Decisions, Decisions

Featured Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Where margins are thought of as something like the political left or right, I wonder whether Aristotle would have us default to a more centred position. I can hear him now… the centre as a virtuous place to dwell, and then the margins, which gradually tend to widen toward greater vice, be it a deficiency of too little or an excess of too much.

In fairness, I suspect he’d also grant that pushing and pulling from the margins is what steers the middle course, as in the margins are essential – albeit within the strictures of “a certain principled inflexibility” by which a centred majority maintains its stability. As such, any move from the centre would seem to oblige careful consideration of multiple perspectives and possible outcomes on behalf of everybody by which, really, I mean everybody.

But, as more people come to critique the milquetoast middle – do-nothings whose tolerance is negligence by omission – more people tend to vacate the central fringe. The margins populate and steer more massive moves – more volatile moves – in what must come to resemble the anomie of culture war.

At this point, I am assuming readers cast the stage with a host of their favourite players… and yes, well, need I say more.

From the centre, Aristotle would suggest, what can help a decision to vacate the middle for a margin is phronesis, our practical wisdom, which resides within us as a simultaneous dynamic: an acuity of discernment and a benevolence in the weighing of options, exercised in a process he called praxis, a committed act of doing informed by reflective thinking. In an instance of vacating the centre, practical wisdom – yours, mine, anybody’s – could help determine at the given moment which margin to favour for a particular reason.

And, as I said, if we’re right to inform any such decision by accounting for more than one perspective, then our so-called ‘best’ decisions would seem to be our most informed decisions, irrespective of an eventual outcome… albeit with a certain flexibility of principle to be weighed by pragmatics – ‘practical’ wisdom, remember? We’re not wisdom machines.

You wouldn’t believe how many spheres on Google seem to be there thanks to math.

So here let’s grant margins beyond the fatuous dichotomy of political left and right. In fact, let’s think of anyone’s centred position as open in every direction to a sphere of infinite margins, where any one direction is uniquely no other, no matter how near or distant another margin may be: for some, this is nuance; for others, pedantic babbling and, for those, I have but two words: perspicacious circumspection. Ah-ha yes, well… for someone located in the centre, listening seems virtuous, too.

All this is not a matter of act but a matter of character. Practical wisdom informing decisions is a nuanced thing: why to act, why under the present circumstances to choose ‘this’ margin and not ‘that’ one. This kind of nuance we often call ‘the why’, and it’s distinctly different from some marginal course change that evacuates the centre – the latter strictly an outcome, the former a reasoned weighing of possible outcomes. In so many words: when a chosen course is an outcome of practical wisdom, it’s not the other way-round. But nuance is anathema to ideology whereas stupid is as stupid does.

When logic rests upon a false ‘either/or’ dilemma, act supersedes wisdom, and criticism can only be aimed at outcome because decision – while not entirely removed from our responsibility – is severely curtailed: your false dilemma is my ultimatum.

Character suffers at the hands of dogma, and if he were around today, I can only speculate that Aristotle would feel a little hard done by for being so alone. It’s never easy being the silent minority, not when your silence is really just a drowned out appeal that goes unheard.

Time Well Spent

… by studying why we’ve been wrong, we can be more right.

Russell Napier

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I’ve been called a cynic, which I’ve long held rather as healthy scepticism. And I’ve railed over uncertainty now and then, mostly in academics although, in fairness, never absolutely. But, all irony aside, I now defer with appreciative respect to Russell Napier, whose typically gripping understatement offers a typically brilliant case not simply for uncertainty but for its necessity.

In this video interview with the Parish Church of St. Cuthbert, Edinburgh City Centre, Napier paints a humble image of The Library of Mistakes, a repository of “the recorded uncertainty of how things work in the real world” (to quote his Keeper’s Blog on the Library website).

Napier initially co-founded the Library to register mistakes from business and finance although he mentions that the Library’s embrace has since widened to reflect more equitable representation… true enough: if there was ever a sector of sustainable growth…

On the other hand, if the Library may ever truly succeed, you expect it will need to put itself out of business – gladly, I suppose. But, as I say, all irony aside.

He devotes a good portion of his commentary here to sound money, fraudulent banking, and the consequences of ruinous ill discipline. He’s droll, simple, clear, and engrossing.

It’s not all negative, either: whether or not the flipside to every mistake is great success or mere intention – either way, hey… there’s a flipside.

And that, I suppose, is the take-away just now, for me anyway… with modest whimsy, Napier and the Library sound a call of respect for uncertainty and the untidiness that efficiency and statistics and computation are not only unwilling to consider but unable to predict or control. If the reason to embrace uncertainty is because outcomes can’t be guaranteed, what is that if not attributable to people… to our deficiency, our equivocation, our inexactitude? In a culture where metrics are religion and science invincible, truth is what can be measured, and qualitative uncertainty has been a nobly humoured side of fries.

Napier speaks here for about half an hour, ahead of a short and equally informative Q&A, and caps his remarks with a reminder that any opinion one has will utterly depend on the perspective one takes in order to have it.

As ever with Russell Napier, at least for me, the time spent feels most definitely worthwhile and insufficiently brief.

Seriously, watch this interview.

… in the name of progress

Featured Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

There’s a cultural tone where progress is pretty full of its own value. The connotation of progress often suggests, by the same turn, that whatever is not progress is an obstacle. This sense of progress discounts whatever preceded it as obsolete – whether as something quaint or paltry but, either way, as certainly not worth keeping. To this sense of progress, however ironically, history is invective.

Progress is commonly venerated as something that’s coming next that is better and, obviously, thereby to be preferred, as compared to whatever’s coming next as being simply next. What might have amounted to an organic change is pre-empted by the contrivance of progress. What might have been less characterised than simply observed is superseded by an imperative for progress, the value and desirability of which is clear to any who decide to believe it, and lost on any who decide not to.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“Planet Earth is visible as a bright speck within the sunbeam just right of center and appears softly blue, as in the original version published in 1990…. The popular name of this view [the “pale blue dot”] is traced to the title of the 1994 book by Voyager imaging scientist Carl Sagan, who originated the idea of using Voyager’s cameras to image the distant Earth and played a critical role in enabling the family portrait images to be taken.”
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Who decided progress gets to play the trump card? When and how was progress excused from easing its way in respectfully, the way I ask students to join us quietly when they arrive late? What makes progress this prevailingly important, as compared to any other approach or way to be that we might choose to try?

Maybe asking these questions is stubborn, but that only makes progress more pushy – and if both are arrogant for saying so, well… I’m pretty sure it takes one to know one.

Progress ought to understand, when it rips the past to shreds, that it’s not the only one who’s expended itself to become what it becomes. Tearing down the past can discount untold gallons of blood sweat and tears. One swing of progress can undo years, decades, centuries of labour, layer upon layer of things learned along the way up til then, things like the forebears of – yeah – progress.

Assuming one and only one stance risks neglecting any other perspective. Careful note here ought to assure that progress, like status quo, doesn’t have to be a nemesis or a victim, not unless it decides to be.

Image Credit: Pixabay from Pexels
“Earthrise”
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