband counts all his resources, sells what they don't absolutely need, asks his family to help,  but the money he can scrape up does not amount to enough money to cover her treatment.  He goes to the pharmacy and pleads that they sell the medicine for what he has, or she will die.  They tell him, "no."  The dilemma:  Should the husband steal the medication so that his wife may live?

Let me simplify:  Steal or die?

Weston asks his students to back up from the question, and see whether they can enlarge the realm of possibilities.  They come up with these sorts of answers:

He could offer the pharmacist something he needs or wants, maybe trade his skills to make up the difference.

Maybe the wife could go to the pharmaceutical company and offer to be part of a follow-up study, in exchange for the medication.

In one of his workshops, a group of nurses even suggested that the wife steal the drug, specifically to get herself arrested, because the law requires medical care for all prisoners, and that way the state would pay for the drug.

What about the community?  Could it band together to raise the money?

So now that we're brainstorming ideas, I bet you can come up with a few yourself. 

Weston's point is this:

What if, instead of distancing ourselves from the question, and asking, "What should he do?" we ask, "what can we do?"  Or even, simply, "what all could be done?"  The realm of possibilities expands beyond "steal or die," both of which are not ethically acceptable or morally desirable.

This made me think.  Weston's simple dilemma is really not very different than the way we've taken to laying out our most difficult dilemmas.  Look how some of our current policy debates are framed:

Affirmative action or fewer minorities admitted into programs and hired into jobs?

Drill for oil in the United States or continue to be dependent upon foreign oil?

Keep shipping soldiers to the middle east or be subject to the murderous intentions of extremist Islamist fundamentalists?

And so on...  We have become a nation of simplifiers, a nation of sound bites and political slogans.  We scream, it's either this way, or it's that way!   It's my way, or no way.  We are so polarized.

What if, what if.  What if we could get good at backing up from the either this, or that solution envelope?  What if we could get outside the envelope altogether?

To read more from Anthony Weston, check out Creative Problem-Solving in Ethics,

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