November 27, 2021 By alex

Why is the definition of the problem in decision-making technologies so difficult? The PEACE method.

This PEACE method of decision-making has been developed by Lou Marinoff, the leader of the global philosophical practice movement today, and has been presented in his international bestseller Plato not Prozac. The method is predominantly rational, as Marinoff himself prefers a more rational approach to philosophical counseling, and consists of 5 phases designated by the acronym PEACE.

The first phase, “Problem”, includes the definition of the problem to be solved. This seems a fairly trivial task, for without knowing what problem one is solving, no solution is likely, however in practice it is arguably the most difficult phase, because, while we often sense that something is wrong, that we are stuck in a life situation, or that, as an organization, we have an issue which must be addressed, we often can’t quite put our finger on the precise problem and tend to meander around many possible formulations and core issues.

There are many examples of this difficulty, but some concern everyday concerns that are particularly illustrative, such as dilemmas as to whether to establish various relationships with others and in what exact ways to proceed with them. I have just faced a small issue which illustrates the difficulty of locating the problem in rational decision-making that is addressed by phase ‘P’ in PEACE method. For a couple of years now, I have a personal blog webpage where I publish both philosophical material and current affairs comments, specifically related to issues of public and human rights and transitional justice in post-authoritarian contexts. Given that I live in an authoritarian society, rules by a non-democratic and highly violent political regime, these articles carry a degree of political and social risk. The political risk is in fact personal security risk, because as a result of my blog posts I have already been threatened with arrest, with sacking from my job at the University, and my car has been vandalized in broad daylight. The social risk is more interesting: it is the risk of the political commentary published on the website affecting my relationships with various people in the country who hold different ideological views. One such particular social risk arose today, just before I was about to start my writing of this section on PEACE method.

At the time of political turbulence, a few months before the election and in the midst of public protests and traffic stoppages by demonstrators across the country, which is potentially a serious threat to the government and could grow into major protests to overthrow them, I published a piece on the need for the new authorities, presumably after the change of the current regime, to specifically  investigate the crime of trade in children, in adoption and in child custodies, which is an endemic problem within the deeply criminalized synergy between the state security services and social services in my home country. In the piece, I argued specifically for the measures necessary to detect and penalize the abuse by corrupt prosecutors, social workers and politicians relating to the trade in children and in child custodies. After having published the piece, I forwarded the link to two other website editors, both of whom I considered friends. However, both are right-wing nationalists, however civilized and moderate ones. My relationship with them changed recently because of my left-wing oriented writing.

My dilemma with regard to publishing these pieces is whether to even send them to other media at all, as all media are controlled by specific politicians who are in the electoral race, so there are no truly independent media in the country, or to simply publish the pieces on my blog and publicize them on social networks, leaving it to any media to potentially carry the pieces over from my website. This dilemma is strategic, but it is also personal. I am not entirely sure how to resolve the issue, because some pieces really should be published on ‘political’ websites and in ‘political’ media in order to have any meaningful impact. However, after my last piece in the mainstream media, and after institutional reactions to it, the article mysteriously ‘disappeared’ from that mainstream website, owned by one of the politicians who is articulated in the public as the main opponent of the current government.

Upon deliberation, I discovered that despite the rational considerations about potential risk and waste of energy and time (it is the most elegant approach to simply publish on my own blog site and then leave it to however wishes to take over the articles), my main problem is in fact the issue that many of my friends perceive me in an ambiguous way ideologically: they are unsure what kind of ideological views I hold, because I do not hold any uniform ideological views at all: I take positions on various issues based on my personal values, and not based on some general political theory.

My internal dilemma is whether my public actions are sufficiently clear to avoid any ambiguity, however I fear that they cannot be clear enough in terms of a black-and-white ideology, for I don’t hold any such ideology. Thus, it seems that my problem here is not that my friends don’t wont to carry over my piece from my blog, that they politically and personally distance themselves from me, but rather it is my dilemma about my own public persona, whether I am actually saying what I am thinking in sufficiently articulate and unambiguous ways, in order to avoid any misunderstandings. This conclusion is not obvious: it positions my dilemma as entirely my own, regarding my own actions, while at first sight it seems as a dilemma concerning my relationships with my friends and acquaintances.

The same dilemma often occurs with regard to the very definition of the problem in many decision-making situations, however we tend to skip over this phase in the process, hurrying to reach the conclusion. It is imperative that the problem is accurately formulated, for at least two reasons: first, the understanding of the real problem behind our dilemmas and restlessness will often allow us greater peace of mind from the very outset, and secondly, only the proper formulation of the problem will yield an optimal solution. If my problem is not my relationship with my friends, but the fact that I don’t have a clear ideology, and there is a social expectation of those who are publicly active to adhere to a particular ideology, then it is a different problem from my friends’ intolerance or unwillingness to carry articles on their media which advocate views they personally disagree with. A solution to one type of the problem might well aggravate the other type of the problem.

In many situations, like in this one, a more productive way to formulate what seems to be a structural problem with others is to position it in the realm of communication: whether we actually adequately communicate what we believe, think and hold dear, and whether we do so sufficiently consistently for others to be able to understand and accept it.

Similar problems apply in more difficult life situations: marital disagreements, for example. Voicing one’s concerns, values and desires within a romantic or marital relationship is a skill, and it is a skill which needs to be learned and developed. Only a small number of people possess communication skills naturally: most of us must learn when, how and to what extent to say and elaborate in order to make our positions clear and to elicit empathy and understanding from our friends, spouses or romantic partners. Similar concerns apply to business relationships: there is usually a way not to say some things that helps weather many storms without the ship of our friendship with our colleagues becoming wrecked by the wild waters of the organizational disturbance. Equally, there are calming influences, but also resolute warnings when important lines are about to be crossed, which can help save the relationship. It is usually possible to isolate these strategies which would be effective by a rational method such as the PEACE method, however only if the first phase, the definition of the problem, is conducted with utmost care and sincerity, so that the actual, core problem is solved in the subsequent phases, rather than what seems like the ‘obvious’ problem, while it is in fact merely a conceptual façade for the core issue.

Aleksandar Fatić