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Corona as a Wicked Problem (4/11): What is the right thing to do?

Almost half a century ago, Horst Rittel en Melvin Webber, both professors at the Berkeley University of California, coined the term ‘Wicked Problems’. Their description of wicked problems may help in shedding some light on the current Corona-situation, which is why I have decided to create a series of posts on this topic. This is part 4.

What is the right thing to do?

Property 3: “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, pp. 162-163)

For tame problems it is possible to objectively determine whether a solution is correct or false. We have criteria that anyone can apply to the situation, which would result in the same evaluation by everyone. The criteria have been conventionalized and established so when other qualified persons use them they can independently check the offered solutions. No ambiguity there.

If the rules are clear, there is no doubt about the correctness of a solution. If everyone else is bankrupt in a game of Monopoly, that means you are the winner. Someone else claiming that they are the winner would clearly be false. If your phone battery is running low, the correct solution would be to charge it. Everyone recognizes that a false reaction would be to for example lay it in the fridge or poor water over it. There is no discussion needed. If you've got a flat tire, you have to repair it or have it repaired. Those would be correct answers. A false answer for this problem would be to have an espresso and wait for the tire to heal itself (#UnflattenTheTire).

For wicked problems, we don't have this luxury. We find ourselves in a much more ambiguous situation. There are no true or false answers, no unambiguously right or wrong things to do, the categories true and false do not even apply. The only thing you can claim is that to some degree it was good or bad to do something, that it helped or didn't help. A solution was better than some other solution, or worse, it was satisfactory or good enough. It's all about degrees but we have no rule that we can use to determine the 'correctness' of it.

The difficulty lies in the fact that different people see the wicked problem in a different way (we already saw this in earlier posts in this series) so their idea of the degree to which the solution or answer is good or bad will also differ. We have to deal with different individuals and groups who have different interests and stakes in the wicked problem. Who is going to decide whose stakes or interests should prevail over the others? People have different values and ideologies and who can decide what values and ideologies are more valid than others?

All these parties are equally entitled to judge the solutions based on their own interests, opinions and value systems. What is good for A, may be an incredibly bad idea for B. What is loved by C may be hated by D. There is not one universal end-state that we should all strive for. There is no boss who can decide what the right or correct solution is and that everything that differs is therefore wrong or false.

We have to take different interests and values into account but that's hard to do, exactly because there is not someone who can tell us whether we got it right or wrong. Ralph Barton Perry, an American philosopher, discussed the ways in which you can compare interests and values. You can for example look at how strong someone's interest is, how intense, how often they manifest it or how long they've had it. But you can't just combine these different scales. This is why according to Perry we need the ‘standard of inclusiveness’: when acting based on an interest or value, you also have to take into account what your actions might mean for other interests or values.

You may have a hedonic interest in sitting on your couch, eating chips and watching Netflix for as long as the quarantine takes, but if you also have an interest in staying healthy (and mentally sane!), you have to weigh the consequences of your actions for both interests. What you consider to be good behaviour depends on your interests and how you weigh them. The same goes for the interests of others.You may miss hugging your family and friends, but you may also want to be a responsible citizen who does not infect others by maintaining social distance. It's not that there exists some correct or false answer that goes for everyone, which adds to the wickedness.

The standard of inclusiveness requires reflection: you have to prioritise and coordinate the various interests and values. We're not dealing with finding some 'truth' here but with balancing values, and in fact, in the media you can see ethical questions starting to pop up. Countries have been in quarantine or even lockdown for a couple of weeks and impatience seems to be growing. More on this in the discussion of property 4.

But according to Rittel and Webber we should stop looking for right or wrong answers and instead reflect on what we find important. I love Dewey's definition of reflective thought in this context: "the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends" (1910, p.6). So what stakes are at play? Why those and not others? What does that lead to and is that what we want? This way we can have a dialogue on what we deem good or bad.

To be continued.

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