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How to Evaluate an IF Policy Possibility—Part 2

Once you have a basic understanding of the policy possibility—what it says and what it doesn’t—the next step is to understand why someone might actually propose it. In order to do this, you will typically need to go beyond the description of the policy possibility, which typically says what the possibility would do but not why it would do it, to explore the beliefs, values, goals, interests, and concerns that motivate it. Here, you may need to reread the description of the reasoning behind the possibility a few times. You may need to use your imagination, and your creativity. And you may need to exercise a bit of courage as well.

Consider the description of the possibility from the Democratic Nation Building Report that we discussed last time: ‘This possibility would have us forgo all active efforts to build democratic nations abroad’. This description is typical of the descriptions of IF policy possibilities, and indeed of policy possibilities in general, in that it briefly describes what the possibility would do, but not the reasons why it would do it. If you had only this description to go on, then you would be at a loss as to how to evaluate it. You could say ‘salvation at last’ or ‘over my dead body’. But this is just a reaction, and not an evaluation. It may, no doubt, be based upon the concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that you have pertaining to democratic nation building. But there are all sorts of reasons why someone might think we should not try to build democratic nations abroad. And the concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that motivate this possibility may be very different from your own.

So what are the concerns that motivate this possibility? And what are the beliefs, values, goals, and interests that underlie it?

These are the questions that you have to ask yourself in order to understand the reasoning behind it. The question at this stage is not whether you like the possibility, or would be willing to support it. It is not whether you share the concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that motivate it. It is not whether the possibility is consistent with the beliefs, values, goals, and interests that underlie it. And it is not even whether or to what extent it is likely to address the concerns that motivate it. We will get to all of that soon enough. The question at this stage is what those concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests actually are. But in order to understand what they actually are, you will have to understand the possibility on its own terms. And in order to do this, you will typically have to see the possibility—and, indeed, the world—through the eyes of someone who might propose it.

But here, we may once again be our own worst enemies, just as we are when we are trying to understand what a policy possibility says and does not say. For we are all almost inevitably over-burdened by the conceptual baggage of our own concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests when we try to understand a policy possibility on its own terms. And if we are not very, very careful about it, then we may all too easily end up understanding it on our own terms instead.

Thinking seriously about contrasting policy possibilities is not for sissies. This is because it can be very difficult to understand a possibility on its own terms. It is because most of us are so locked up in the prisons of our own minds—so certain about the truth of what we believe and the falsity of what we don’t—that we never even recognize the bars. But it is also because trying understanding a policy possibility on its own terms can also be very frightening. It may force us to question some of our deepest and most fundamental beliefs, values, goals, interests, and concerns. And it may, for many of us, even challenge our own self-identities and self-understandings of who we are.

All of this would be bad enough. But there is also the human condition.

We may feel that we have understood a policy possibility on its own terms when it begins to make sense in light of the beliefs, values, goals, interests, and concerns that motivate it. But human beings are inherently fallible and always subject to error. So it is always possible that, even when everything seems to make sense, we do not really understand the things that we think we understand.  The upshot is that even when we think that we have understood a policy possibility on its own terms, we may always come across something that makes us think that we haven’t. So we should always remain open to the possibility that we have not yet understood a possibility on its own terms and must rethink the whole thing all over again.

This is the human condition. And there is no way around it. One of the most difficult things in life is how to know whether we are ahead or behind—whether, in other words, we disagree with someone because we do not quite understand the reasoning behind his beliefs, or because we understand the reasoning behind them well enough and believe that they are false.

But this is where your imagination, creativity, and courage come in. In order to understand a policy possibility on its own terms, you will typically have to break out of your own mental prison far enough and long enough to think how someone who thinks very differently from you might think. This will require your creativity to find a way to explore the world with someone else’s eyes. It will require your imagination to see how the world might look to someone who has very different concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests than you do. And it may even require your courage to question your most fundamental beliefs, values, goals, interests, and concerns—and, very possibly, the courage to become a very different person than you currently are by doing so.