Use The Hammer, Not Your Shoe


Clouds of philosophy, lessons from Ronald Dworkin:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
– Joni Mitchell

February 14 marked the passing of the great philosopher Ronald Dworkin.

I was fortunate to hear Dworkin lecture at Harvard a few years ago.  Unlike some academic speakers, who can be – well, a little too academic – he managed to fully engage the audience and show the value of his ideas in application, while still holding to the highest of intellectual and theoretical standards.  Here are a few lessons I took from his talk:

First:  choose a worthy topic.

Dworkin was certain that his topic was of relevance and substance, and asserted this unabashedly.  He began by discussing how we all have “clouds of political philosophy trailing behind us”.  We are all philosophers, even though few of us have chosen philosophy as our professional field of endeavor.  Similarly, I believe we are all investors:  we invest our time, our money, our energy – all day, every day.  Only a few of us have chosen investing as a profession.

Second:  do not skimp.  Do not rush.

Once he was sure a topic was important, Dworkin spent a LONG time studying it.  The particular lecture I attended focused on the notions of truth and purpose, a set of questions that Dworkin had been actively considering in his work for over a decade.  A decade still seems like an awfully long time to me, but I am gradually moving past accounting for time in increments of micro-seconds.

Third:  the lowest common denominator is just that.

Dworkin’s talk was rooted in his concern over the popular phrase “it’s true for me”, a sort of live and let live approach to truth that he found deeply unsatisfying:  if implies that either everything is true, or nothing is.  But we are talking about truth – this is important!   Dworkin’s passion on this point reminded me that there is always a cost to taking a lazy intellectual path, even if it seems simpler in the short run.

Fourth: offer some sort of solution.

Dworkin was not satisfied with thoughtfully describing a vital question, nor with analyzing it in great depth.  He offered a solution – a good one.  To combat the it’s-all-good approach and yet still allow for legitimate differences, Dworkin asked us to focus first on purpose, on the root, and only then to discuss interpretation of the issue at hand.  As he talked, I began to calculate the endless hours I had spent arguing about tactics, when really the essence of the debate was way back in strategy, or mission, or philosophy.

Fifth:  even philosophers can have an elevator pitch.

I am pretty sure he’d never describe it that way, but after two hours of nuance and fascinating detail, it was easy to summarize Dworkin’s key point:  most differences are difference in purpose, mistaken for differences in interpretation.  Clarify the purpose, and you save yourself a whole lotta trouble.

I can tell Dworkin’s lecture was brilliant because it was so easy to apply in all sorts of different contexts, and the results of re-framing conversations according to his observation are dramatic.  In my investment work, for example, we spend a lot of time debating alternative strategies, and much of that discussion is unproductive. The first question should not be whether a given approach is good or bad, better or worse – but rather why this approach suits the question at hand. What is the problem that matches this proposed solution?  It’s like growth and value styles of investing – neither one is right or wrong, but the approach needs to match the goals and situation at hand – the purpose.  If you are not clear on your purpose, you can easily choose a mis-matched set of tools for the job.

Or, as my dad would say, you’re hanging a picture.  Use the hammer, not your shoe.

Justice and truth are such subtle pointsthat our tools are too blunt to touch them accurately.
-Blaise Pascal

Ronald Dworkin obituary from The Guardian

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