“Beyond Right and Wrong”

By | November 28, 2016


November 26, 2016


We’ve all heard it before.  It’s usually said in a voice full of anger:  ”I’m right, and you’re wrong!”  And often, a voice just as angry answers, “No, you’re the one who’s wrong.  I’m right!” As most of us know from experience, trying to determine who’s right and who’s wrong about most things, especially when they’re important, can be complicated.  It can also be fraught with risks and dangers. And there are traps we fall into. We are convinced we’re right, only to find out later that we were in fact wrong,  and the other person who was so very wrong, turns out to be right.  Oops.  Now we have a new problem.

This whole business of being right or being wrong is often a wicked problem.  Faced with complex questions and confusing problems, there are, as James Champy says, “no certain answers, no finalities, securities, closures, or predictabilities.” And when our egos are involved, especially when it really matters, trying to determine who is right and who is wrong can push us beyond our limits.

Some people are not bothered by this dilemma.  In  How Not to Be Wrong, published in 2014, Jordan Ellenberg claims to have it all figured out.  He offers us specific ways to avoid being wrong.  If we put into practice his recommendations, he writes, we will not only not be wrong,  we can be confident that we are right.  Is this good news?  It all depends.

Ellenberg writes from the perspective of  mathematics – the subtitle of his book is The Power of Mathematical Thinking - in which being either right or wrong not only makes sense but is what is expected.  In the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) determining what’s right and what’s wrong, and ending up with the right conclusion, is the main idea. As it happens, working with problems in the STEM disciplines may  generate hundreds of wrong solutions but there is is only one right one.  It’s part of the process.  And finding the one right answer could be crucial.  ”Just do the math” says Mark Watney, the rescued astronaut from the planet Mars to a group of new recruits in the movie The Martian.  “You just begin.  You do the math.  You solve one problem.  Then you solve the next one.  And the next.  And if you solve enough problems, you get to live.” Get the right answers and you survive.  Fail, and you die.

At its highest levels of difficulty mathematics is a perspective  few of us will ever know. “Pure mathematics,” writes Ellenberg, “can be a kind of convent, a quiet place cut off from the pernicious influences of the world’s messiness and inconsistencies.”  Alas, the rest of us (including mathematicians when they put down their pencils and pads of paper and go out into the real world)  cannot count on finding a quiet place cut off from the “pernicious influences” of messiness and inconsistencies.  Messiness and inconsistency is where we live!   Even though we regularly find ourselves in the middle of  all that noise and hurly burly, we are still expected to do our best.

The mathematical model – in which there can only be one correct answer to a problem – has permeated  many of our beliefs about the way the world works.  ”Anyone can be angry – that is easy” wrote Aristotle almost 2300 years ago, “but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Not easy?  It seems to me that being angry “in the right way” is impossible!  Few of us can make the claim that we know how to be angry according to Aristotle’s formula. After all, when in the middle of an “anger attack” who is able take a “time out” to consider whether his or her anger is “right” along so many dimensions?

Right Answers Belong with Tame Problems. 

Ellenberg’s confidence that people can work their way toward learning “How Not to Be Wrong,” and so eventually learn how to be right is guaranteed by the fact that the problems he writes about are tame and not wicked.  The problems that mathematicians choose to work on – and the same is true of scientists and engineers – have answers that exist “out there” and so can be discovered.   As Nobel Prize winner Sir Peter Medawar wrote in The Art of the Soluble, “Good scientists  study the most important problems they think they can solve.  It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely grapple with them.”

Beyond Right and Wrong

When problems are wicked, and solving them is not possible, then “grappling” with them is what is left.  And in spite of our grappling, there is no possibility that we will end up with a “right” answer.   With wicked problems, being”right” or being”wrong” is irrelevant.  When, for example, a wicked problem occurs in a relationship, trying to decide who is “right” and who is “wrong” begs the question and often makes things worse.   But, you say, “Surely someone is right and that makes the other one wrong!” While this may sometimes be so, there is another way to think about it. Struggling with a wicked problem in a relationships,  it is  possible that both parties are right, or even that both are wrong!  And when there is heightened emotion in the conversation, trying to determine who is right or wrong will rarely lead to anything productive  but is likely instead to escalate the conflict to an even higher level!  The challenge is not to get hung up on deciding who is right or who is wrong, but to focus upon repairing and strengthening the relationship. “Out beyond the ideas of right or wrong, there is a garden.  I’ll meet you there,” wrote the 13th century poet Rumi.

In November of 2016, the newspapers reported that Rocco Ritchie, 16-year-old son of the singer Madonna, was arrested in London for possession of marijuana.  Her response was to invite Rocco to join her in Rumi’s garden. “I love my son very much,” she was quoted as saying.  ”I will do whatever I can to give him the support that he needs…”

“Everything Has Two Handles”

Writing in the second century AD,  the stoic philosopher Epictetus offered a way to understand what it means to get beyond right or wrong and focus upon repairing and strengthening:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it can be carried and one which it can’t.  If for example, your brother or sister treats you poorly, don’t grasp the situation by the handle of hurt or injustice, or you won’t be able to bear it and you will become bitter.  In other words, focus upon the fact that this is your brother or sister, that you were brought up together, and thus have an enduring, unbreakable bond. 

In dealing with Rocco’s arrest for marijuana possession, public officials will grasp the handle of right or wrong, as they should. But his  mother chooses to grasp the other handle, the one that puts the fact that Rocco is her son first, and  she will do all she can to give him her full love and support.

When Right and Wrong are Irrelevant.

An important defining characteristics of wicked problems is that no  correct answer or true solution is available.  There are always many possibilities.  The pressing challenge, then, is to give up assigning right and wrong and replace that with a search for Good, Better and finally Best. Getting to Best is achieved by human beings sitting down together and grappling with the critical dilemma: “What is the problem here,  and what should we do about it?” This involves proposing, insisting, arguing, disagreeing, and finally deciding together on the “best” possible plan of action to be implemented. To achieve this, a helpful, supportive, conversation is always required.

Ellenberg, being a mathematician, works within one of the central premises of mathematics:  there is only one way to be right and all the others are wrong:  find the one, dismiss the others.  Once you step outside of the constraints of the STEM world, however, the whole business of being right or  wrong is essentially irrelevant.  In the case of wicked problems, trying to determine who is right or who is wrong, or striving to find the “right” answer or the “correct” solution, takes us down unproductive paths where it is easy to become lost in the thickets of fruitless and at times hurtful arguments.

Outside the Walls

Jordan Ellenberg writes, “I grew up inside [the] walls” of a convent dedicated to “pure mathematics…” a peaceful place that was “safely cut off from the pernicious influence of the world’s messiness and inconsistencies.”  The safety and tranquility of the convent of “pure mathematics” exists because eventually everyone can know with certainty what is right and what is wrong.  And a large part of the messiness and inconsistencies on the outside of the convent’s walls can be attributed to the fact that who is right and who is wrong is never clear and is always being debated.

For those of us who live and work outside the walls in this messy and inconsistent world,  there is no quiet convent to which we can escape.  Yes,  we understand that some things are right and other things are wrong.  Otherwise, society would neither exist nor could it function. But when we are grappling with wicked problems, we must grasp the other handle: We  struggle toward choosing one plan of action over another, not because it is the right one, but because it is the very best one we can come up with.  If we could think of a better one, that’s the one we would grasp. And that means that we must learn to live with the unsettling fact that the matter can never be finally settled.


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