The Council

There’s a type of logic puzzle called a “Knights & Knaves” puzzle, where the core concept is that some characters in the riddle always tell the truth and others always lie. You know this to be true (but don’t necessarily know which character is which), and your goal is to figure out some piece of information by talking to the characters.

Here’s the most famous one: There are two doors in front of you, guarded by two knights. One door leads to certain death, and the other door leads to escape from the labyrinth you’re in. You don’t know which one is which, but the two knights will answer questions for you. But here’s the thing – one knight always lies while the other knight only tells the truth, and you don’t know which is which. Asking only a single question, can you escape?

The answer: Ask either knight “Which door would the other knight say is the safe one?” Then escape through the other door. See, ‘Truth Knight’ would truthfully tell you that the other knight would say the death door is the safe one. ‘Liar Knight’ would lie and tell you that the other knight would say the death door is the safe one. So either Knight actually answers this question the same way, giving you the information you need.

Here’s the lesson: if you know someone’s motivations and patterns, then you can get very useful information from them, even when they would deliberately try to give false or inaccurate responses. As long as you know why and in which direction those false answers will skew, you can gleam what you need.

Here’s the deeper lesson: this applies to voices in your own head.

You have various emotional impulses, urges, and motivations that constantly vie for control over your actions, Left unchecked, the strongest of these in any given scenario will win, and your actions will be dictated by that voice alone. But that’s not good!

For instance, let’s say you see that someone has left a purse on a bus seat. Several voices might chime in: Greed tells you to grab the purse and the value within. Morality tells you to get the purse but take steps to return it to its rightful owner. Fear tells you to leave the purse alone; it could be a trap or someone could see you take it and assume (rightly or wrongly) the worst.

Which voice wins? In many cases, the voices battle quickly. The tools of this battle can be how hungry you are or how much sleep you got last night. It could be whether you recently lost money or whether someone recently gave you a compliment. Whatever happens, one of the voices wins, usually without your conscious choice, and that’s the action you take.

So Greed wins, and you snatch up the abandoned purse; someone spots you and accosts you and you end up arrested. Or Fear wins, and you leave the purse behind; for days after you feel guilty thinking of the elderly woman’s plight of lost, important things. Or Morality wins, and you pick up the purse to investigate its contents for noble reasons; but someone still spots you and (wrongly) accuses you of theft and you end up on the crime report anyway!

You see, any of these things could end badly, even the “good” ones. What’s the better process?

Let all these voices speak to you. Assemble them in a council, hear what they have to say, but understand what they actually want.

Greed tells you that you need every scrap of resource to survive. Greed’s heart is in the right place – it’s just trying to make sure you always have enough to survive and has no way of knowing that you already do. So remind Greed that the real currency of value to you isn’t a few extra dollars, but a functioning society – satisfy Greed’s desire for your material well-being. Morality wants you to do the right thing and help your fellow humans. Assure Morality that you agree and will do so, but you also don’t want to expose yourself to unnecessary risk. That’s where Fear comes in: it’s not that Fear wants you to be immoral, it’s just that Fear is looking out for you. Fear wants you safe. So let Fear know what you take its concerns seriously – so before just running up and grabbing the purse, you’ll alert the bus driver and say, “Hey, did you see who left that here? I think someone forgot their purse!” Now you’ve eliminated the risk that you’ll be misunderstood.

Each voice had something to contribute, once you understood the ways it will always miscommunicate. Morality doesn’t want you to put yourself at risk, it just wants you to act well. Greed doesn’t want you to steal, it just wants you to have enough. Fear doesn’t want you to ignore others, it just wants to keep you safe. Let every voice – and there are many beyond these three – tell you what they’re trying to tell you. Filter their messages as you need to in order to extract helpful truth from them. Let the Council advise you – but never let a single voice rule you.

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