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Sharing Realities:

TOWARD A PHILOSOPHY OF CONVERSATION

Richard Ostrofsky
Copyright © Richard Ostrofsky, 2000
ISBN:1-894537-00-9

4. Reasonable Choices
Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and
the unpalatable.
John Kenneth Galbraith

In upholding the right of stakeholders to their divergent interpretations,


polyphonic epistemology appears to make the decision-maker's job
impossible: Points-of-view are a dime a dozen; a conversation can think
in all directions at once. But at the sharp end, where plans are formed and
scarce resources committed, many choices must be exclusive because the
resources committed to one plan are no longer available for another. Also,
it is in the nature of social existence, that at least some choices must be
made collectively, on behalf of the group as a whole. Since it will not
usually be possible to settle an issue in a way that pleases everyone, the
best that can be hoped is to make concrete choices as they arise, doing
justice to the stakeholders’ vital concerns, trading-off among their
preferences, and keeping them all reasonably happy, or not too
dangerously unhappy.
To deserve their names, whatever we mean by “truth” and
“knowledge” must offer guidance to our decisions, whether we actually let
ourselves be guided or not. On one hand, knowledge must serve our
desires, teaching us how to get what we want and avoid what we don’t
want. “Knowledge is Power,” as Bacon said and Foucault insisted. But
then too, as already suggested, truth and knowledge also play a crucial role
in taming arbitrary power, in holding power accountable for its choices.
They must serve as brakes on our appetites and passions, helping us adjust
our ends to the available means, our desires to our own needs and long-
term hopes, and to other people’s reasonable expectations.
Thus, a capital difficulty with the idea of polyphonic truth and
knowledge is that even the most free-ranging thought must eventually
bring itself to recommend some particular course of action. Perceptions
and values will usually be plural and inconsistent; concrete choices
cannot be. Though we allow our minds to play amongst numerous
interpretations and promptings, we must eventually commit our resources
in some particular way. We must overcome this difficulty somehow, if the
idea of polyphonic truth is to be of use.
4.1 Reason and Power
When values and perceptions are clear and unanimous, then the problem
of rational choice is trivial: It is rational to do your best according to your
best understanding. It is irrational to do otherwise. Figuring out what
your (single-minded) understanding suggests be done may not be a simple
matter, but it is straightforward; and the concept of reason is exhausted in
the idea of acting according to your best understanding of your interests
and situation. When no such common understanding exists, our
judgments come into conflict, and can no longer point directly to some
course of action. Then a dialectic of power and reason gets started, and a
political contest begins.
That there is, and must be, a dialectical relationship between
reason and power is easy to see. In situations of relative equality among
adversaries, a brute power struggle, unchecked by reason, leads simply to
mutual exhaustion and impoverishment, if not to mutual destruction. The
attempt to impose one’s will by naked power is plainly unreasonable when
there is no possibility of success. At the very least, reason would seem to
require a prudent calculation of the balance of power – to decide whether
victory is possible, and what fruits it could be made to yield. Conversely,
visions of peace, harmony and universal reason are empty, unless they
include mechanisms of conflict resolution. It is just not possible to “love
your enemy” without advanced skills for limited quarrelling with your
family and friends.
Nor can meaningful conflict resolution be a question of reason
alone, since it is usually necessary to fight for a seat at the bargaining table
and then establish the balance of power before diverging interests can be
adjudicated on a generally acceptable basis. Viable conflict resolution
procedures cannot ignore differences of strength, and must favour the
interests of the strong to some extent – at least sufficiently to offset the
motivation they would otherwise feel to secede from the bargaining
community. The most cooperative communities have always found it
necessary to reward their strongest – at least with status and honour, and
usually with large material advantages as well. We might as well take it
for granted that reason and power will both have place in any non-trivial
conversation.
What then does it mean for a polyphonic conversation among
divergent viewpoints, perceptions and interests to make reasonable
choices? It must mean something. We commonly draw a distinction, one
we can’t afford to lose sight of, between reasonable and unreasonable
applications of power. In fact, there are a number of criteria we might
propose to articulate our sense of the meaning of rationality1 in politically
divided conversation:

1 Game theorists speak of rationality rather than reason in connection with


strategic decisions of war, business and other games. We’ll follow this usage,
but will define rationality simply as operational reason, reason applied to some
practical decision. Note that rationality (in this ordinary sense) differs from
game-theoretic rationality. It will not necessarily choose the move that
maximizes expected pay-off.
1) The choices of a rational conversation are not just vague
intentions. Once made, they are implemented with the commitment
of the group behind them. Thus, they really will be collective
choices in the fullest sense, including the sales job afterwards: the
winning of consent and compliance, the raising of resources, skills
and commitment to implement the decision taken. A choice that
settles nothing and carries no operational weight cannot properly
be called a choice at all, let alone a rational one.
2) A rational conversation protects its own integrity, to ensure that it
tells itself a straight story. A decision based on information known
to be defective and readily corrected cannot be called rational.
Whatever we are going to mean by public knowledge must emerge
from negotiation among the various interpretations in play, and
must supply a cognitive background, or context, for subsequent
negotiations regarding policies and plans. Negotiation, we might
say, is both the producer and the major consumer of public
knowledge. Although each faction will have a vested interest in
biassing the cognitive background to tilt the negotiations in its own
favour, the conversation as a whole has an interest in conducting
its negotiations against a background that is balanced,
comprehensive and neutral as between its contending factions.
3) In her book on United States policy in Viet Nam2, Barbara
Tuchman defines folly as policy persistently pursued when better
options are known to be available. We expect that rational
conversation will try to make the best choices it can, given the
constraints upon it and the information available. It should not
make a less desirable choice (according to whatever consensual
values exist) when a more desirable one is clearly possible. This is
not to say a rational conversation must make “the best choice.”
Indeed, the word “best” can have no meaning when values are in
conflict. But certainly, we cannot call a conversation rational that
chooses A, in the face of clear consensus that B would have been
better. But in situations of divergent interest, rational conversation
might well go for C, not the first choice of any, just because it is
the option that all factions can live with.
4) As we’ll see, there is no uniform standard of rationality for every
type of choice. Different types of choice are subject to different
criteria of rationality. Accordingly, a rational conversation must
deal appropriately with the type of choice it is making, respecting
its inherent requirements. Thus, we would not say a conversation
is behaving rationally if it treats a chronic dilemma like a one-shot
decision, or if it treats a contentious political choice like either.
More on this later.
5) Here we come to the crux of it: the central thesis of this book: A
rational conversation does not allow itself to become paralysed by

2 The March of Folly.


the cognitive wrangles of its stakeholders. Neither does it allow
one viewpoint or interest to impose its will on all the rest. Rather,
it works with the knowledge of the conversation as a whole – the
concerns, the stipulated facts, the existing tensegrity of views. It
will be receptive to concerns and sceptical of interpretations. In a
rational political process, conflicts of interpretation are a
constraint on the decision-makers, not alternative candidates
for their loyalty.
From the perspective of the argument as whole – and of
those who make decisions on its behalf – values and interpretations
are just “flags” round which the various factions collect and rally.
The real business of decision-makers is with the necessities of the
situation, and with the vital concerns which must be satisfied
simultaneously, or balanced as well as possible. Their duty is
precisely not to choose sides among the various factions and their
interpretations, but to respond and be accountable to the tensegrity
as a whole.
6) A rational conversation will have a sense of proportion. In making
political choices, the scope and intensity of conflict will be limited
by the significance of the issues at stake, and by the need to repair
relationships once the choice is made and the conflict over. It was
scarcely rational for the European Powers to launch a civil war of
Western civilization over the Balkan crisis in 1914. It was scarcely
rational for the United States to squander public resources and
good will for a decade to protect its minimal interests in Viet Nam.
7) Finally, a rational conversation will be self-accountable: After the
fact, it will be able to explain its choices to itself without crushing
embarrassment. “It seemed like a good idea at the time!” is a
perfectly valid defence when a choice turns out badly – provided
we can explain why we thought it was, and why we acted as we
did. The point is: a rational conversation may often make
mistakes; but it does not make mistakes for which it neither can
nor should forgive itself. It should at least be able to explain to
itself why it did what it did – why its course seemed like a good
idea, or a less bad idea, than the alternatives known at the time.
We would not call a conversation rational that was unable to learn
from its mistakes because it could not bear to reflect on its bad
decisions – these being too humiliatingly lazy, stupid or corrupt to
bear thinking about.
The foregoing account is utterly at odds with the game-theoretic or
economic idea of rationality as the maximizing of pay-off or profit. But
the game-theoretic definition is useless for our purpose, as we shall next
see, because what it contemplates is the pursuit of individual self-interest
in a homogeneous system of perceptions and values. For complex,
Nietzschean conversations, where perceptions and values not only diverge,
but are not and cannot be subordinated to any over-arching cognitive
scheme, we need a different notion. Accordingly, we have suggested a
concept of rationality for political processes working to extract some
appropriate collective choice from an irreducibly polyphonic situation.
The next step will be to recognize that this notion of political or
polyphonic rationality is not the same across the board, but depends
closely on the type of decision we have to make.
4.2 Paths and Choices
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .
Robert Frost
We have been walking confidently along a path which suddenly branches
before us. Which road should we take?
As a metaphor for choice, this branching-path image is natural and
apt in some cases, but deceptive and very dangerous when allowed to
dominate our thinking. The decision theory that flows from it knows only
one kind of rationality: to choose the path that appears "best" according to
some appropriate scheme of valuation – highest pay-off, lowest risk or
regret, best over-all satisfaction of constraints – based on information
available at the point of choice. It seems irrational not to seek a “best”
path among the alternatives, to the extent that time and information
permit. Yet, obvious and commonsensical as it appears, this conception of
rationality is of limited use. For one thing, it requires that the decision-
maker’s options be laid out neatly for comparison; and it conceives these
as pre-defined and immutable in their features and pay-offs. In real life,
by contrast, not only facts but values too seem to change as we become
more closely involved with a situation. Worse, and more directly relevant
to our concerns here, the branching-path metaphor glosses the possibility
of non-consensus or double-mindedness on the decision-maker’s part. It
carries an implicit assumption that all who “walk” the chosen path have
uniform paradigms and values. This assumption breaks down in all real-
life, political situations, where minority viewpoints will have to be coerced
or brow-beaten into going along with the decision. The claim to have
found a “best” or “optimal” choice can only be mendacious in the absence
of an agreed scheme of values.3
In this way, the branching-path metaphor ignores a fundamental
distinction between individual and group decision-making: Normally, an
individual’s intentions and actions follow from his perceptions and beliefs.
Competent agency is achieved through a cycle of sensory input and motor
output. What I do depends on what I believe. What I believe depends on
the experiences I have had. Accordingly then, for individuals the link
between perceptions and intentions is straightforward, at least to a first

3 Actually, for a group, the concept of a best or optimal decision plays a role
similar to that of objective reality itself. Even having recognized that we inhabit
a phenomenal world of appearances, we need the Kantian notion of a noumenal
world of things-in-themselves because without this hypothesis, we have nothing
to talk about. In the same way, we need the concept of a best decision as, but
only as, a basis for the decision process. The best decision is the one that we as
a group are trying to reach, but will never know if we succeed in doing so.
approximation: Plans flow directly from desires, perceptions and a sense
of causal relationships. When I feel cold, I turn up the thermostat and put
on a sweater. A little later, feeling too warm, I take the sweater off. There
is no polyphony or politics to speak of.
This common-sense account is too simple even for individuals,
since one may well be “of two minds” about something. But for the joint
decisions of a group – even a married couple – the story breaks down
completely. A group’s choices are irreducibly political in nature. Its
collective intentions and actions do not follow from its diverse beliefs and
interests in any direct way, but rather, represent the outcome of a political
process of conflict-and-negotiation. Under these circumstances, if the
notions of “public understanding” and “public interest” mean anything at
all, they represent sophisticated political constructions, not elementary
social facts. Certainly, they do not represent any simple “vector sum” of
individual understandings and interests.
Accordingly, we face a problem with two parts: First, we owe
some explanation of what it means to make a reasonable choice in
polyphonic situations where several or many perceptions and values are
lobbying the decision-makers, or sitting on the executive committee. And
then we must explain how the tensegrity of argument among viewpoints
(by the last chapter’s definition, what we’ll mean by public knowledge)
can guide the decision-makers to such a choice.
Classically, for political entities as for individuals, intentions,
choices and actions were thought to follow from understanding and
interest in a fairly direct fashion. Values might clash – indeed, clashes of
interest were inevitable – but it was the business of the ideal Ruler or of
honest and competent government to transcend mere private interest and
serve “the public good.” What exactly was meant by this phrase was
never explained, and today we are too knowledgeable and cynical to think
it means much of anything. We expect the state to serve its own interests
first, and its most powerful constituencies second. In the usual case, some
coalition of stakeholders succeeds in capturing the machinery of state for
its own purposes, and either coerces the others into going along or obtains
their resigned consent. Correspondingly, there is little reason (beyond any
sanctions imposed to ensure compliance) why the losers should not evade
the burdens and costs of such imposed policies, and seek to overturn them
as soon as possible.
By contrast, the political strength of reason, for what this may be
worth, is to create an ethical bond that reasonable people may prefer to
honour, and to strengthen social relationships, where the application of
naked power will surely weaken them. If I feel my government has
applied reason to a public necessity in going to war or raising my taxes, I
may be more apt to comply willingly than would otherwise be the case.
Even if I think the decisions mistaken, I may hesitate to oppose my own
judgment to that of my duly elected representatives and their advisors.
Insofar as I have faith in the integrity of the political process, I may be
inclined to grant it a certain moral authority. Without such faith, I am
more likely to dodge the draft or evade the tax if I can find a fairly safe
way to do so.
Perhaps the point is better made in its converse: the drawback of
naked power from the viewpoint of a parent, business manager or
government is that its use inaugurates a spiral in which increasingly
specific orders must be given and increasing coercion applied. The
application of power is always expensive; deployed without legitimacy –
that is to say, in the absence of convincing reasons – it tends to become
more so in a vicious circle of enforcement and resistance.
Now, as regards the application of polyphonic understanding to
necessarily monophonic choice, the central question is this: If we concede
the legitimacy of divergent viewpoints, interests and perceptions, does
there remain some rational basis for collective choice? Or is it merely a
question of which faction can make its own agenda prevail?
Straight off, it must be admitted that representative democracy as
we know it does not provide a genuinely rational basis for a group’s
collective choices. First, the rule of the majority implies a coerced
minority that is not wholly in accord with the decision taken. This might
be acceptable, if adequate minority rights were guaranteed and if everyone
could believe in the integrity of the political process. But, while
constitutional law and a Charter of Rights go a considerable step in this
direction, they do not resolve the issue; procedural rules alone cannot
guarantee the integrity of the political or judicial process. It seems that to
this day, the central principle of government is to put the state’s executive
machinery and coercive power at the disposal of whoever can capture it: a
charismatic leader, a junta of generals or, at best, a political party with a
successful coalition. In constituting governments, there has been little
choice but to sacrifice integrity of the political process for coherent (and,
hopefully, somewhat competent) agency. We want to ask: is any better
way even theoretically possible?
4.3 Epistemic and Pragmatic Conversation
To approach this question, it will be useful to distinguish two phases of the
decision process: There is an epistemic phase of conversation focussed on
questions and alternative answers regarding the interlocutors’ common
reality. There is also what we may call a pragmatic phase, broadly
focussed on the question of “What is to be done?” Thus: maps, history
books, weather forecasts, and statements like “The cat is on the mat” are
typical products of epistemic conversation. So too are value statements,
e.g. “All children should receive a good education at the public expense”
or, “Our widgets must be cheap but durable.” Such conclusions (and
contradictions) of asserted fact and value provide a cognitive context for
decision-making, though they are not part of the decision itself. By
contrast, actual decisions are taken in the course of what we might call
pragmatic conversation, which is preoccupied with the discussion and
negotiation of intentions, agreements and specific plans. Its typical
products include laws, contracts, appointments, and more or less politely
worded and heavily sanctioned demands – e.g. to pass the salt, or pay the
tax. As we’ll see, it is vital for reason that these phases of conversation be
clearly distinguished and kept as institutionally separate as possible.
Epistemic conversation explores and maps the decision-space,
setting up concepts, values, ideals, theories, and cognitive markers
generally. It is inherently speculative and divergent in nature, and is best
conducted under a regime of cognitive liberty, subject only to norms of
civility and conversational integrity to be discussed below. Pragmatic
conversation must converge and decide. It is, and should be, conservative
in operation since it not practical or prudent to tear down the world and
build it over every time someone gets a new idea. It should prefer small
incremental changes to large sweeping ones, pinning as little as possible to
the underlying cognitive issues of paradigm and value but reconciling
these to the extent possible. Viewpoints, perceptions and values should be
allowed to inform our choices; they should be placed firmly to one side
in actually making them.
To take a very simple example: Jack likes meat and can scarcely
eat a satisfying meal without it. He can go without meat occasionally, but
will feel hungry an hour later. By contrast, his fiancee Jill is a strict
vegetarian. She will not cook flesh; indeed, it makes her queasy to watch
someone else eat it. Against these feelings, Jack is on record with the
counter-opinion that cooked vegetables look disgusting, and that it is no
more ethical to pull up a carrot than to slaughter a chicken. Nevertheless,
they are planning a trip together – to test the strength of their relationship,
and work out some jointly acceptable living arrangements. Assuming that
both are reasonable people, really do care about each other, and wish to
have a pleasant trip and then a happy life, the question is: can they come
to some agreement about meals? Would this have to be the outcome of
some power game between them – a contest of wills? If not, how should
they approach the task of reaching agreement?
The basic insight needed if these two young people are to survive
as a couple is that the ethics and benefits of vegetarianism vs. meat-eating
are irrelevant to their situation, except as background information on their
respective sensibilities. Their problem is to work out a compromise that
both can live with; and so long as they are clear that their problem is one
of mutual comfort, and not of principles, they are not without options:
They might agree to dine separately, whatever else they do together. They
might agree to take turns enduring the discomfort of each other’s
preferences for the pleasure of each other’s company. They might agree to
use a special divider across the middle of their table, permitting them to
gaze into each other’s eyes without seeing each other’s dinner plates. One
way or another, they can negotiate some agreement on this matter, if they
care to do so. But this will be much more difficult – quite likely
impossible – if they allow the negotiation to become embroiled in their
underlying cognitive differences. The only task of negotiation here is to
reach a deal, not to change the other’s tastes or opinions, or to win support
from third parties. With this understood, their epistemic argument about
values and ethics may become important background data for the process
– helping them understand which solutions are feasible and which are not.
The point is obvious enough. It is the basic principle of every
secular society, and it generalizes readily to every scale from couples to
nations: The negotiation of political choices works best when a
rigorous distinction is maintained between epistemic conversation
(about values and reality) and the pragmatic conversation (about
what is to be done). Thus, arguments about whether the foetus is already
a human being are not relevant to the drafting of a viable abortion law.
What is relevant, crucially so, is the lethal contentiousness of the issue
itself.
Plato to the contrary, we see that there are excellent reasons why
kings are not, and should not be, philosophers – since they require, and
usually have, completely different temperaments. The latter tend to be
idealists by disposition, even when they are not so by conviction. For
them, general ideas are real and passionately interesting – else they would
scarcely be philosophers. By contrast, rulers tend to be particularists and
materialists in outlook, more interested in facts than in ideas and theories.
The philosopher lives amidst a play of concepts. A ruler lives in the
stream of real events. Their respective vocations and conversations must
be kept apart because both are corrupted when they are run together. The
integrity of epistemic conversation suffers when it takes sides on policy,
thereby allowing its ideas to become political weapons. Pragmatic
conversation loses integrity in a very dangerous way when it sacrifices the
concerns of real people to the abstractions of philosophers and scholars.
4.4 Seven Types of Choice
Earlier4 it was suggested that the concept of decision as a fork in the road
probably adds to the decision-maker's burden more often than not. In
directing attention to the various options and their (usually unknown) pay-
offs, it glosses all political aspects of the decision and invites us to
overlook features that make for one type of decision (requiring one type of
reasoning) rather than another. When we shift our focus to the condition
of uncertainty, and to the decision process rather than the possible pay-
offs, we find a range of situations that stress pragmatic conversation in
very different ways, and call for different types of reasoning.
Every decision situation represents a crisis of operational sureness
– a lapse in the smooth flow of pragmatic conversation, an interruption in
the normal rhythm of control through established habit and policy. A
conscious choice is required because there is hesitation what to do; and to
this extent, the branching-path metaphor seems appropriate. But there are
at least seven types of decision situation, intrinsically very different from
one another in that each makes very different demands on pragmatic
conversation, on the decision-makers, and therefore, as we’ll see, on the

4 At the beginning of Section 4.2


concept of rationality itself.
Simple Choice
A simple choice is a one-shot call amongst known alternatives, made in
the context of an agreed cognitive framework. The options are clearly laid
out in advance. It may not feel like a real decision at all, since the lapse of
sureness may be momentary, and almost below the threshold of awareness.
We make dozens of such choices every day, and if we find some more
difficult than others, it is because there is more at stake, or because they
require information not immediately available, or because they involve
difficult calculations of subjective probabilities and preferences, and of
expected gain or loss.
In recognizing a choice as fundamentally simple, we must not
allow ourselves to be distracted by its practical difficulty, or by the
magnitude of the stakes involved. For example, General Eisenhower,
giving his famous go-ahead for the D-Day landing on June 6th, 1944, had
to make what was essentially a simple choice. The crucial values at stake,
though immense, were understood and shared by all parties to the
decision; the relevant factors, though complex, boiled down to a
straightforward comparison: the risk and advantage of going ahead,
against the risk and advantage of waiting. The decision parameters and
process – the variables to be considered, experts to be consulted, counsel
to be taken, and the ultimate prerogative and responsibility for the call –
were also well understood.
When we speak of the rationality of a simple choice, we have
qualities like the following in mind: first, that it be solidly and
convincingly made, so that it need not be second-guessed or made again;
second, that it be timely, and made at a cost proportionate to the stakes
involved and the complexity of the issues in play; third that it be made
according to some coherent, plausible scheme of values, not obviously
inconsistent or self-destructive; and fourth, that it be made through some
credible procedure, that weights the relevant factors to select a “best”
option, "all things considered.” It will be seen that this kind of thinking
applies readily to the problem of choosing one’s way at the fork. For
simple choices, accordingly, the branching-path metaphor works well.
Unfortunately, much of the management literature (and many
decision-makers trained on it), treat all choices as simple in the sense just
outlined. This is a serious error: there are other types of choice situation
that demand very different modes of rationality.
Matching Choices
Matching Choices are problems of correspondence, fit, or justice. In
choosing a tie or scarf, providing appropriate education to a child,
punishing a crime, selecting an appropriate level of start-up capital for a
new business venture, or allocating time among various interests and
talents – in each of these cases, we face a question of just correspondence.
We want to give something its due: its proper reward, comeuppance or
complement.
Faced with a matching choice, even among a finite number of
known possibilities, the branching-path metaphor is less than apt because
we are not concerned with prospective pay-offs, but with the rightness of a
relationship. In the paradigm case of selecting a scarf to go with a suit and
blouse, trying to maximize some artificial index of good taste would not
accomplish much. In the case of punishment for a crime, it is certainly not
a question of inflicting the greatest pain possible. The problem is to
impose a just penalty: proportioned to the offense, and restitutive,
rehabilitative and deterrent where possible.
Solving such problems of fit and proportion draw on a concept of
rationality that departs markedly from the kind we deploy in making
simple choices. Here rationality seems to be more concerned with balance
and harmony than with optimization. In fact, the ideal of rationality in
matching choice is well expressed by the iconic personification of Justice:
blindfolded, to suggest impartiality; with a scale, to suggest proportion
and measure; with a sword, to suggest power; and female, to suggest
generativity and nurturing.
Elucidation of the concept of “justice” is among the most difficult
problems in philosophy – probably not resolvable, except on a case-by-
case basis. The important point here is that for choices of fit and justice,
the branching-path metaphor is irrelevant or downright misleading. Even
in truly adversarial situations, there is a time to win what one can, and a
time to deal justly and settle the game. Failing to do so and pushing too
far risks backing the adversary into a corner where, desperate and with
nothing to lose, he becomes really dangerous.
Choice Against Uncertainty
Conventional management theory treats the choice against uncertainty as
a gambling situation; and here again, where the necessary calculations are
feasible, the branching-path model works well: Knowing the
probabilities, we simply calculate expected returns for each option, and
choose the path on which our prospects are best.
Unfortunately, this approach requires that the payoffs of each
choice can be quantified, and their probabilities estimated or guessed. It
must be meaningful to rate the possible gains and losses on a numeric
scale. It must also be possible to calculate probabilities on a combinatorial
basis, or derive them from historical data or at least estimate them with
some accuracy from past experience in similar situations. Otherwise,
expectation remains meaningless as a statistical concept; and although we
can still conceive the choice situation as a branching path, doing so will
not help much as we have no means of assigning scores to the branches.
In the general case, the method of guess-and-hedge is probably our
best approach to choices against uncertainty, and it is surely our most
common approach. Faced with an uncertain situation, we do not usually
try to evaluate each conceivable plan against every possible outcome, and
then select the one that fares best on average over all contingencies.
Rather, we decide what we think is most likely to happen, and formulate a
plan to meet this best guess. Then we hedge our bets, and devise
contingency plans to cut our losses if the expected outcome does not
materialize. When several outcomes seem equally likely, we devise
alternative plans to fit them, with tests to warn of what is coming to pass.
Again the branching-path metaphor seems unhelpful. Some idea of
necessity subject to chance is probably our most suggestive image of the
hidden future, and the one we commonly use in planning for it.
Strategic Choice5
From one perspective, strategic choices resemble choices against
uncertainty in that one is laying plans or taking action to meet an unknown
future. The difference is that in choices against uncertainty, the future is
merely indifferent; in strategic choice, the future is wholly or partly
controlled by malevolent adversaries, trying to anticipate your plans,
nullify them, and impose plans of their own. Since the best plan can be
thwarted if it can be guessed in time to prepare a defence, strategic choices
involve second-guessing the other players’ intentions, while they are
trying to second-guess yours. For this reason, there is a premium on
unpredictability. Against an indifferent universe one might simply make
the best available move. Against an actively malevolent universe one
must make some move that is not quite the best available, because the
theoretical best could be anticipated and countered. The characteristic of
strategic choice is that it is advantageous to be unpredictable – even to
cultivate the reputation of being a bit crazy.
The paradigm case is that of two nitroglycerine trucks, confronting
each other on a one-lane mountain road where there is no room to pass.
One of the trucks must back down the mountain, and neither driver wants
to do it. The “reasonable” driver will consider negotiated solutions (based,
for example, on which direction seems safer), or will propose to settle the
matter by tossing a coin. The cunning one will wave his fists and foam at
the mouth – convincing the other that he will have to do the backing.
Autocratic leaders often play this game, and sometimes forget how to turn
it off.
Dilemma Choice
A dilemma feels more like walking a tightrope than like a branching path.
At any moment, you can lean this way or that, to correct what is felt to be
an immediate problem; but the underlying task is to keep your balance
and damp the system’s oscillations to prevent them from tearing the
system apart, and pitching you off the rope.
Dilemma choice is the essence of managerial work; sitting on
dilemmas is what managers do for a living. Raise prices, lower wages or

5 It has been suggested to me that “tactical” would be a better word than


“strategic” here. I must agree. Tactics involve the kind of second-guessing that
will be discussed here, as strategy typically does not. Indeed, at the strategic
level, deception is seldom possible, and often would be against one’s interests.
However, rather than make the suggested change, I have chosen to follow the
usage of game theory, which mostly speaks of “strategy” rather than “tactics”
for this type of choice.
cut quality? Centralize for tighter control (sacrificing flexibility and local
initiative), or decentralize for initiative (accepting some loss of
coordination)? Set fiscal policy to curb inflation or unemployment? The
horns of dilemmas are perennial: They are aspects of reality, and they
refuse to go away. In particular, dilemmas are not problems: they cannot
be solved once and for all, but only kept under control. Just understanding
this lets the manager off the hook to some extent: He need not feel
inadequate, or a failure, because the same issue comes back to haunt him
next year, and the year after that.
Dilemma involves a choice between values, often between evils.
This commonly leads to a political game of “push the needle”;6 but
thoughtful persons will observe that the conflict is an illusion of partisan
thinking: thinking with biased information on too small a scale.
Characteristic of dilemmas is that the triumph of either value would be
disastrous for the system as a whole. If cost and quality are not held in
proportion to each other and to the competition's offering, your product
will not sell. If either inflation or unemployment go too high, your
government will fall. There is indeed a conflict of values, in the sense that
all cannot be optimized together; a gain for one must be achieved at the
expense of others. But the factional tug-of-war must finally conform to
system requirements: If critical parameters are not kept within the limits
of system tolerance, the results will not be in anyone’s interest. From the
whole system’s perspective, balance – not conflict – is the essence of
dilemma choice.
The rationality of dilemma-handling is often discussed from a
technical standpoint, in a cybernetic language of control points, amplitude
and frequency of deviations, appropriately sensitive feedback, and system
stability. It is known, for example, that when feedback is too delicate a
system is unstable; when too coarse, it is inefficient. But dilemmas often
have a moral component which does not lend itself to cybernetic
treatment. Here, the only really acceptable outcomes are “win-win”
solutions that transcend the dilemma in some creative way. When a
dilemma involves moral choice, we feel that somehow “the wolf must be
fed, while the sheep remain whole.”
Both technically and morally, the rationality of dilemma choice
must be discussed in terms of viability. What matters is not what people
want (value), but what they and their systems can live with. Like a
tightrope walker, the rational manager feels in which direction things are
starting to topple, and makes the smallest possible move the other way to
compensate. He lets the system teach him its needs – the right level of
sensitivity to its fluctuations, the magnitude and timing of the required
corrections. He can expect no final resolution of this situation – only
postponement of crisis. Obviously, thinking of such situations in the terms
of simple choice creates unnecessary risk and conflict.

6 That is, the nudging of relevant policies and social indicators to the “left” or
“right.”
Political Choice
Confusingly, most practical politics is a bicker over dilemma choices,
which, like political choices are taken in a polyphonic context of
competing values. A dilemma might be characterized as a recurring or
chronic political choice presented to a group of long-sighted stakeholders
who intend to stay together as a community. Rational decision makers can
manage their dilemmas by tilting now this way, now that, so as to keep
their affairs in balance. Truly political choices cannot be managed in this
long-sighted way. Often they are one-shot choices that have to be taken
once and for all; or they are so irreducibly contentious that no one can see
past them to the needs of the system as a whole. In either case, they
threaten to tear the system apart. As with the issue of slavery in the United
States in the decade before the Civil War, it becomes a question of whether
the group will succeed in holding itself together, and on what terms it will
do so. For this reason, truly political choices might also be called
constitutive choices, as they determine the basis on which the group is
constituted – indeed, whether it remains a group at all.
In less contentious decision situations, it may be hoped that further
study, better information, more far-sighted thinking, or better
compensation for inconvenienced parties, will resolve the matter without
serious conflict. For genuine political choices, such hopes will be
disappointed. The more we study a real political issue, the thornier it
becomes. All that happens is that the paradigms themselves – the whole
basis for calculation of expectation and pay-off – become themselves a
matter for conflict.
So we ask: in situations of this kind, what does it mean for the
group to make a rational choice, and on what basis might it do so? Here,
the branching-path metaphor is worse than useless, making political
choices more divisive than they need be by emphasizing the mutual
exclusivity of the pre-conceived “branches,” thus turning the mind away
from possibilities for creative settlement through the design of some novel
approach that all sides might prefer to conflict or break-up.
Earlier in this chapter7 we mentioned several aspects of rationality
in political choice; and there is no need to repeat them. We should note,
though, that from one perspective, all choices are somewhat political in
nature. There is no need for choice unless an individual or group is “of
two minds about something,” and feeling some conflict between them. In
every case, whether the conflict perturbs a world or a single person, both
reason and sheer power come into play, and the larger problem is to
preserve the whole system – whatever special interests are in dispute.
Design Choice
Just as all choices are political from one perspective, they are design
problems from another. The design aspect of choice is glossed completely
when we think of the options as pre-existing paths leading out in different
directions from under our feet. But, in fact, the perceived options are

7 in Section 4.1
never more than potentialities; the actual design and construction of a
viable route is always part of the choice to a greater or lesser extent. Our
options are never so cut-and-dried that we can walk them passively –
without so many further choices that, in effect, we must design and build
our route as we travel it.
Where the design problem predominates – as in some engineering
project, for example – the construction, inter-relationship and combination
of possibilities is the essence of the decision process. At every step of the
way, a great number of basic and petty alternatives will have to be
considered. Precisely what the design group does not have – except by
hindsight, after the fact – is a set of clearly defined alternatives branching
under their feet. Rather, it confronts a whole landscape of possibilities and
trade-offs, with known and unknown consequences.
In the end, a design team will probably bring a short list of discrete
options to its clients, with a more or less formal analysis of benefits and
costs. The clients are thus given the illusion of simple choice at a
crossroads – yet the reality is entirely different. The options on offer will
have been laid out and evaluated just before the presentation, to make the
teams’ recommendation, and then its clients’ decision, as nearly automatic
as possible. But the real choices will have been made piecemeal, in the
constructive process whereby the various modules of an over-all design
were separately defined, detailed and adjusted one to another.
Expressed schematically, the rationality of such design efforts
involves a working downward, through multiple levels of thought. At
each level, two viewpoints are considered: a systemic, “black box”
viewpoint of global functionality and a component viewpoint showing the
assembly of parts. Usually, the required functionality of the whole, along
with key choices for a few critical modules, becomes the basis for a top-
down design. Favoured designs for the key modules react upon each
other, and progressively determine all remaining choices. The design is
complete when consistency amongst its levels has been achieved and
resources for further tinkering have been exhausted.
The design of options for many decisions is not so different. As in
the design of some machine or computer system, there is a goal to be
achieved, and a vague sense of alternative means to achieve it. The goal
itself may evolve, and will certainly be sharpened as the means to it are
detailed. Conversely, the means considered will depend on the end
desired, and may shift as that end is better understood. In this way, the
design process plays continually between contextual levels: a whole and
its parts.
The rationality of design choice is a composite of function,
aesthetics and integrity. A good design “hangs together” as a coherent
whole, achieves intended results, and displays a certain elegance in doing
so. In some respects, design choices are similar to matching choices of
“fit.” However, unlike the latter, design choices undergo significant
evolution in the short and long term, which gives them a distinctive
character of their own. In the short term, the design process involves a
great many matching choices for good “fit.” In the long term, they show
an evolution of contributing technologies and design possibilities – as
happened with the automobile, for example. Understanding of the
problem also develops. Past a certain point, one is no longer designing a
“horseless carriage”, but some new kind of entity with requirements and
an integrity of its own.
4.5 Reason For Decision-Makers
We may think of the knowledge that guides our choices as a constellation
of agreed “facts”; more often it is a structure of argument. For example,
you might go a little out of your way to buy your gasoline at a service
station where it is one cent per litre cheaper than at the station nearest your
home. Even in this trivial case there may be a trade-off between cost and
convenience, leaving you to argue (inside your own head) which you
value more at this particular moment. Your family buys this new car, or
plans that trip, because an argument “tips the balance” in its favour. In
general, choices are made by devising some plan or policy that terminates
any immediate argument around the concrete issue at hand. We are not so
much drawn by the facts, as nudged and guided by the whole layout of
points made for and against our perceived alternatives. The argument
around the situation, or rather the structure of that argument (reduced to
skeletal form) is the public “fact” that shapes our choices.
Such decision arguments can be quantified by weighting the choice
criteria and calculating a weighted score for each option. Useful as this
technique can be as a checklist of relevant considerations, it is not, in
general, an appropriate paradigm of rational decision. For one thing, as
we’ve seen, many decisions do not lend themselves to representation in
the tabular, weighted-score format. Second, although the weighted score
format may be helpful in prompting its user to estimate the missing
parameters of his decision, it can also mislead. Too many perceptions,
values and ideas are dropped when argument is stripped down to this
schematic format, and arbitrary numbers are assigned because numbers are
needed. Worst of all, the parties to a decision may differ vehemently in
their concerns and priorities. In this case, submerging their differences by
averaging numerical preference weights merely papers over the conflict,
and avoids any possibility of a meeting of minds. This might be a good
thing, if there is no such possibility anyway, but it should not be confused
with game-theoretic rationality, much less with reason.

To conclude: The practical reason of decision-making begins with a loss


of sureness: a perceived hiatus or stress on some on-going political
process. Given such stress, the conversation can begin to recover by
recognizing the type of decision required of it, and the viewpoints worth
considering. What follows is a review of constraints, including political
constraints, as determined by an epistemic conversation of perceptions and
values, backing pragmatic conversation but kept well insulated from it.
The last step is a negotiation of plans to restore collective sureness. For
really vexed issues, it goes without saying that this is easier said than
done.
How a community might constitute itself to be capable of rational
decision-making thus understood is a question for political philosophy and
(perhaps someday) another book. Our concern here is with epistemology
– the theory of public knowledge; and our conclusion is that polyphonic
reason might serve better than the imposed, dogmatic kind as a basis for
practical choice.