2014-08-04

Don't Put Yourself In Someone Else's Shoes

I.
Consider if you will, the case of Wendy, who recently asked her friend Penny to help her plan a dinner party. Penny declined, explaining that she wanted instead to go to a big concert with another group of friends, without Wendy. Wendy explained  that she really needed Penny's help with the dinner party - she was in a big pickle and needed a helping hand! Penny, however, had a once-off chance to see a favorite musician, and that meant a lot to her. Ultimately, Penny went to the show and Wendy planned her dinner party alone, but Wendy was so upset about it that she uninvited Penny to the party itself. Penny didn't understand why Wendy was so upset; Wendy didn't understand why Penny didn't understand. It was a big mess.

Complex ethical systems might help us arrive at the best decisions in our lives, but they seldom offer deep insight into the every-day disputes we're most likely to face. Knowing that Penny is a consequentialist utilitarian offers no deeper insight into whether Penny made a good utilitarian decision or a selfish and unhelpful one.

Penny's actions may be justified or unjustified. Wendy's anger may be justified or unjustified. The question is, how do we know? How could Wendy and Penny sort it out?

II.
For as long as we've been introspecting, human beings in every known culture have chosen to differentiate between "the heart" and "the mind." Today, we tend to view the dichotomy as being one between the "emotional centers in the brain" and the "regions of the brain associated with abstract reasoning." Our language is getting more precise, but the situation remains the same.

Strong proponents of logic and reason, among which I count myself, often like to argue that coming to the correct conclusions means preventing one's emotions from getting the best of one. They suggest that we try hard to follow our most stoic logical heuristics to prevent momentary passions from interrupting our good sense. One can hardly find fault with their suggestions.

Still, even at our most logical it's impossible to ignore our emotions. You don't decorate your house, for example, based on which furnishings have the highest probability of appealing to people in general. Instead, you only look at things that have the highest probability of appealing to you, personally. From that array, you select those furnishings which you like best. Logic has precious little to do with it.

While one might argue that matters of taste fall outside the purview of logic and reason, I would defy anyone to be able to draw a line between matters of taste and "other matters" reliably and predictably. Our ideas about fairness are matters of taste, as are our ideas about moral responsibility. Our obligations to other people - even those closest to us - are subjective value judgments. We can use logic to determine what we feel is the best course of action in light of value preferences, but we must always remember that our starting point is a subjective one.

In short, even the most logical approach to decision-making is couched on a set of assumptions that are based on personal, emotional values. The danger here is that if one is especially dedicated to reasoning, then one will be inclined to gloss-over the fact that the emotional inputs are driving the whole decision-making process.

This is easy to see when considering matters of pure taste. Suppose there were an argument between Tom and Faye about which movie to see that night. Tom prefers comedies and Faye prefers action films. Tom might reason that all of Faye's suggestions are worse movies than his suggestions based on an analysis of how many good jokes Faye's suggestions have in them. He'd be correct, assuming Faye places as high a (subjective) value on good jokes in movies as Tom himself does; unfortunately for Tom, Faye has other criteria on which she forms judgments about movies.

"Duh, Ryan," you might be thinking, "Movie taste is subjective." I agree.

But so are arguments between friends.

III.
Here's what definitely will not help sort things out between Penny and Wendy: Putting themselves in the other's shoes.

Why not? Because the only thing that accomplishes is to reiterate that both Penny and Wendy made the right decision. Penny, based on Penny's values, decided that going to the concert was the best choice. Wendy, based on Wendy's values, thought the Penny should have helped her plan the party. There is no reason to believe that either would feel differently in the other's shoes. In fact, such an exercise might actually make things worse.


Musician Ian Thornley once wrote, "I've never been played as the villain in the stories I've told." This is a nice, poetic way of saying that we have a tendency to excuse our own actions through rationalization. I'm not a bad person, you might say, I was completely justified in making the decision I made.

The risk here is that Penny, in putting herself in Wendy's shoes, will still come to the same conclusion: "If I were Wendy, I'd be more understanding about the concert!" And Wendy could certainly do the same: "If I had a friend in need like me, I'd gladly miss a concert to give her a helping hand!"

What good does that do?

IV.
Instead, Wendy and Penny need to assess their own behavior, based on the other's value system. Only then will either stand a chance of seeing where the other is coming from. Penny will start to understand how important the dinner party was to Wendy, and will begin to understand the pain Wendy felt when Penny went to a concert instead of helping out. Wendy will start to understand how important the concert was to Penny, and will begin to understand the surprise Penny experienced when Wendy reacted poorly over Penny's decision.

Even this has no guarantee of solving the argument, but at least it's a start. It's a start that many arguments, unfortunately, never reach.

The next step is even more difficult: Wendy and Penny must agree to negotiate with each other in good faith. Penny needs to know exactly what Wendy's expectations are. Wendy needs to know exactly when Penny is willing to help plan dinner parties.

In the end, it may be that Penny is simply never willing to help Wendy plan dinner parties. Penny is entitled to set that boundary, and Wendy must respect it; but Wendy, too, is entitled to decide whether Penny's unwillingness to help means that Wendy no longer feels close enough to her to invite her to parties.

Realistically, when the true parameters are known, Penny has a strong incentive to do more helping, and Wendy has a strong incentive to be more forgiving. It's likely that, through negotiation, they could find the point that makes the most sense. Since nobody can turn back time, what likely happens next is that Penny expresses deep and heartfelt empathy toward Wendy's feelings about the party, and probably apologizes for not being there when she was needed. Wendy, for her part, will ideally learn that her plans and the feelings attached to them are not necessarily foremost in the minds of her friends, and that she should forgive friends who occasionally fail to realize the significance of the requests she makes.

In the future, it's likely that Penny will be more attentive to Wendy's feelings when Wendy makes a special request of Penny; and it's likely that Wendy will make more effort to make her feelings clear, and to understand how those feelings relate to Penny's needs and desires.

But neither Wendy nor Penny will ever reach that point by merely placing themselves in the other's shoes, by merely swapping circumstances. Resolving this kind of conflict requires more than swapping footwear. One has to swap values.