Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 4th August 2011

Churchill and the Persians

Churchill observed “America will always do the right thing… but only after exhausting all other possibilities.” He could have deduced this from Katz’s Law which is that “Men and nations will act rationally when other possibilities have been exhausted.”

We can treat this as a cynical statement about our weakness and our tendency to always fall for the easy, but wrong, alternative. However it is also tells us something about the demands of rationality. If it is true  – don’t despair – think things through, make safe experiments, argue things out.

We are all prone to this weakness – we all want the quick and easy win – we resent the unintended and unforeseen consequence. So we need to develop some better habits to help us see things from different perspectives.

Herodotus says that the Persians used to review their plans both while they were drunk and while they were sober. Only if they thought the plan was good when drunk and sober would they commit to it.

The problem we face today in developing good public policies is not that we are often wrong. Our biggest problem is that we are so frightened of being seen to be wrong that we will never learn how to be right – we will never exhaust any of those other possibilities. We are stuck with what we’ve got and we have to make it seem right despite all evidence to the contrary.

Six Blind Men of Hindustan

There were six men of Hindustan,
to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant,
and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
at once began to bawl,
“This mystery of an elephant
is very like a wall.”

The second, feeling of the tusk,
cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an elephant
is very like a spear.”

The third approached the elephant,
and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
thus boldly up and spake,
“I see,” quoth he,
“the elephant is very like a snake.”

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
and felt above the knee,
“What this most wondrous beast
is like is very plain” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the elephant
is very like a tree.”

The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
said, “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
deny the fact who can;
This marvel of an elephant
is very like a fan.”

The sixth no sooner had begun
about the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
that fell within his scope;
“I see,” said he, “the elephant
is very like a rope.”

So six blind men of Hindustan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe

It may be that the treatment for attitude is experience. But what do we each experience? Our experiences are never the same. As Hannah Arendt argues: it is only when we allow different perspectives to come into view and when we try to understand and integrate those perspectives that we can then come towards some kind of ‘sanity’ (wholeness).

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