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.

From The Financial Times – “Education demands free speech plus inclusion, Chicago university chief says”

I noted with interest this item from Financial Times Associate Editor Brooke Masters that features University of Chicago President, Robert Zimmer, specifically his adamant stance for university as a preserve of independent thought and inquiry.

Zimmer’s “warning,” to quote Brooke Masters, accompanies an announcement for committed undergrad funding, a pairing that may or may not suggest political scrim, depending on who thinks $200 million is a lot of money.

Full disclosure: I’ve always really admired The University of Chicago from afar for its eclecticism and quirky sense of self, like The Onion of the post-secondary realm but with degree-granting superpowers.

Disclosures continued, I also received recognition from the University of Chicago after being nominated for the Outstanding Educator Award by a student I taught who attended in 2010. The letter I received was not quirky so much as plain and congratulatory, but they did invite me for lunch sometime. Someday, Chicago, like maybe when my own doctoral epic is finally and fully told. Someday.

So very rarely am I into self-promotion, but all this seemed like a particular confluence and, anyway, who ever scrolls that far down on LinkedIn?

Of course, my immediate interest in the FT story is its connection to my own series on free speech from earlier this year – and, yes, more shameless vanity – but it felt reaffirming to see such noteworthy agreement from the likes of UChicago including, evidently, President Zimmer. I’ve never met Robert Zimmer, but if he’s ever here in town, sincerely, he’s absolutely more than welcome to join me for lunch.

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.

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