Terry Pratchett, Richard Feynman and why “ought” is the wrong place to start.

One of the joys of re-reading Terry Pratchett is that different things catch my attention each time. On my current re-read of “Night Watch”. my attention was caught by Vimes’ thoughts on Captain Swing, the man who created Ankh-Morpork’s Secret Police.

Swing was trained as an Assassin. He was hired into the Watch as a Sergeant and immediately promoted to Captain because he was a gentleman. Swing was brighter than most of the people around him and yet he managed to twist policing from keeping the peace to locking up anyone who criticised the Patrician or anyone working for him

Vimes believes that:

“Swing started in the wrong place. He didn’t look around, and watch and learn, and then say, ‘This is how people are, how do we deal with it?’ No, he sat and thought: ‘This is how people ought to be, how do we change them?’ “

As soon as I read this, I started to wonder how much of the current political chaos in the UK is caused by having too many people start from the same place as Captain Swing.

It seems to me that what English politicians on the right of the Tory Party and the left of the Labour Party have in common is that neither of them starts with where people are and how the world they live in works.

Both sides have a view on how the world ought to be. They’re happy to share their vision of a Britain that works the way they think it should. They get a bit fuzzy about how you get there from here. They don’t worry about that fuzziness because they believe that if people are committed to their vision of the future, then they WILL get there.

What the quote from “Night Watch” says to me is that starting with a theory of “oughts” twists the imagination so that people and their present problems, opportunities, fears and hopes are sidelined or over-ridden in pursuit of a better world tomorrow. People become targets for change rather than the drivers of change.

When we start from “This is how people are, how do we deal with it?”, we can test any way forward by whether it delivers the result. If it doesn’t then the way forward has to change. We refine our knowledge of how people are and what makes them that way so we can make better plans to deal with how they are.

When we start from “This is how people ought to be, how do we change them?” the only test of a way forward is whether people have changed enough. If the way forward isn’t working, then the people are the problem. We start to talk about overcoming resistance to change, about re-education and often about exclusion or punishment of those who are preventing us from getting to where we OUGHT to be.

I feel like I’m living in a world where men who believe in how things ought to be are choosing to be ignorant of how they are in the hope of getting where they want to go on the power of belief.

This reminds me of Feynman’s investigation into the Challenger disaster. He concluded that the disaster was caused by a management culture that produced fantasy safety probabilities in order to launch even when the real numbers were known by engineers to be much lower. He said:

“reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

In other words, “when management meets physics, physics always wins.”

When I look at the statements from the far right and the far left in England it seems to me that I should be saying, “when political “oughts”meet as is economics and law, the most vulnerable always lose.”

One thought on “Terry Pratchett, Richard Feynman and why “ought” is the wrong place to start.

  1. This is wonderful and was fascinating to read.

    I came across this article because I was searching for the exact quote that you reference at the start of the post. I was searching for that quote in particular as it’s been in my mind following a conversation with friends about… the way in which sections of the Left in the UK and the USA are engaging with people who have ideas and viewpoints that they find distasteful. Of course, as your post mentions, the mindset is equally present on the Right (I think it just preoccupies me more when the Left do it because I’m on the Left myself).

    Your post is also very interesting to read in the context of the ‘What would Terry Pratchett think about the trans movement / cancel culture?’ Twitter fury that happened back in 2021. My personal feeling during the time, having read all his books through and through (and taking into consideration the fact that I may be dead wrong), is that a) he would have been deeply sympathetic to trans people and the challenges they face in society today and b) would have encouraged people, regardless of their political stance, to avoid being like Swing.

    Liked by 1 person

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