Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Choices II

In my last blog I tried to show that there were was to make better or worse choices. Most people, I argued, simply understood this and this was why they took such time to explain the rationale for their choices. By looking at my objectives, assessing possible circumstances, and comparing courses of decision with my objectives, I could arrive at conclusions that made some choices better than others. Now, my argument fails, as I intimated, if one does not give a fig about other people. If one is purely greedy and does not care if their wealth is built on child slave labour ... well ... that person and I are having a different conversation. Most people, I would argue, however, don't think that way. Have you ever noticed how people who want to be wealthy -- or, who are wealthy -- will justify their wealth by (a) explaining the good they will do with it ("I just want to help people") or (b) with reference to personal character ("I worked hard"). They never say, "I'm just a greedy bastard and I'll sell my mother's oxygen tent if I can get a few bucks out of it." What this shows is that most people feel that purely self-interested perspective will not work: it will make them look bad and will cause people to question their morals. Hence, they try to justify their wealth on other grounds which, they believe (and, it seems, rightly) are more acceptable. In other words, other people's views matter to them. This is what their words indicate, whether we believe them or not.

In my previous blog, I tried to sketch out a humanistic approach to decision make with an example. What I'd like to do here is to address a couple of common objections to that decision-making process in order to show that they do not hold water. I have set my self a hard task. Someone could say "Andrew, I get your perspective and it works for you but it is just one perspective and other perspectives are equally valid". To make my case, I have to show other perspectives are *not* equally valid. I have to show that they have problems because otherwise the argument -- this is just your perspective -- would be correct. So, if my argument is to hold, there must be some sort of problem with other arguments. What are these? Let us look at a one of common objections to my arguments.

The first argument I periodically here to hear (in fact, far too often for my liking) to the humanistic approach to decision making I’ve sketched out is the “the world is hard” argument.  I’ll give you a variant of this argument. A coach is about to make a decision on whether or not to cut a player (see my previous example in my last blog). One thing they might say is that “I can’t take everyone and kids have to learn that the world is a hard place. You don’t always get what you want.” I’m pretty certain you’ve heard some variant of this type of explanation as well.  What is wrong with this type of argument? Several things.

First, it takes a debatable fact as a self-evident truth. Is the world a “hard place?” That is a matter of perspective that is, quite simply, not amenable to one-line statements. It is an ontological assumption; not a demonstrable fact. There is nothing inherently wrong with making assumptions about the character and nature of the world. I suspect that most of us do it every day. I assume that most people are rational and will respond to argument in reason. Hence, this blog. If I did not believe that ... there would be no good reason to write it. The problem occurs when we start to justify our actions on the basis of unproven assumptions. It is one thing to say “I will try to argue in reason.” It is another thing to say “I will have no military force for my country because everyone is rational.” However much we might like that to be the case, a government that made that decision would be imprudent. When we start to make decisions that affect other people on the basis of our assumptions about the world, our decisions start to be separated from the world. Since this assumption is neither provable nor inprovable, we cannot state for sure that the assumption is wrong but it is an assumption; not something we can demonstrate and here, to turn to my example, do we want to hurt someone because of our assumptions when we have other options available? 

The second concern I have with this line of reasoning — the world is hard — is that it is subject to what we might call the logic of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, consider my example. For the kid trying out for the team the world is neither hard nor soft and fuzzy. It is neither good nor bad at the time they are trying out for the team. It is the action of cutting the player (again, when other options are available) that makes the world good or bad. In this way, the assumption that has been made (“there is nothing wrong with cutting players when I have other options and it teaches them an important lessons that the world is hard”) actually creates the effect that was the initial unproven and unprovable assumption.  Thus, the rationale becomes the effect. The decision-making process has called into being the very condition that it assumed in the first place. The world indeed becomes hard but it is the result of a decision made by a real person (again, in my example, who had other options) and not some pre-existing condition. 

Third, I have heard people say “kids have to learn that not everyone gets a trophy.” This is a variant of the “world is hard” argument. This seems self evident but one might pause to ask: why? Why do we need to differentiate for kids? If having a trophy — or, some other award — accomplishes good things ... what is the problem? I know this sounds like a wishy-washy bleeding heart argument but bear with me. Why deny a kid a trophy or an award when there is no inherently good reason to do so? What does it accomplish? It isolates kids and makes them feel bad. Whereas giving them as award, can serve to help a kid commit to improving, it makes them part of the team (or, some other organization) where they can learn more and improve. If cutting the kid for no good reason teaches them that the world is hard, giving the award teaches them the opposite: the world is good, we support you, and we want you to succeed. Which approach do you think contributes the most to creating the conditions for succeess. 

But, there are other negative affects to the anti-award approach. One thing it does is that it creates “glory days” ... like the Bruce Springsteen song. It creates a situation where the high point of a person’s life was that moment that they won the trophy and beat everyone else. They were the best (which is what the anti-trophy for everyone argument seeks, in fact, to demonstrate: that we will honour this best person). But, glory days, as the song demonstrates, grow old. Does anyone want their glory day to occur when they are 18 or 15 or 21? Does anyone want that to be the high point of their life and what is left is only reliving those days? For kids this might be difficult to understand but as adults, we have all encountered this horrible moment at the class reunion or a chance meeting with old friends where we realize that someone is living in the past. Most of us, I think, really want our best days to lie before us, depending on our age, I suppose. Many people I have encountered find it sad when they meet someone who is 45 and still thinking about when they were 18. 

The other negative thing that occurs from the award for only the best approach is that it creates negative squabbling conflicts to win that award. I see this with academic awards all the time when I visit my kids teachers on those dreaded parent-teacher nights. The one that sticks in my mind were parents who were in front of me — and, hence, slowing me down. They had a list of all their daughter’s assignments, tests, projects, etc., and her grades and they were going through these one by one, questioning each grade trying to get more points for their child. I am not saying they are bad parents. Indeed, I suspect they are good parents who deeply love their children. What they were trying to do was to get the award for their child. Because the award was important — only the best got it — they lost track of what was important in school (that is, learning!) and focused on the award. They were not really concerned about whether or not their daughter learnt; they were looking for an explanation for each and every point their daughter “lost” and if there was no explanation, they her grade was going to go up. They were establishing, they believed, a track record of success for their daughter. Awards beget awards. If my daughter is the best student in Grade X; she has a better chance of being the best student in Grade Y, perceptions being what they are. The problem, of course, is this: this might get their daughter the award but it does not help her learn. Hence, there is a demising marginal utility because sooner or later, you encounter someone — usually at university — who will not budge on the grade. 

This happens to me a number of times each year. Students come to my office and treat grades as a matter of negotiation; not a signifier of what they have learnt and what they can to learn more, or what skills they can better develop. They are often deeply hurt — a number of students cry in my office each year — when I explain that the grade is the grade. If I have made a mistake, point it out, I’ll change it. But, if not ... I can show you how to improve your grades by doing better work but I’m not going to put a grade up. I have a young woman last year in tears tell me that without an “A” in my intro class, her chosen career would never be realized. If she did not, in other words, win the price and demonstrate that she was the best, she would never get into grad school. I tried to explain to this student — that this was not the case; that a grade less than A in an intro course did not end her chosen career before it began. She would have non of it. It struck me then that this might be a personal matter but it also developed out a particular sense about awards and “being the best.” 


For these reasons, and perhaps others, I have a hard time with the “world is hard” argument. There is more to say here, but I’ll hold off because this blog is already getting too long. Feel free, as always, to disagree, modify, question, correct in the comments. 
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