This article was first published in The Hill
Predictably, gun control politics emerged with news of the horrific Las Vegas mass shooting, and more recently, with the Texas church killings. But the bullets wreaked nonpartisan and nondiscriminatory havoc. Thankfully, no one asked whether the victims and their families were NRA supporters or gun control advocates.
The tragedies were not due to a guns versus no guns or Republicans versus Democrats failure to prevent the massacres. Encouraging alignment with one side or the other of a binary choice, whether pro-gun versus anti-gun views or political party loyalty, ducks our moral responsibility to face the choices we must make to minimize the risk and impact of the next unpredictable act of extreme evil.
It is tempting to simplify ethically complex decisions into “in or out” or “yes or no” choices. But decisionmaking can’t be unraveled into black and white threads. Binary questions are unrealistically oversimplified and ethically dangerous. Framing questions in “either or” terms can squander opportunities and create blind spots where risk lurks. Binary choices can cost lives.
Instead of framing debates as “all of nothing” and “either or” questions, we must identify and segregate the extremes and ask under what conditions we can proceed down the middle. Laws permitting civilians to carry assault weapons or stash away arsenals, for example, are at one extreme, an unacceptably black end of a grey spectrum. But the other end, prohibiting civilian possession of firearms altogether is also unacceptable. We can ask for a more specific assessment of rights without taking away the freedom to carry reasonable guns under reasonable conditions.
Binary questions rarely solve underlying problems. Brexit, a historic “in or out” choice, could only result in divisiveness and waste. President Trump’s proposed Mexico border wall is a physical metaphor for inflexible and ineffective management of immigration. France’s prohibition on surrogacy sends wealthy prospective parents abroad but doesn’t protect surrogates anywhere from abuse.
Binary questions undermine cooperation and collective responsibility. Binary questions such as “allow or prohibit” can impede innovation and social progress. London’s transport authority chose to kick Uber out of the city rather than issue it a permit contingent on its resolving the city’s legitimate safety concerns, at the expense of innovation, jobs, and transport options for people who can’t afford cabs.
Jonathan Taplin calls out “false choices” in his book “Move Fast and Break Things,” such as claims by technology companies that they cannot achieve positive goals, for example, contributing to citizen efforts to confront an authoritarian government, if they are regulated in other areas. Similarly, companies should be able to contribute combatting online sex trafficking when they can filter pornographic content. In many cases such as these, we should be asking “to what extent” we proceed.
Another common kind of binary question, “all or nothing” framing, can elicit responses that back us into a corner. Failure to follow through leaves a credibility crisis rather than a solution. President Obama’s “red line” in Syria undermined the credibility of future threats and failed to stop subsequent chemical weapons attacks. The United States should not frame our differences with North Korea in a way that backs us, or Kim Jong Un, into a single catastrophic option. The consequences are unthinkable.
Some clearly acceptable and unacceptable cases still remain. White supremacists in Charlottesville, revenge porn, and Equifax’s mismanagement, including alleged insider trading, of its recent data security crisis are a few that come to mind. Still, it’s evident that “yes or no” questions are inadequate. Effective questions, on the other hand, help solicit outcomes, not actions. What matters is a commitment to results.
Effective questions reframe “A versus B” as “How can we achieve X?” or “What are the relevant options? Do we need better options? Who should do what?” To tackle mass shootings, for example, the question is “What should each stakeholder’s responsibility be to keep schools safe from gun tragedies?” Reframing opens the discussion to many possible answers but relentlessly focuses on solving a problem.
Effective questions bake in accountability to all stakeholders. They emphasize transparency and delivering results, not seeking perfection or dismissing the risk of open-ended liability, while maximizing the benefits of innovation and considering the ethical downside of stifling an innovation. They acknowledge cases where lines in the sand are appropriate or where they could result in unfixable consequences.
Finally, effective questions help us probe perspectives by asking where on an ethical spectrum the challenge fits. How do we relate the right to carry assault weapons to other issues involving legal behavior that some consider morally reprehensible, such as the vigilante hacking of extramarital dating site Ashley Madison, smoking cigarettes, legalizing marijuana, or getting abortions?
Decisions must navigate ethical grey zones. Many important decisions, from gene editing to the sharing economy, have right and wrong on both sides. Most require monitoring over time as technology evolves and society learns. Often the question is not right versus wrong. Rather, it is how to ferret out the most right, the least wrong, and the best steps to mitigate the risks of missed opportunities. Put differently, the right question is often not whether, but when under what conditions, and with what contributions from various stakeholders.
Susan Liautaud, Ph.D., is the founder of the Ethics Incubator, where she advises corporate, nonprofit and government organizations and leaders on ethics matters. She teaches ethics classes at Stanford University and is chair of the ethics policy committee at the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow her on Twitter @SusanLiautaud.