We find ourselves in a peculiar place. We are more interconnected, yet more misinformed. At ease with more advanced technologies, but more easily mislead by them. “Doing our own research”, but ending up deeper in conspiratorial rabbit holes.
When discussing complex topics — pandemic, war, the housing crisis, or some thorny family affairs — it is surprisingly easy to jump to conclusions, to oversimplify, ignore crucial nuance, and thus get untethered from reality. To label someone as “evil”, “unethical”, fall back on tribalism. Our brains are always looking for a shortcut, and many of these shortcuts lead us astray. Sometimes we get fooled, sometimes we fool others. Neither helps in the long run.
I am as guilty of this as anyone else. But I also feel the only way we can deal with problems we’re facing, on any level, is by talking them through. Here’s a list of a few rules of thumb I find particularly helpful to keep in mind when thinking about and discussing complex politics- and society-adjacent topics.
They are not absolutes, and do not always apply, but they can help avoid some pitfalls we fall into all too often.
Explanation is not a justification¶
The fact that there exists an explanation of an action or decision does not automatically mean that the action or decision was justified. Explanation is only about being able to understand why somebody did something. Justification is about the moral judgment over that person and what they did.
It is chillingly easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a person is justifying an unethical act of someone’s just because that person is trying to understand or explain it. Making such an assumption easily leads to dismissing that person as a “supporter” of that unethical act, and thus unethical themselves. This in turn makes it very difficult to talk about causes of a given situation, and about making it less likely it happens in the future.
We have to be able to discuss reasons behind a specific decision or action, regardless of how we feel about the morality of it. If we want to make sure something bad does not happen again, understanding the reasons it happened is often more important than passing moral judgment.
The flip-side of this is that providing an explanation of something is not the same as providing a justification for it. “This is why I did it” is not the same as “this is why I was in the right doing it”. If by explaining an action somebody is be trying to deflect blame — they probably should get called out on that.
Of course, this is not to say that an explanation can never be an important element of valid justification. It can, and it often is. But explanation and justification are different, even if one can support the other to some degree.
We humans are great at ascribing agency and intentionality where there is none. We love to make things about ourselves. We see faces in the clouds, deity’s wrath in volcanic eruptions, and targeted, premeditated malice in somebody else’s decisions or actions — especially ones that affect us in a bad way.
Hanlon’s razor states:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
I personally expand it to also include incompetence, laziness, and other lesser vices. It is, basically, a tool for assessing explanations of a given set of actions or decisions. In many cases, there is no need to assume malice in order to explain a problematic action or decision. In some cases assuming malice is actually counter-productive.
We don’t need to assume maliciousness on part of civil servants in the Netherlands who deployed the (as it turns out) racist system for flagging “suspicious” use of childcare benefits to know this was unacceptable. Pondering whether that was malicious on their part or not is in this case moot, and can distract from a broader and more immediately important question of: how to fix the broader system such that this never happens again, regardless of malice or incompetence?
That’s not to say that there is never malice, of course. Sometimes there very much is. But in the end, in a lot of cases it might not matter much — bad outcomes are bad regardless of whether they are caused by malice, or by incompetence. Important systems, especially ones on which our livelihoods or health and well-being depends on, should be resilient to either.
Or, as Grey’s law puts it:
Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice
Which is closely related to…
A system’s purpose is what it does¶
Let’s say we have a complex system — technical, political, social, whatever the kind. And let’s say that it keeps having certain bad outcomes. Everyone involved in creating and maintaining it keeps insisting that these bad outcomes are accidental, and keep promising this can be fixed, but somehow it never is. At some point it just makes sense to treat these bad outcomes as the actual purpose of the system. If they really were not, surely the system would have been fixed already!
Coined by Stafford Beer, of Cybersyn fame, this rule is an great way of cutting through elaborate excuses given about any unacceptable outcomes of a system.
For example: if a government policy supposedly meant to fight the housing crisis (say, by guaranteeing low-interest loans to prospective buyers) ends up raising apartment prices but not causing actual improvement in the overall housing availability, at some point it’s reasonable to say that the purpose of this policy is not to fight the housing crisis — but to funnel free money to real estate developers.
Or: if a policy intended to combat drug abuse ends up predominantly incarcerating only a specific part of the population (say, young Black men), but in no real reduction in overall drug use, then it is reasonable to say that the purpose of the policy is not reduction of drug use — but persecution of a specific group.
Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the system in question was deliberately designed to be like this! It doesn’t necessarily mean its designers and maintainers are intentionally lying about what its purpose is or was supposed to be, maliciously hiding the fact that the purpose was different (see Hanlon’s razor above). It might be accidental, or related to incompetence, or to the fact that we’re all a product of the society we grew up in and the circumstances we inhabit.
In the end it doesn’t really matter what the original idea for that system was. If a system is allowed to stay in place even though it is clearly ineffective in its stated purpose, then it is fair to say that the actual purpose has to be something else.
Life is not a zero-sum game¶
There are situations which are a zero-sum game. Trying to get tickets to a popular concert is an example: if you get your tickets, I might not get mine. The resource is strictly limited and we are competing for it. Your win is my loss.
But in a lot of cases, things that are talked about as if they were a zero-sum game — are not. Take immigration: it is often talked about in “us vs. them” terms, with an implied assumption that there is some kind of resource that is strictly limited, and that the migrants, once let into the country, will compete over it with its current residents.
This is simply not the case. Yes, people coming into the country might need education, healthcare, social services — but they will also create more demand for local goods and services, strengthening the economy. Often they might be willing to work jobs that nobody else wants to take. They will pay taxes. They will bring their culture and cuisine with them, enriching the lives of everyone.
This is true for a lot of thorny political and social issues that are portrayed publicly or talked about as if they were a zero-sum game. Sometimes this becomes outright absurd and almost self-parodying, as with the so-called “Schrödinger’s immigrant”, who supposedly “steals our jobs” and simultaneously is “too lazy” to get one, hanging on unemployment benefits instead.
Two things can be true at the same time¶
In a way, truth is also often not a zero-sum game. For example, it is true I work a lot, but it is also true that I am quite a lazy person. It is true that Titanic’s captain’s actions can be considered reckless by today’s standards, and had contributed to the catastrophe, but it is also true they probably did not appear reckless to him or his peers at the time.
This perhaps sounds obvious, but becomes much less so when strong emotions come into play.
Are COVID vaccines a miracle of science, developed and tested in impossibly short time and saving countless lives? Or are they another vestige of Big Pharma’s flavor of neo-colonialism, based on who gets easy access to them and who doesn’t; who gets to manufacture them and who doesn’t; and who gets to profit from them? Both are true. We should be able to admire the former while insisting the latter is outright unacceptable.
This became particularly stark (and somewhat personal) to me when Putin’s Russia launched a full-scale invasion against Ukraine in February 2022. A lot of left-leaning, anarchist-y people seemed to defend Russian aggression by pointing out atrocities committed by US and NATO in Iraq or Afghanistan. How dare I “take side of NATO” here, have they not done enough evil?
But two things can be true at the same time — the US and NATO should be rightfully made accountable for their actions, of course, but that does not make Russia’s invasion and the atrocities it brought on civilians in Ukraine acceptable or justifiable in any sense.
This is a form of a false dichotomy, making it seem as if we have to “choose a side” out of a limited set of options. But the world is more complex than that. We have to be able to walk and chew gum.
These are not absolutes¶
All of these are guidelines, not absolute and unshakable rules. In some cases they might even run against one another. That’s okay.
An explanation can be an important part of a justification of some action — it’s just that it should not automatically, always be assumed so. An action or a decision can be underpinned by malice, and in some cases it is important to establish if it is — it’s just that it’s not necessarily always so, and it’s not always worthwhile to get stuck on that question.
A system’s outcomes might misalign with its stated purpose temporarily, and a fix might be on the way — question is, how long has the system been allowed to remain broken, and will it actually get fixed? Even if some problem is not a zero-sum game, resources are rarely truly unlimited and it might still make sense to ask about how they get allocated. And sometimes we do have to choose a side.
To me, these guidelines act as useful safety valves when thinking and discussing complex subjects. They help me notice when an argument might be going astray.
Bringing it all together¶
I find it startling how easily, how eagerly we retreat into tribalism when discussing important, complex, emotionally charged subjects. How quickly we decide there surely is malice involved, how quickly we can be manipulated into thinking something is a zero-sum game and we better, in our own interest, deny somebody’s access to some perceived “limited resource.”
And once we do, we gleefully dismiss “the other side” — suddenly there’s an “other side”, as if every problem only ever had two possible solutions! — as unethical, outright malicious or at least woefully misinformed. Then we don’t have to consider arguments that go against our strongly-held convictions anymore, we don’t have to deal with the fact that the world is more complex than “us vs. them.” After all we are “us”, and if “they” are not with us, they’re clearly against us.
The complexity, however, does not go away, regardless of how hard we try to ignore or hide it.