I was recently talking with a colleague about an iterative question-asking technique called the “5 Whys” which was developed by Sakichi Toyoda. This tactic is used by the Toyota Motor Corporation as a tool for drilling down to the root cause of problems. The idea is that by repeating the question “why?” five (or so) times, the nature of a problem can be made much clearer.
For example, suppose the problem is that your car won’t start. Why? Because the battery is dead. Why is the battery dead? Because the alternator isn’t functioning. Why? The alternator belt snapped off. Why? The belt was well beyond its service life and had not been replaced. Why? The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. Why? Replacement parts are not available because it’s an old car. You get the idea. Sure, the technique may be eerily similar to the interrogation style of a precocious 4-year old, but it really works.
One thing they found when attempting to solve problems using this technique is that it’s fairly common for a questioner to stop too soon during the hunt for answers. People tend to take the first or second simple answer, either because they are blinded by the symptoms or too easily satisfied by the first “apparent”’ cause they come across. In reality, the first apparent cause is rarely the real root cause. You need to drill down past the symptoms in order to find the real answers.
This approach got me thinking. What would it look like if the “5 Whys” were applied to the topic of morality? What if this technique were used to drill down to the fundamental reason why any behavior can ultimately be called “wrong”? What follows is a short story that captures my personal take on where that hunt would take a truly curious questioner.
I used the setting of a classroom discussion for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to allow for multiple points of view to be expressed and examined. And secondly, rather than using a technical methodology I wanted to approach this issue using a conversational, layman’s dialog. I began writing with no premise in mind; just a plan to honestly explore the issue and keep asking why to see where it would ultimately lead. So the process of writing became a bit like playing a game of chess against myself. I would make a move, then mentally switch to the other team and ask myself “How would I respond to that move?” As best I could I just let the conversation go where my characters took it.
One more thing to note: As a curious Christian, instead of starting with God I attempted to leave Him out of the equation as long as I could and explore some of the popular theories on morality. This ended up being a very fairly in-depth hunt for answers so I broke into multiple parts for this blog. But if you’re like me and you find topics like this interesting, I believe you’ll find this an enjoyable read. So get comfortable, grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy.
June 30, 2018
The bright kitchen was filled with the aroma of Saturday breakfast; bacon, coffee, toast, eggs frying in a pan. Two young boys sat hunched over breakfast plates, their chirpy voices filling the room as they talked about ninjas and worked oversized bites of syrup-drenched waffles onto their forks. As Johnny stuffed his last bite into his mouth he realized he was not ready to be done eating waffles for the day. He stared at his kid brother’s plate. Max was only halfway through his first waffle and had another syrup-drenched golden square sitting there untouched. Glancing from his mom, who was pouring herself a cup of coffee, to his dad, who was looking through yesterday’s mail, Johnny decided to make his move. With maple syrup running down his already sticky chin, he leaned across the table and grabbed for his brother’s untouched waffle.
“Johnny!” His dad’s voice startled him. “Leave your brother’s food alone.”
He turned to his dad. “Why?”
“Because it’s not your waffle. It belongs to your brother.”
Johnny’s face fell. “But I want to eat it.”
“I understand that son, but you can’t take something that belongs to someone else without their permission.”
“That’s called stealing and it’s not allowed.”
Johnny’s parents were well acquainted with their young son’s penchant for endless questions. He was a bright boy, inquisitive and clever, and they tried to encourage those character traits when they could. In their minds, he had the intellect of a future scientist or inventor.
Dad leaned into the teachable moment. “Because stealing is wrong.”
“Because when you steal, you’re taking something that belongs to someone else.”
“But that’s okay sometimes.”
“No, it’s not okay because it hurts people and it’s not nice.”
Johnny crossed his arms and huffed. “Why do I have to be nice?”
“Because when people are nice to each other, they get along better.”
“I don’t care.”
“Well, you should care. Trust me, Johnny. Life is better when people get along. There’s much less fighting and arguing.”
Johnny jealously eyed his brother’s plate. “I’m okay with arguing, as long as I get the waffle I want!” Johnny’s hand darted across the table but his dad cut him off.
“Johnny! I told you that is not your waffle. Leave it alone.”
Johnny raised his eyebrows and gave his dad a hangdog look. “But why?”
Recognizing the cycle of questions was about to start over again, Dad decided to put a stop to it. He wanted to enjoy his own breakfast in peace. “Because I said so.” The gavel had fallen and Johnny knew he had eaten his last waffle of the day. He sat back in his chair and huffed in disappointment, scrunching his face into a frown.