Good Questions

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I started this blog with the premise that good questions can be more significant than correct answers. Early in my blogging, I discussed the matter of “frames” meaning the way we put our questions which to some extent predetermines the types of answers that can be made to fit. Clever framing can make all answers largely false; it can also make the answer which is actually closer to the truth of the situation in life sound silly, unfaithful, or even treasonous.

For example, “Do you want us (the United States or the nations of our supposed Western Civilization) just to surrender to the global Islamic plan to destroy us?” Framed that way, the question demands the answer, “No, of course not!” But the framing of the question assumes there is such a global Islamic plot (there is not), that all Muslim people think, live, and act in lockstep (they do not), and that Islamic is the one and only identity of people whose religion is Islam (it is not). The frame for the question is false, and so either a Yes or a No answer is predetermined to be misleading and potentially harmful to the individual, the nation, and the world. The falsely framed question also prevents positive steps toward alleviating the problems of terrorism and belligerent religious fundamentalism in our world.

The economist Amartya Sen (Identity and Violence) considers the problem of poorly framed questions in discussions of economic globalization and its effects on workers in poorer nations. One frequent but misleading question is, “Well, are those workers not better off than they would be without the jobs brought to them by economic globalization?” Framed that way, the question is meant to require the answer “Yes, they are better off than they would be if those jobs were taken away,” and that answer is meant to end discussion of fairness and justice.

Sen offers an analogy in family relations. A woman expresses her desire for greater equality of place, respect, and decision-making power in the family. She is told that if she doesn’t like the arrangements in the family and her “place” as a woman, she may leave and live without a family. That’s no answer but just dismissal of her legitimate request for changes that would make for greater fairness. It’s the old, “If you don’t like the food, don’t eat,” dismissal. The real question, of course, is, “How can inequalities in the family structure and dynamics be lessened?” That’s a question that opens the door to problem-solving approaches.

In the realm of global economics, it seems to be assumed that the existing arrangement set up by those with the power to set it up is the one and only arrangement possible – take it or leave it. That ultimatum, clearly, is a power play, not a realistic assessment of the actual possibilities for changes that would increase fairness. The dismissive question, “Aren’t they better off than they would be without their jobs?” presents a false either-or alternative (work or don’t) that protects those who benefit most from unfairness.

Making our questions good ones matters greatly to our prospects for solving problems. Forming good questions is the crucial skill of an educated person. But we continue to ignore that skill and settle for the “correct” answer picked from a field of prefabricated choices. We’re missing the boat.

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