Knowing what you are aiming for

Here is a quote from Goethe:

"I respect the man who knows distinctly what he wishes. The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut"
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Oxymorons and Effective Argument

Don't disagree; but do raise precise objections

I recently looked up the definition of 'oxymoron'.
1. (Rhetoric). A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis.
2. More generally: a contradiction in terms.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary)
I had previously thought that the definition of an oxymorons was (2.) a self-contradiction. However, in fact an oxymoron, in the older sense (1.) is the concatenation of two concepts which are almost opposite. The intersection of two opposed concepts is considerably more precise a concept than the intersection of two similar concepts.

On a similar track I've been struggling for some time on how to effectively disagree. Disagreeing when best done may be a bit like an oxymoron; it allows the common ground to be specified more exactly.

Disagreeing effectively is pretty important, especially in the case of complex issues where a degree of consensus is important. People may want to disagree effectively, because they want to
  • understand each other better;
  • get to the bottom of things;
  • come to a collective or consensual decision is order to take collective action.
Quite often these factors are combined.

Disagreeing is difficult to pull off for a number of reasons. Mostly this is because people feel threatened if you disagree. That is because individuals' identity or self-worth is often wrapped up with what you agree or disagree about. If you attack their arguments, you are often felt as if you are attacking the person themselves.

A second and related argument is that broad, imprecise, concepts are often understood differently by different people. So what you are attacking might be quite different from what is being defended. (Tongue in cheek...) ...I'm often struck by how rubbish other people's arguments are, and how I have much superior arguments. But if people were to look at my own expressed work, they might similarly criticize it. We are comparing our own mental representation of our ideas to our understanding of someone else's expression of their ideas. Both the saying and the listening are opportunities for misunderstanding however good the original idea.

Agreeing is perhaps a way of being simple. The content of political agreement e.g. in the case of voting for a particular party might be broadly 'forget about the details the key point is X': where X might be 'we want broadly more/less government/social support'.

Disagreeing is perhaps a way of being precise. So if you are 'being more precise' then say so: you are not attacking them, but rather providing an alternative view that can give a more exact crossover.

Disagreeing is also sometimes a way of generating a useful alternative representation of a problem. If your representation of a problem is alternative, then just say so. In this case, it behooves you to express yourself well. The easiest way is to appeal to more general thoughts

For these reasons and more the best way to disagree according to 'how to win friends and influence people' is not to do it at all. But there remains some benefit to argument and critique; it makes our arguments more precise and more solid.

How to argue and critique given time constraints is another important question. Perhaps, then express the argument that is being made and make a single comment to it. This is positive and win/win for both parties.

Getting out alive

In general, there are two elements to a successful resolution of a serious crisis:
  • Firstly, 'get out of it alive'.
  • Secondly, 'make sure it doesn't happen again'.
In regard to the current financial crisis, we need to address both elements. Satisfying the first criterion is both urgent and important, whereas the second is important, but slightly less urgent. It would be good if policy could address both elements. However, the policies needed may in principle be different, or even opposite for the two elements. A policy should not be rejected on the grounds that it only addresses one of the two, so long as it is understood that it is not the whole short/long term solution.

Arguments such as "we shouldn't do those things that got us into this mess in the first place" or "we need a sustainable solutions not a sticking plaster" sound good but are actually fallacious. When your financial life is in danger, just when your environmental or personal life is in danger, the solutions differ. If your house is on fire 'sustainable' or 'ethical' solutions might be nice to have, but are completely secondary considerations to getting out of your house alive.

Solutions however must work. In other words they must be effective - i.e. do what they intend to do, and be broadly sound and robust. Being 'sound and robust' sounds a bit like being 'sustainable', but there are important differences. 'Sustainability' is sort of a council to perfection, avoiding rapid use of non-renewable resources sometimes adding extra 'ethical' criteria to decision making- whereas 'sound and robust' just means a solution which basically works under a variety of different circumstances. What we need is to tackle unsustainability, and particularly critical unsustainability; not expect our solutions to be perfectly sustainable according to every criterion.

It's quite clear what 'getting out alive' means in personal context, and in the case of global warming it is fairly straightforward. In the case of financial crisis it is less clear, but avoiding systemic meltdown and a great depression is usually the underlying motivation for government action. More on this some other time.