Ends and Means

Published by timdean on

I call it “pulling a Cameron,” in reference not to the present British Prime Minister, but to the broadcaster Deborah Cameron who handles the morning slot on Sydney’s ABC Radio 702.

A common refrain a few minutes in to her maddeningly predictable morning routine of following the happenings of the first several pages of the Sydney Morning Herald is to enquire of some expert or other: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?”

And by “X” I mean whatever undesirable event has appeared on the front pages, whether that’s a case of callous bullying in our schools, a death by accident or some other unsavoury turn of events.

One recent example was the tragic death of a young university student at a rural college after being thrown from an ex-racing horse that was being used to train horse riding skills. The horse was deemed safe for students yet it possessed a fierce distemper that flared on that day, throwing the student

The question posed by Cameron, seemingly predictable and justifiable in the circumstances, was along the lines of: “what are we doing to prevent more deaths of students during riding training?”

The presumption is that the outcome is unacceptable so, clearly, our current process that led to this outcome must be deficient.

Yet that’s a presumption that is unfortunately as fallacious as it is common.

For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.

And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time.

How processes are made

Let’s step back for a moment and examine how we arrive at the processes we do. First, we reflect on what kinds of outcomes are important to us and, effectively, what kind of world we wish to live in. This is a complex process that varies from situation to situation.

In the moral sphere we reflect on the fact that we all generally wish to pursue our interests, whatever they are, while acknowledging that the unfettered pursuit of interests can easily impact on another individual’s pursuit of their interests.

Pausing, and wishing for a world in which we can pursue our interests to the maximum of our ability while not impinging on, nor being impinged upon by, others, we work to develop a system that mediates social exchange to bring this world into being.

From there we concoct secondary values, such as freedom, or altruism, or privacy, which enable us to bring this desired state of affairs into being. We then produce a system of moral norms that guides behaviour to this end.

In a similar fashion, in politics we reflect on the kind of social organisation we desire to live in, and based upon this reckoning, we develop a constitution which empowers the system to produce laws that will govern our behaviour.

In a somewhat different context, we reflect on the kind of knowledge we would like to have about the world, generally agreeing that reliable knowledge that is preferable to unreliable knowledge. In light of this we concoct a process by which we arrive at knowledge that can be considered reliable, such as through rational discourse or the scientific method, for example.

When things go wrong

And go wrong things most certainly do. All too often, in fact. A system of moral norms might yield an injustice, a cruelty or inflict a harm upon someone. It might yield moral dilemmas where there’s no clear correct course of action. It might see conflicts of values that appear irresolvable.

In politics, we might see laws enacted that are unjust, or that produce a sub-optimal outcome. We might have laws that are generally beneficial to the majority but seriously disadvantage a few. The laws and regulations may exact a high cost in terms of compliance while yielding little in terms of benefit.

Even our best scientific enquiry results in erroneous theories and falshoods becoming accepted as true. Rational discourse and the scientific method are also occasionally unable to discern the truth or otherwise of some claims.

The temptation in many of these cases is to revise the process, under the assumption that if there is an undesirable outcome then there must be something flawed in the process. We seek to change the process to prevent a similar undesirable outcome to occur in the future.

But here’s the rub. However tempting it might be to change the system to patch over the holes on an ad hoc basis, we must be spectacularly careful that we don’t change the process in such a way that it produces more harm than good.

The limits of process

There are very few processes that can guarantee the optimal outcome in every situation. As Rawls points out (Rawls, 1968, in Wasserstrom, 1975), there are but a few processes that can give such a guarantee – one person cuts the cake, and chooses their slice last; fair gambling that is entered into in full knowledge of the odds of winning – but shaping constitutions and writing laws are not such processes.

In manners of human interaction, in moral and legal regulation, and in the cases of discovering facts about the world, there are no processes (that we know of or, arguably, that we could ever know of) that will guarantee the optimal outcome in every situation. As Rawls points out, even a just constitution can result in unjust laws being passed.

Yet this is not cause for us to doubt the efficacy or desirability of certain processes. After all, let not the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we ought to be aiming for is not a process that results in no errors, but in a process that results in the least number of errors of all the processes from which we can choose.

And more importantly, we should be terrifically wary of any process that purports to perfection, or a process that offers solutions on an ad hoc basis while being systemically inferior to an alternative process.

Politics, laws and science

One simple example – although an example that needs to be made all too often – is that of the constitutional democracy versus the benevolent dictator. Or, in a contemporary context, capitalist democracy versus China’s ‘third way.’

It’s often said that the ideal form of government is a benevolent dictator. On the surface it’s easy to see why: a benevolent dictator has all the power, and all the corresponding intention, to enact the best possible laws, without regard for interest groups, ideological foibles or interference from stifling checks and balances. But it’s the last point that ought to cause concern.

Where a democracy often stalls in the face of making tough but necessary choices that do not conform to public sentiment, a benevolent dictator (or China) can push through legislation that it thinks right without hindrance.

However, the very same process that enables a benevolent dictator (or China) to make good decisions also enables it to make bad decisions. The process effectively doesn’t discriminate between the two.

And until such a day arrives where humans (or at least one human in the case of a benevolent dictator) can be relied upon to act entirely in the interests of others with no compunction to advancing their own interests at the expense of others (a day I suggest will never arrive), then such a system is critically flawed.

Such a system is vulnerable to error or defection without the checks and balances to prevent bad decisions being made. Conversely, the very same barriers that make good decisions more difficult in a democracy tend to make bad decisions even more difficult (in a healthy democracy, that is).

Likewise with laws. I’d suggest it’s impossible to create a law that guarantees a just outcome in every situation, nor one that is without cost in terms of implementation or that doesn’t prevent some beneficial activity along with prohibiting bad.

In the case of the tragic death of the university student thrown from the horse, it might be that changing the policy surrounding the sourcing of horses might result in a drastic decrease in the number that are available for training. In such a situation it might be that the cost of enabling students to learn horse riding in a controlled environment supervised by experts on vetted steeds rises to such a level that more harm is done than good.

On a more prosaic level, almost all laws have a cost in terms of preventing beneficial behaviour. Consider those times you’ve sat at a red light in the middle of the night, with nary another car to be seen on the road. Yet sit we do, ultimately arriving at our destination later than might have been possible.

For were we to justify our breech of the law in that situation would similarly justify others to breech  the law in other similar situations, thus resulting in a general slide towards non-conformity to the law. On the one hand that might undermine the tendency to obey the law in cases when it might not quite match that situation, but might be expedient for us to do so.

On the other it might result in errors occurring, such as misjudging the emptiness of the road and causing an accident. All the worse if we end up being the victim of such an accident because some other driver deemed the road empty and deigned to run the red.

As a final example, consider the popular debate held between those who adhere to reason and the scientific method versus those who preach faith and revelation as their conduit to truth. The latter often criticise the former for not being able to determine with absolute confidence the verisimilitude of their claims. The latter, on the other hand, have conviction that truth is in their grasp.

Science can also make errors. It was once the case that our best thinkers believe heat was the manifestation of a substance, phlogiston, contained within objects. Not so long ago our best astronomers believed the universe to be eternal and unchanging. Only a decade ago it was thought the human genome contained over 100,000 genes. All these claims – the products of our best scientific reckoning – have since been shown false.

Yet – and I’m sure you can see a pattern here – the process employed by the faithful and irrational, while occasionally arriving at the correct answer from time to time, has no way to discriminate between truth and falsity. While there is a cost to the scientific and rational methods, the facts derived from these methods are always more reliable than the facts derived from irrational methods, even if not guaranteed true.

Process first (well, second)

The upshot of all this is that process is what really matters. (Well, ultimately it’s our desired objectives – our world-as-we’d-like-it-to-be – that is primary, and process seeks to bring this world into being.)

We focus on individual outcomes at the risk of neglecting that it’s the process, and all its potential outcomes, that is of central importance. And the simple fact is that virtually all important processes are going to incur a cost and are going to yield undesirable outcomes from time to time.

In fact, the success of a particular process depends heavily on the environment and circumstances in which it operates. So as long as that environment is changing – as I’d suggest it almost always is – then the optimal process in that environment will also continue to change.

How do we discover the optimal processes in a particular environment? With difficulty. But there are ways. We should start by being as clear as possible about the desired outcome, including accommodating disagreements about outcome. We should then rigorously investigate the environment itself – which requires empirical study, not just armchair speculation. We can then model different processes and understand their systemic pros and cons by using tools such as game theory.

Only then can we begin to build up processes that might achieve optimal outcomes in that environment. But we also need to continually reflect on and revise our processes, not just in the light of single outcomes, but in light of their performance in general.

This means we need a meta-value of desiring processes that are, themselves, open to revision; another strike against irrationalist and dogmatist approaches, such as are central to many religions.

Perhaps if Deborah Cameron though more along these lines she wouldn’t ask: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?” But might instead ask: “what do we want to achieve, and what process can we employ to make that happen while reducing the likelihood of cases like X?”

Perhaps wishful thinking that a radio broadcaster should embrace such a turn, but something that ought to be stressed, not only to broadcasters but to policy makers, commentators and anyone who ventures comment about morality, law, knowledge or any other pursuit where process is primary.


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[…] Ends and Means – via Ochams End- For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time. […]

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[…] good example of the Nirvana fallacy comes from Ockham’s Beard (and no, I am not jealous whatsoever that his blog has a much more awesome name than mine, srsly): […]

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