On Choosing Ideas Part 3 – The Hierarchy of Ideas
The first post in this series only answered how to determine which idea should be implemented over another idea aimed at solving the same problem, what I will term horizontal idea differentiation. Basically, the first post answered how do I know which idea is better to solve a problem when, each of the ideas to be analyzed have common goal/problem to be applied to. This post provides the analysis to answer how to know when one domain of ideas is more important than another that solve different problems? I term this concept vertical idea differentiation.
The importance of this post should not be understated. We live in very turbulent geopolitical times. 2 Additionally, there are more activist groups, think tanks, lobbyists, campaign spending, protests than ever before all trying to persuade our elected officials to enact their agenda, claiming their ideas are the most important. With all of this noise, it is no wonder why we are living in very unproductive legislative times as well. 3 Moreover, given the complexity of some ideas and the fact that the individuals educating others on the importance of their idea are working professionals, in particular academic researchers, we must acknowledge that there is a significant amount of personal bias given that most of these individuals are confined to one area of specialization, which causes them to think what they are doing is most important, or at worst, not admitting another idea is more important than the one they have specialized in.
One of the most well-known examples of where vertical idea differentiation has been utilized is when Professor Lawrence Lessig stated in his pitch to get ordinary citizens to understand how important his ideas he outlined in Republic Lost where he stated that the problem of campaign finance in our elections is not the most important idea, it is simply the first problem that has to be solved. 4 For me this is problematic, the first idea to be solved by definition should be the most important, if it was not then why are we implementing it first. In an extreme example, given Professor Lessig’s statement, his idea should be implemented first over, for example, finding a solution to a six-mile-wide meteor heading for Earth. Obviously, given Professor Lessig’s intelligence and pedigree he could not have possibly meant this. While Professor Lessig does elaborate as to why his idea of fixing our elections is the first idea that needs to be implemented, I believe more could have been done.
This post will attempt to provide a framework of considerations to determine which domain idea is more important than another. This post can aid in the prioritizing political agenda both on the right and the left from the politicians themselves to the activist groups seeking to pursue them. Additionally, this post will assist individuals to determine which ideas are actually more important. Thus, a situation becomes possible that someone advocating for limitations on carbon emissions, can simultaneously also advocate for a more important idea because they would now be endowed with an analysis showing them that there are other ideas that are more important than their own – hopefully.
Before I begin, I can already see the hordes of people saying who am I to determine that an idea I am seeking to implement is more important – what arrogance I have! Nevertheless, I again point to an extreme example – it would be nothing short of immoral to state that ending the use of fidget spinners in U.S. schools is more important than solving the problem of an impending six-mile-wide meteor impact because on its most basic level the use of fidget spinners in US schools effects 50 million students, 5 and a meteor impact of the stated magnitude could affect not only all 7.6 billion human lives but also all life on the only planet we know (or are able to adequately get to) that can harbor life. While utilizing logical extremes in an argument can be a logical fallacy, 6 the practice can be used initially to understand which side of an argument – at least initially – is “more correct.” In this case, the example I provided clearly establishing that some ideas are more important than others, and simply needs an analysis to explain and argue why that is the case. Ultimately, no analysis can be comprehensive or even conclusive. Instead, this post attempts to list the most important considerations when determining which ideas need to be implemented or problems that need to be solved over another idea or problem.
Laying the foundation
To determine how the analysis should be constructed, we first have to define what “important” means as importance inexorably creates a hierarchy which we can use to prioritize ideas. Taking a page out of well-established principles of statutory construction, we will first look to the dictionary. 7 Taking the top result from three widely used sources we find that “important” means:
- Google Dictionary: Of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being. 8
- Dictionary.com: Of much or great significance or consequence. 9
- Merriam-Webster: Marked by or indicative of significant worth or consequence, valuable in content or relationship. 10
Each of these definitions have essential parts which can be better explained by creating a unified definition that is reasonable given the information above. For purposes of this post, important will be defined as of significant value or consequence to survival, well-being, and success to both the society at large and the individual. I am using this definition for several reasons. To create a more concrete definition we need to discuss each of the items in the stated list separately.
Survival, the first of the three listed items in the definition (i.e. survival, well-being, and success), is by definition the most important variable to an individual. Without survival, nothing can be important because you would be dead. It is axiomatic that something that is/can be important → You are alive. By definition, importance is a concept that is attached to an idea, concept, or object by a living creature, if anything the very idea of survival is the driving force of evolution itself.
Continuing down the list, well-being must be second to survival because although you would be alive, thus satisfying the first consideration in our list, you could be suffering. One such example could be one who is on the verge of death from dehydration. Just because you are alive does not mean you are living.
Considering the third variable, we get to success. Success can be codified in an individual and subjective way, but there are some essential elements of success that are universally understood. However, codifying a framework for subjective experiences is beyond the scope of this post, while it will be addressed in a future post for simplification, we can actually define success as its ability to facilitate the first two items in our importance list.
Lastly, importance should apply to both the individual and society. Put simply, while individual well-being, at least in the short run, can be “important,” as is the case with survival, it is irrefutable that one’s well-being is also intrinsically tied to the well-being of the society in which they inhabit. Additionally, because of the consideration that importance to the individual in the short run and importance to society in the long run, or vice-versa can have adverse outcomes, to smooth the analysis both of them should be considered simultaneously. Thus, at the very least we can determine that if an idea does not promote the survival or well-being of both the society and the individual it must be less important than a one that does.
From this we can already extrapolate a hierarchy, the most important ideas consider the survival, well-being, and success of both the individual and society. Less important are those ideas that only facilitate the survival, well-being, and success of just the society. Less important than that are ideas that only facilitated the survival, well-being, and success of the individual. And the least important ideas do not facilitate the survival, well-being, and success of either the society or the individual.
Before continuing, it is important to justify why I have placed ideas that facilitate the survival, well-being, and success of the society over the individual as I am certain that at least modern philosophers would find the mere utterance of this principle abhorrent and nothing short of immoral. 11 However, while I also alluded to this principle in my previous post and have failed to define my reasoning or even what constitutes a society, 12 I will once again postpone my reasoning for another future post. Instead, please accept this position as true.
Vertical Idea Differentiation Analysis
To properly determine which sets of ideas is more important there are two avenues of factors. First, there is understanding the nature and magnitude of the harms and benefits that would result absent the implementation of the idea. Second, there is who/what is harmed or benefited from the implementation of the idea.
Detailing the Nature and Magnitude of the Harm
- How immediate will the consequences of not fixing the stated problem/not implementing the idea be experienced? (i.e. Immediacy) For example, without the implementation of this idea, would death be immediate → If yes, this idea becomes the most important idea. Given the limited time all humans have on this planet, the easiest determination is the sooner a problem impacts us, depending of the other factors, it is potentially more important.
- Does the stated problem get worse over time? Linearly, Exponentially, Logarithmically? (i.e. Incipiency) The purposes of this question is to ensure the answer to the first question is not distorted in any way. Essentially, just because the consequences of the lack of implementing an idea are not immediate does not mean it is not important. The most obvious example this applies to is climate change.
- How long will it take to implement the idea, gain mass market appeal (if needed), and to at least start reversing any negative consequences that have already taken place from the lack of implementing the idea? (i.e. Duration)
- Should solution not be implemented how irreparable is the damage (in time and money), and to whom does the damage implicate and to what degree (a country, citizens, state, etc)? (i.e. Irreparability) Obviously, if the consequences deriving from a problem are irreparable, it is more important than consequences that are not.
- How many problems is this harm linked to? Does solving this problem alleviate other problems? (i.e. Connectivity)
Detailing who is Harmed/Benefited
- What is the absolute number of people affected by the problem and benefited by the solution? (i.e. Numerosity)
- How individualized is the harm? (i.e. Individuality)
- Where will the harm take place? (i.e. Locality)
- How is the environment impacted?
The following considerations while not dispositive should be discussed. The reason they are not necessary to determine importance is simple, given the lack of either of these variable does not mean the idea is not important. A simple example is just because I cannot observe the six-mile meteor that is going to hit our planet does not mean it is not important.
- How observable is the problem? (i.e. Observability) Not an absolute requirement, but makes understanding the problem much more likely, and thus support from the general public is much easier to obtain.
- How understandable is the problem to the average person? (i.e. Understandability) While I hate to admit it, most solutions to a problem need to have the backing of the majority of people or at least the decision makers. Ideas that are not understandable will most likely not be implemented.
- What is the ability/cost/probability of implementation of the solution, the number of people required to be involved, the amount of financial resources, the amount of technology to solve the problem – do we have the technology to solve the problem or does it need to be developed)? (i.e. Feasibility and Dependency) This is the hardest variable to contend with given the human spirit of trying to succeed regardless of the odds. While I acknowledge that there are some situations where the odds should not matter, especially given the consequences – consider again the six-mile-wide meteor hitting Earth – on a more practical side these variables must be considered. It should be noted that trying should not be conflated with taking any conceivable action. A misunderstanding of this point could lead someone to pray that an individual’s stage four cancer to disappear. Trying, in this case, is limited to reasonable actions with verifiable results that simply have a low probability of success.
- Are the people causing the problem internalizing the harms they are causing? If so, how? (i.e. Externalities) It is important to consider whether the individuals potentially created the harm(s) both (1) acknowledge the problems existence and (2) willingness to participate in the solution.
I eagerly acknowledge that the framework stated above does not lead to concrete answers – although it does provide the considerations for people to consider and have the debate. Nevertheless, as I have shown, it is obvious there is a hierarchy of ideas. It is up to us to admit to ourselves and to others that some ideas are more important than even the ideas we truly believe in and have spent most of our lives advocating for. Given the never-ending onslaught on nefarious actions by our politicians, there is as philosopher Sam Harris has stated a “war of ideas.” 13 Who wins this war will determine the nature and distribution of power in our society. There could not be more at stake. We need to convince people that climate change is real, abortion is a right, marijuana should be legalized, antitrust should be actively enforced, and more. I am more than happy to admit while antitrust is the most important cause for me and it is the cause I will spend the rest of my life advocating for and studying, antitrust is NOT the most important cause or issue. While effective antitrust enforcement can redistribute power in many circumstances, antitrust does not aid with how to properly structure our government to insulate it from corporate control, outside interests, or foreign powers, and certainly does not provide a basis to create rules that prevent political corruption. Many scholars, such as Lawrence Lessig and Yascha Mounk, especially since the election of Donald Trump, show that our republic is vulnerable and it currently being weakened. I hope others follow suit and admit this as well so we can all support ideas that are on top of the hierarchy.
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