Controversial Conundrums
No free rides - just a push to get started

These brief essays are not expected to resolve complex issues, but may suggest some ways that opposing viewpoints might be coaxed a bit closer together.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
Henry L. Mencken

tangent logo How Can We Get Out of this Mess?

New situations require new guidelines. If emotions get involved, efforts to find a solution might seem to drag on forever. Rather than argue about a specific situation, sometimes it helps to think about the next time. What could prevent this problem from recurring? What might prevent the next similar situation from becoming equally serious?

Did the problem result from ignorance of potential consequences? Was it insufficient preparation? Were people just doing what they had always done with expectations of success without unpleasant consequences? If so, perhaps the consequences are just the price of an education, and responsibility should be shared by everyone.

If you find a way to prevent the situation from happening again, or at least find a way to keep it under control, perhaps your solution can help with the current problem.

tangent logo Should We Vote On It?

In math class, students don’t vote for their favorite solution to an equation.  Those who don’t understand the problem seek help from the teacher or others with a better understanding.  Brainstorming among people with a partial understanding may reveal the answer even though no one person in the group previously understood the entire solution.  Trusting an expert or a committee may be necessary with complicated problems, but you should remain alert for unpleasant consequences or unintended side-effects from self-serving decisions.

Not all problems have an easy, fixed solution.  Different starting assumptions can lead in very different directions.  If there is no way to reconcile these initial assumptions, set your personal opinions aside for a moment and explore each of the variations individually.  At this point, nobody needs to agree to accept any of the possible solutions.  Think of it as making a complete list for further consideration.  Does everyone who starts with the same assumptions, and evaluates the problem impartially, arrive at a similar solution? Are there intermediate assumptions that can be reconciled? Repeat the process at each split until everyone agrees on each of the variations.  If there are more than two variants, are any solutions similar enough to be combined?

Now consider each individual solution.  Are there unintended side-effects or other consequences to consider?  Explore each of these new problems and possible solutions in the same way you evaluated the original problem, and continue looking for ways to combine similar solutions.  Can everyone agree to shorten the list by rejecting some solutions?

Of the various possible solutions, are there any that most people can agree on?  Is there a solution most people would accept as their second choice? Are there 2 possible solutions from the list that most people would be comfortable choosing between?

tangent logo  Diversity and University Admissions

Many consider a diverse student body important for a quality education. Before taking on this issue, it can help to ask some fundamental questions about education itself.
  • What are the most important goals of an education?
  • What should graduating mean to a new acquaintance or prospective employer who knows little more than what degree was earned and where?
  • What might reasonably be expected of a university graduate that might not normally be expected from most high school graduates?

These questions have many possible answers, which need not be the same for every institution. Establishing some specific educational goals provides a foundation for additional questions about how best to achieve them, and how diversity might be relevant.

  • What are some specific examples of how diversity contributes to stated educational goals?
  • How are educational goals reflected in class content or special programs?
  • What types of diversity (ethnic, racial, economic, linguistic, political, etc.) are important?
  • What type of person has the desired attributes?
  • What are some ways these people can be identified?

Is it enough that admitted students merely have the minimum skills and knowledge to get a reasonable benefit from the curriculum, or does a particular institution’s educational objective require starting with only the very best students?

If diversity is a worthwhile part of a complete education, do the established admission criteria produce the needed mix? If not, can the admission requirements be modified in a way that’s consistent and fair to all? Could prospective students receive additional preparation before applying?

tangent logo  Abortion

For reasons that vary from one individual to the next, most people agree that it’s wrong to kill humans. One of the fundamental questions in the abortion controversy is whether an embryo or fetus is fully human. There are many ways to evaluate "humanness" (medical, biological, functional, etc.) with many different opinions about which has the highest priority. Some say human DNA and active cell development is enough, while others insist on functional independence from the mother.

Another point of contention is the method by which the issue should be resolved. Voting is generally considered appropriate for some issues, while other rights are considered so fundamental that no majority may revoke them.

These fundamental differences have little in common and don’t provide a good starting point for a purely rational evaluation. In such a case, it can be helpful to begin at a higher level that may broaden the foundation. More people can agree that it’s not desirable to kill a fetus without some compelling reason. This opens up the possibility of establishing conditions that encourage people to minimize the possibility of unwanted pregnancy, and provide positive incentives for choosing alternatives to abortion. Some possible incentives are financial help, medical care, assistance with a career, and general support in daily life.

tangent logo  Medical Care

Are hospitals, drug manufacturers and medical insurance providers just businesses like any other or is something bigger involved? Should obtaining medical care be just another business transaction?

Difficulties arise because many people believe that something more fundamental overrides normal business practices. If someone can’t afford needed medical care, who is responsible for the expenses and should there be any limits on the total payments required of this third party? Should the payer have any control over provided treatment?

Regardless of who pays, reducing the cost of medical care would be helpful. Some possibilities to consider are:

  • Fixed compensation for injuries or complications from inappropriate or incompetent treatment.
  • Limited-service clinics with lower expenses.
  • Drugs developed with research grants and sold at cost.
  • Free training for doctors who agree to work at a reduced salary, or in areas with substandard medical care.
  • Open sharing of medical successes and failures to improve future care.

tangent logo  Same-sex Marriage

Since the most contested questions are basically about what kind of marriages should be legal, or recognized by governments, the approach presented here will not necessarily extend to religious services.
  • Why should a government care who gets married?
  • Is government simply recognizing a social need or desire in it’s citizens, or is some larger purpose served by recognizing a marriage as something in itself?
  • Does a marriage have implications beyond the social relationship the married partners have with each other?
  • Does a marriage serve some purpose within society beyond the needs and desires of the individuals for a certain type of relationship with each other?
  • Can those who object to same-sex marriage empathize with the desire for the benefits of marriage?
  • How would existing marriages be affected by a new marriage of two men or two women?