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Omaha Magazine

Wicked Problems

Oct 27, 2015 01:06PM ● By Beverly Kracher
Two intractable sides battling back and forth.

“How can you be so heartless? Where is your sense of compassion?”

“Why do you foster weakness? Where is your respect for authority?”

The sides play themselves out on the issues of the day: 

Against capitalism: It exploits labor by preying on the powerless. 

For capitalism: It depends on hard work and creates prosperity. 

For gay marriage: Love and partnership is acceptable for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. 

Against gay marriage: A union between a man and woman is the only marriage sanctioned by God and the church.

Against capital punishment: We need to address the root causes of violence.

For capital punishment: Extreme penalties are needed to deter crime.

Like Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger in a courtroom drama striving to win by showing that one is right and the other is wrong, each side fights for superiority.

Policies about capitalism, gay marriage, and capital punishment are the kinds of issues that can’t be solved by getting more facts.

These are issues that are much more difficult to solve because the sides are shaped by disparate, deeply held world views, visions, and values. And these are what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber described in a 1973 treatise as “Wicked Problems.”

Jon Haidt, one of the premiere social scientists of our day, identifies, names, and addresses Wicked Problems in his compelling TED talk, “Three Stories About Capitalism.” It’s a must-see, as are all of his TED talks.

A grand thinker, Haidt recognizes two very important points.

First, Wicked Problems are polarizing. We tend to be judgmental about people on the other side. We demonize, castigate, and criticize anyone who holds the opposing view. When this happens, it is hard to arrive at acceptable solutions.

Second, assuming we want to build a stable, flourishing society, perhaps we should refrain from picking one side over the other. We could find a way to “go between the horns of the issue” and find some middle ground. For Wicked Problems, the middle ground can be established by finding a way to include both perspectives into one “supervalue.”

When it comes to the debate about capitalism, Haidt proposes “dynamism with decency.” This is somewhat like the “Conscience Capitalism” recommendation from John Mackey, the Whole Foods CEO. It is a way to bring together the two sides by joining the fundamental values for each into one supervalue.

This might be a good solution to the capitalism debate. By uniting values from each side, we may find a way to stabilize discussion and continue to move towards the betterment of all.

What about gay marriage or capital punishment? What is the supervalue that can help us solve these Wicked Problems? I’d love to learn what Haidt thinks. And I might be able to, since he is coming to town in October for the Business Ethics Alliance Annual Trustees Meeting.

But I fear that supervalues cannot solve gay marriage and capital punishment public policy issues. Not to make light, but these public policy issues are akin to couples’ disagreements. In any relationship there are two or three issues for which values, desires, or beliefs cannot be merged. Love or disdain for sports, yearning for or disinterest in travel, desire or not for kids…one person’s values win and the other losses. Someone ultimately has to give in and let the other side’s values reign.

Unraveling such public policy issues as gay marriage or capital punishment might not be about finding a supervalue. It may be about intentions.

A loving couple’s relationship succeeds because, through thick and thin, they live out their intentions to stay together no matter what. So, too, our Wicked Problems may never be “solved” in any true sense. But by not giving up, by coming back again and again, we co-create a society that has what it takes for longterm success.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of Business Ethics Alliance, and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University.