Yes, ought. And, is.
How acknowledging our value structure's relationship with the facts can help us make better decisions—and understand why we don't all draw the same conclusion from the same facts.
“We only have three days in the office to get ready for Star Conference, so obviously we shouldn’t overhaul the entire curriculum. What we have now isn’t ideal but it’s good enough.”
My state officer teammates and I were preparing for the annual series of section officer training conferences and someone mentioned the curriculum binders were outdated and unorganized. My teammates proposed we redesign every page and present the curriculum in a new format.
“I know we only have three days, but I think we can do it. Just because the old ones work doesn’t mean they’re good.”
Back and forth we went until I realized I was outnumbered and that arguing was simply wasting more time. Even as we got to work redesigning, editing, and revising our edits, I still had doubts we could finish the new curriculum in time. We only have three days, I kept thinking to myself, what if we don’t get it done? Then we’ll have to revert back to the old curriculum and we’ll have wasted all this time.
Same facts ≠ Same outcome
Have you ever noticed how two different people can come to different conclusions based on the same piece of information? We see this every day with conversations surrounding the pandemic. One person will talk about the positivity rate and argue that as a result we should remain locked down. Another person looking at the same positivity rate will argue for restrictions to be lifted. Back and forth we go, as though we’re stuck in an endless tug-of-war. It’s not much of a surprise our arguments often end in stalemate, or, even worse, become shouting matches when each party becomes even more stubborn about their opinion. We have to dig our heels in to win the tug-of-war, right?
Maybe not. Perhaps the point isn’t even to have a tug-of-war at all. How do we get past the back-and-forth? We must first recognize the disconnect between the way things are (the “is”) and what to do about it (the “ought”). As we prepared for the conference, my teammates and I were all guilty of a common blight on our society: pretending we can jump straight from data to action without a value structure which will inevitably differ from the people around us. Notice how my teammates and I both talked about having three days in the office to get ready for Star Conference; we were both aware of the same fact, the “is” of the situation. Yet, I was convinced it wasn’t worth doing a lot more work to redesign our curriculum. My teammates, on the other hand, acknowledged it would be more work but they thought it was worth it. The difference between us? Our priorities.
I tend to prioritize efficiency, functionality, and return on investment (or time). I looked at the situation and saw a lot of time and effort to take the curriculum from functional to exceptional, with a risk of failure. If we just settled with the old curriculum, it would get the job done and we wouldn’t risk hours of work coming to nothing because we couldn’t finish in time. Yet, in my argument, I skipped the explanation of why the fact of three days led me to believe we shouldn’t redesign. I went straight from the is to the ought, how things are to how I believed they should be, and I assumed everyone else would draw the same conclusion; hence my use of the word “obviously” in my argument.
My teammates prioritized excellence, building something new, and leaving things better than we found them—even if we risked failure. They looked at the three days in the office before the conference as three days to make something functional into something exceptional, and so it was very clear to them why we should redesign our curriculum. Yet, again, they skipped explaining the why, too; why the is led them to their conclusion of an ought.
How we view the world as a unique individual will influence our values and priorities, which will lead us to interpret data in different ways and lead us to different conclusions about what we should do with said data. When we refuse to acknowledge this fact, we find ourselves in an intellectual tug-of-war like we see in so many conversations happening in the world today. Instead of saying something like “I’m following the science,” we should be saying “I’m following the science through the lens of my personal value structure.” One way out of the stalemate is to explain the values which led us to our conclusion instead of arrogantly claiming our values as obvious universal truth. Yet, just being aware of and communicating the missing step between how things are and how we believe they should be isn’t enough; we must then determine what to do about the inevitable variety of conclusions drawn from the same facts.
Your ought is your responsibility. Your neighbor’s ought isn’t.
Personal convictions are pretty cool. It was personal conviction which led Martin Luther King, Jr. to stand up for a dream, George Washington to lead a brand new country with a wildly revolutionary form of government, Clara Barton to establish a life-changing humanitarian aid organization, Joe Rogan to build a platform for many people with vastly different opinions to defend their own beliefs, and people like you and me to live according to our own purpose. The challenging thing about personal convictions is we risk disliking, or worse, despising each other’s dreams. In our effort to do good for the world according to our own convictions, we have a tendency to project those convictions onto everyone else, too; we often adopt a mentality of “because this is important to me and how I see the world, it should be how you see the world.” This thinking can quickly lead to a general assumption of bad faith in people who don’t derive the same conclusion from the same facts, leading us to a mindset which says “if you don’t see this issue the way I see it, it’s probably because you don’t care about people the way I do.” This thinking is dangerous for many reasons, in part because it can be flipped against us, and in part because none of us can be entirely right all the time.
The world is complex. People are complex. Issues are complex. Values are complex. Complexity is not an excuse to disengage; instead, it requires us to either be humble or be ineffective. If we’re arrogant about our own value structure as being the only acceptable value structure, and thus the only way to determine what we should do in light of how the world is, we will inevitably be wrong more than 0% of the time. Silencing those who think differently is silencing the potential for the best ideas to come forth. If we humble ourselves, we will bring forth our own interpretation of what ought to be done while acknowledging we may be wrong. Even if we’re right, it’s possible we’re just right for our own actions, and others should take a different course.
Be careful with this dichotomy
The relationship between the way things are and the way they should be is not a dichotomy between which to blur the lines. That would destroy its complexity. Instead, to embrace the complexity of this dichotomy, we must define each end—the “is” being information, and the “ought” being the course of action we determine based on our own personal convictions—and understand our personal relationship to each. On an individual level, we have a responsibility to understand the current nature of the world and continually take action to make it better, starting with our own lives and the lives of our family and friends and slowly expanding out to larger and larger circles of influence. Yet, we must be very careful not to assume our own convictions should be everyone else’s convictions, too; take ownership for your own “ought,” but don’t ever conflate your subjective “ought” with the objective “is.”
My teammates were right about Star Conference. We finished the new curriculum in time, the content was much more useful for section officers as a result, and even now, several years later, our updated curriculum continues to serve hundreds of section officers. Yet, I can’t really take any credit. My teammates took the “is” and turned it into a valuable “ought” because of their value structures, and I’m so glad I learned not to skip the step between. Now, I better understand how to turn the way things are into the way they should be and I also understand why it’s good I can’t make everyone think like me. If any one of us had a monopoly on the “oughts,” we’d find ourselves taking steps backwards more often than not. Let’s end our intellectual tug-of-war conflicts and own up to our conclusions, knowing they’ll be different from each other. That is how the best solutions come to light.
Where are you drawing conclusions which seem obvious to you, but are actually a result of a personal value structure which isn’t shared by everyone around you? Drop your thoughts in the comments below or tag @miriamrosah on Twitter or Instagram. I’d love to learn from you.