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Owning Problems

The following will be confusing if the difference between inevitable human falliability and fault is not under stood. Please see my page on shame

A practical problem is a circumstance in the world that bothers someone, and that someone wants to change. However, problem solving efforts themselves often produce conflict between people because of different conceptions about who should do what. Problems have three key components: fault, responsibility, and ownership.

Fault: A person is at fault if they act negligently or harmfully. This is a much more stringent standard than simply doing something someone else disagrees with! Not knowing enough to prevent a problem is not a fault unless one has been truly avoiding learning the critical issue. Fault has a moral connotation. Fault carries with it the idea that 1) the person at fault should make things right, and 2) punishment is appropriate. Punishment, however, never solves problems. It may, and this is highly debatable, prevent a recurrence of similar problems in the future. However, most punishment is about revenge, discussed below.

Responsibility: Responsibility comes from having both the ability to do something about a problem, and oversight for the area or group in which the problem occurs. For instance, parents have complete responsibility for young children, teachers a lot but not total responsibility for students, landlords have responsibility for how rental properties are used, etc Fault and responsibility may co-exist, but some solutions require more than the at-fault party can provide, and responsibility needs to enlarged. This is the case when liability insurance is triggered, for instance

Ownership: The owner of a problem is the person most affected, upset, or discontent. Owning a problem does not mean being at fault or being the only one that participates in a solution. However, the push for getting things changed must come from the actual owner. This may seem an unfair additional burden, but it is the only sane way since straightforward self-interest has a self-regulatory effect on situations. Ownership must be contrasted with victimhood. Victimization occurs of course. But not all bad situations stem from victimization, and it is not necessary to be a victim to get things changed. Sometimes young children, or truly disabled people need a proxy problem owner, or advocate, but the advocate needs to be uninvolved personally, or things will get muddied.

The crux of these points is, to minimize frustration, with any problem outside the rule of law, clarity needs to be found about who, if anyone is at fault, who owns the problem, and who is responsible. This does not guarantee a solution, only some sanity! Solutions can be unilateral or collaborative. Collaborative solutions of course have the most potential for satisfaction. But collaborative solutions require the cooperation of the other party or parties, which is rarely forthcoming if the concept of fault is insisted upon.

Some Easy Examples

  1. Someone with no car insurance hits your car causing trivial damage to their car but substantial damage to yours. They are at fault because they were negligent, you are the owner of a problem because you are the most affected , and your insurance company is responsible because they have the capacity to take care of it (and have agreed to respond in this circumstance.)
  2. Your eight-year-old throws a ball and breaks a neighbor's window. The neighbor owns the problem, and you are responsible because you are able to fix it. Your child may or may not be at fault. You may or may not be at fault if supervision was insufficient. Possibly no one is at fault.
  3. Painting your garage, you perch the paint can precariously on a ledge and then knock it over, spilling paint on the driveway. You are at fault, are responsible, and own the problem all at once.

Some Hard Examples

  1. You are divorced. Your spouse watches action-adventure movies that you deplore with the kids. You are livid. The kids like it but know you don't. You are clearly owner of the problem. No one is at fault since no laws, agreements, or cultural norms are being violated. You are tempted to get the kids to tell your spouse that they don't like it. This is trying to make the kids own your problem, but that is false and manipulative. Your spouse is responsible for what he or she does with the kids, but your spouse doesn't own this problem because he is fine with it. There is no unilateral solution. Perhaps you enlist his or her cooperation, but not by trying to convince him or her they are at fault.
  2. You allow your grown son and his family to move into your home when he loses his job. You discover that your son is using drugs, got fired for cause, is not likely to get another good job, isn't looking hard, and goes to the casino. But you like your-daughter-in-law and grandchildren. You start trying to manipulate your son into treatment or abstinence, because you don't want to kick him out. Your son may be at fault. You own a problem but the problem you own is not addiction. That is your son's problem even if he doesn't want to own it. You own the problem of being exploited, lied to, etc. You are responsible because this is your house and your means of living. You may not want to own your problem because the realistic response is not what you want to do. However, trying to own your son's problem actually puts you at war with your own self-interest. Self-interest can profitably be held in abeyance for a long time out of compassion or love for others, but being at war with one's self-interest creates a farce. This is the origin of the concept of 'tough love.'

Some Implications