Blindingly obvious

Assume there are infinite universes. You don’t actually have to believe this. Just… imagine. Infinite universes with infinite possibilities. We’ll call it the multiverse.

Let’s imagine we map all the moments in the history of our world to separate universes. So what happened five minutes ago? Different universe. And it might as well be, right? We can’t access the past in any real way other than looking at history and memories.

Take a universe from, say, 500 years ago. It’s not super important when, but a few hundred years seems good for illustrative purposes. It’s quite a bit different. Imagine being able to go from this universe to that universe and have a conversation with a someone. Anyone. Doesn’t matter who.

Think about all the things that are blindingly obvious to you. The earth goes around the sun. Stuff is made of smaller stuff. Time is relative. Democracy is the best form of government. Free speech is sacred. Whatever. Stuff you think is kind of axiomatic. Imagine explaining these things to that someone.

How might that go?

Well, probably not very well. Things aren’t blindingly obvious instantly. In fact they’re not even blindingly obvious from culture to culture in the here and now, especially when you move away from rigorously provable things like “the earth goes around the sun”.

Now imagine someone comes from a future universe to talk to you. They start telling you stuff that seems blindingly obvious to them.

How might that go?

Again, probably not well.

Why is that?

Dying is worse

It’s important to remember that solution to a lot of problems looks like enabling the problem. It’s OK to acknowledge this. It’s OK to be frustrated by this. But it’s important to not get locked into a “pure” morality—or, to put it another way, it’s critical to be flexible about solutions.

That’s not to say we can’t disagree about these things. Of course we can! But don’t disagree reflexively (don’t use the moral muscles you’re used to). Disagree reflectively. Think about whether or not there might be something else at play when talking about problems and their solutions. Is there a deeper problem? Can it be fixed or treated or dealt with in a way that seems unintuitive?

Take racism. Just for right now let’s put systemic racism aside and use the common “discriminating on the basis of race” definition.

We can all agree that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong. But then aren’t affirmative action programs racist?

We shouldn’t be afraid to say… yes. They are. They are absolutely discriminatory. Because we’re not trying to fix “discrimination on the basis of race” with affirmative action. That’s not the problem. The problem is something else, a deeper, more pervasive problem that has the effect of discriminating on the basis or race without seeming to actually do that.

We’re not trying to fix people; we’re trying to fix systems. The system is the deeply embedded discrimination built into our hiring practices, university selection processes, and so forth. Where qualified candidates are being denied opportunities because they’re a certain race. We do that by intentionally making space for these people. This has the local effect of discriminating against someone, but the system-wide effect of making a more just society for everyone. (And obviously this is just one thing that we do; there’s opportunity for lots more.)

Or take drugs. We can probably all agree that being addicted to drugs is bad.

So then aren’t safe injection sites just enabling addiction? Isn’t decriminalization just tacit approval?

I hope you can see where I’m going here. It’s important to say… yes. Safe injection sites do, on the face of it, enable addiction. But they do that in order to try to prevent worse things like disease and death. And decriminalization aims to treat addiction instead of punishing it. Both these initiative aim to create a path out of addiction. Dying is worse. Going to jail is worse.

These solutions aren’t super-intuitive.

But maybe that’s an indictment of our moral imagination. The idea that you can punish someone into not taking drugs, or that tut-tutting at racial slurs is going to fix racism… these shouldn’t be the first tools in our moral toolbelt. Sometimes it takes a deeper imagination (a more prophetic imagination) to seek answers to problems.