Of course we all, scientists, mathematicians, or laypersons, solve many problems every day. While most of these are addressed and resolved routinely and efficiently, the speed and accuracy of our problem solving depends almost entirely upon one factor—how well we understand the background situation, i.e., the “environment” (examples discussed below will shortly clarify and extend this term) that contains and presents the problem we are trying to solve. Everyday problems are solved very quickly, often without realizing a problem is being addressed, because we generally know a lot about the various environments we inhabit. On the other hand, scientific and mathematical problems not infrequently take a long time to solve; this is usually because those working on the problem do not yet have sufficient information about their problem’s environment.
To correctly solve any problem then, we must correctly understand its “environment.” This is because a problem is only properly solved when its solution can be used within (or is accepted by) the relevant environment, without causing additional problems. Luckily, each problem’s environment also invariably contains the criteria which the problem’s solution must satisfy.
It is important to understand the meaning of the term “environment” when used in the current context. The word is used here to identify the physical, social, occupational, political, economic, religious, cultural, or other context (or an often complex combination of several such contexts) that contain the problem that confronts us. Recognizing that problems exist within one or more environments is key to understanding how problems (particularly moral ones) are solved.
Thinking about a few everyday situations may help to clarify this discussion. Consider dressing, cutting the lawn, and cooking a meal. The choices to be made in each case can be thought of as being minor problems to be solved, and we’ll review each in turn.
When we select something to wear from a choice of clothes, we refer to the occasion or situation for which we are dressing in order to decide what to wear. This is so whether we are dressing for work, to go on a trip, climb a mountain, or just lounge in the house. We choose clothes by considering what’s available (e.g., clean, comfortable, appropriate, etc.) and the circumstances pertaining when wearing the clothes (e.g., temperature, weather, others present, etc.), although for routine occasions this may happen so quickly that we don’t notice that we are solving little problems. The criteria or standards that determine the success of the eventual choice made is clearly located in the environment that presents the problem—in some of the situations just mentioned, the work, social, local, or home environments. (Furthermore, note that the environment also determines what kind of goal can be achieved successfully; for instance, it is not possible to receive praise for being fashionably dressed if no one else will be present when lounging in the house. More about this in Practical Decisions.)
Consider the second example. I look out of the window and notice that the grass needs cutting, perhaps just a small problem now but one that will grow if neglected. So I make the decision to mow the grass later in the afternoon. In this case, note that I appear to be driven to meet some standard of lawn appearance, and that this standard has been set by my external environment—the society and culture in which I live. If I had earlier decided to ignore society’s conventions, or if I lived in a place where people did not bother about such matters, then long grass would not be seen as a problem, and I may not even notice how tall the grass had become. Note, again, that when there is a problem, it is an external environment that both thrusts the problem upon me, and that holds the standards or criteria to be met when correcting the problem. Living in town, I would probably have to mow the grass weekly; living in the country, once or twice a month might suffice.
Now the third example: imagine preparing a meal. When I am in this situation I find that before I can choose a menu or select a method of cooking I must first think about who will be eating the meal, what food is available, where I might have to go to buy missing ingredients, what might be nice to eat today, what has been recently eaten by those attending, other goals I might want to achieve with these particular guests, and so on. All of these thoughts relate to my environment (the physical, social, nutritional and emotional elements mostly, in this case) and this environment limits what I can do if I want to cook and serve a successful meal.
Note that, besides referring to external environments we also refer to what’s inside our minds, our “internal environment,” because a great deal of relevant information has been stored there and some of it is used in making any decision. For example, our mind tells us what cooking skills we have, whether or not the lawn mower is in working condition, when a particular suit was last worn, etc. But, in all cases, our mind is only providing previously acquired information relevant to the situation we are in, and this information always comes from some knowledge of external environments of one kind or another.
Sometimes, our own bodies may present a problem to the mind (a craving for salty food, for instance), in which case it is our body’s feelings or standards of well-being that have to be included in the problem-solving process. This is still an example of a problem stemming from an environment external to the mind (the organs or systems that are calling for salt are external to the mind. Problems that arise solely within the mind are special situations, and will be discussed in section four.)
We should mention here that dressing or cooking to suit nothing other than our own current feelings is also, like the salt-craving example, an attempt to satisfy a mood biochemically caused by some agent (dopamine or serotonin, perhaps) within our body or brain, i.e., it emanates from a source that is again external to our mind. We choose the solution that best satisfies our desires. In cases like these, we might say we “go with the flow.” (A few of us may try to do this much of the time—living in the “here and now” was popular a few decades ago and is still a desired behaviour for some.) However, simply responding to biochemical desires is an emotional, not reasoned, response to a situation, and not of much pertinence to the current discussion.
To recapitulate and summarize this section: problems can never be solved without reference to the particular environment that presents them. This will always be true, for several reasons. First, we have to know, understand and explore the properties of a problem’s environment to determine what is causing a problem. Second, each environment contains the criteria that must be met if a problem is to be solved without causing additional problems. And, third, we must know what the environment will permit us to achieve before we can select an achievement to strive for. Only once we understand what is causing the problem, what can or can’t be done about it, what end-results are achievable (and desirable to us—more about this in Practical Decisions), can we then solve the problem. In short; to succeed, we must know what we want and can do.
Well, that is probably enough about how we solve practical problems; now we are ready to investigate what we do to solve moral problems.