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Time, Reaction and Utility

It is necessary to balance ends with means. A simple test of action is utility; will the chosen means deliver the desired end?  A pragmatic approach. This applies to whatever way of using power on the continuum we chose (from Influence through to Terror). If all we measure is the immediate outcome – someone or some group did what we wanted – result.  It is just not that simple.

A systems approach helps us think this through, when we conceptualise an action as part of a system we can see that there is always a re-action. We often represent the re-action as feedback especially when we want to be able to learn from experience. However even then we ca be misled. Feedback is conventionally drawn as a loop back to the beginning, and that can be a problem. What starts life as a shorthand gets used as a mental model - we see one iteration, and one result, given our cultural predisposition to look at things in the short term we mis what should be obvious; because time has elapsed feedback is not going back to the beginning at all, rather it is going back to another instance in time of whatever the starting process is. The diagram below should makes this clear.  At the top is the simple system with a feedback loop, at the bottom is a schematic of what is actually happening. It is obvious when it comes to designing a process for planning meetings, we conventionally have the minutes of the previous meeting.

Now think of a simple example of military action that many people would support, a drone strike on a taxi carrying a known terrorist leader. I will ignore the due process issue that this is an executive action taking a life which we would (if it were on home soil) take through the courts. We have an intelligence systems with feedback, it tells us the terrorists movements and we have the technology to track them. We can order the strike and by having the drone circle round can ascertain the success of the kill. We can use feedback to make such strikes are more precise. Now if the taxi driver who was also killed, was not a terrorist but pressed into service members of his family may become radicalised and the successful action (viewed as one case) may lead to the need for many more actions in the future, at some point the number of these and their expense may call into question how sucessfull the action of drone strikes is. When it comes to the use of military power (i.e. force) the effort needed to maintain the desired outcome can be considerable.

In business similar logic applies. People have learned that the comparing the purchase price and selecting the cheapest often does not result give the best result - if the item purchased is poor and it is difficult to repair then over time costs mount up. In business it is common (but not always done) to require the analysis of the total lifetime cost. In politics simply arguing over outsourcing and privatisation vs. bringing services back in house misses this point - good governance requires diligence and constant oversight, something politicians, apparently, need to learn (Note: An Experience of Outsourcing)

Where this takes us is to a redefinition of power, we can no longer just be simplistic about it, we need to alter the definition as follows;

“the ability of a person or group to make another person or group carry out their wishes and keep on doing it

This is not just semantics, it is fundamental. Because all action brings about a reaction, if we want to make long lasting change the test of utility (pragmatism) becomes a very stringent one and hard to pass. That test is now not just will it work but will it work over time, will it work in the long run.  If, when we exercise political power, we use anything other than persuasion we have to factor the reaction into our thinking and the degree of power that needs to be exerted through time “to keep on doing it”.  If we have to keep exercising that power anew we’ll never stop, we’ll be locked in a constant battle and have to use lots of resources. 

If we want to succeed long term we need to adopt tactics that work long term. That means we cannot indulge in politics that elicit an adverse reaction that will undermine the end we seek. If we claim to want a batter society with co-operation and collaboration to the fore but we use top down techniques enforced through an elected dictatorship then we are not going to succeed. If dealing with the reaction leads to escalation the next time we have to exercise power we need to use more of it or stronger tactics, which often means moving along the continuum from persuasion to force. Unless we change the political agenda to move towards the quest for good governance then the parliamentary path of big change by one party, leads to the parliamentary path of big change in the other direction by another party and not to the transformation of society.

When we make the test one of utility and take time and reactions fully into account we can show that ends do not justify the means - lets unpack this and explore it.

The means need to be chosen deliberately to avoid reactions that make the achievement of the end more difficult or less likely. If the end is supposed to be permanent then it becomes necessary to win hearts and minds – when the ends involve bombing and/or invasion this become a high hurdle indeed, the intervening force causes a reaction, it can become the object of hatred just for using force and not being from here (Note: Difficulty of Anti-Guerailla Tactics)

Now consider - there are many historical examples where time alone results in the passing of an obnoxious regime, in recent times the velvet revolutions of 1989-91, or the ending Apartheid.

So what we get down to is the need for some very hard thinking about ends and means. To put it bluntly what is the balance of death caused by fighting a war to bring about regime change, compared to leaving it to collapse over time? It will either collapse over time, or reach an equilibrium that will remain unstable, it may evolve, but it will change. Nothing made by coercion is permanent - fighting a war will result in many people dying, waiting for it to collapse may take longer and many people may die. It seems to come down to the question of who gets to decide, who fights and who dies. If the war stops an evil regime killing its own people it can be framed as an ethical intervention. The war of intervention will certainly result in deaths so the question is this; by what right does the intervening power take responsibility for saying who will die and who will be saved. Without intervention it is obviously the regime that is at fault. Many regimes act against their own populations or segments of them, from a historical perspective this is, sadly, entirely normal. When the intervening power claims the moral high ground, when it says that it acts for the benefit of others it is incumbent on them to show that it is more than grandstanding or hubris but will actually work, over time. It has to do this because it is directly or indirectly, with apology or not, and despite being careful, taking on the responsibility of killing people. This set of people who will die (no doubt unfortunately and regrettably) are still deaths. They just happen to be a different (probably overlapping) set of people to those who would die anyway. Even if the initial calculation of the balance of deaths it favourable (a gruesome form of utilitarianism) the act of intervention will  cause a reaction which can easily jeopardise the achievement of the original end. (Note; Wars of Intervention)