Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Happy Coincidence Defense and The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot

Here are four things I care intensely about: being a good father, being a good philosopher, being a good teacher, and being a morally good person. It would be lovely if there were never any tradeoffs among these four aims.

Explicitly acknowledging such tradeoffs is unpleasant -- sufficiently unpleasant that it's tempting to try to rationalize them away. It's distinctly uncomfortable to me, for example, to acknowledge that I would probably be better as a father if I traveled less for work. (I am writing this post from a hotel room in England.) Similarly uncomfortable is the thought that the money I'll be spending on a family trip to Iceland this summer could probably save a few people from death due to poverty-related causes, if given to the right charity.

Today I'll share two of my favorite techniques for rationalizing the unpleasantness away. Maybe you'll find these techniques useful too!

The Happy Coincidence Defense. Consider travel for work. I don't have to travel around the world, giving talks and meeting people. It's not part of my job description. No one will fire me if I don't do it, and some of my colleagues do it considerably less than I do. On the face of it, I seem to be prioritizing my research career at the cost of being a somewhat less good father, teacher, and global moral citizen (given the luxurious use of resources and the pollution of air travel).

The Happy Coincidence Defense says, no, in fact I am not sacrificing these other goals at all! Although I am away from my children, I am a better father for it. I am a role model of career success for them, and I can tell them stories about my travels. I have enriched my life, and then I can mingle that richness into theirs. I am a more globally aware, wiser father! Similarly, although I might cancel a class or two and de-prioritize my background reading and lecture preparation, since research travel improves me as a philosopher, it improves my teaching in the long run. And my philosophical work, isn't that an important contribution to society? Maybe it's important enough to morally justify the expense, pollution, and waste: I do more good for the world traveling around discussing philosophy than I could do leading a more modest lifestyle at home, donating more money to charities, and working within my own community.

After enough reflection of this sort, it can come to seem that I am not making any tradeoffs at all among these four things I care intensely about. Instead, I am maximizing them all! This trip to England is the best thing I can do, all things considered, as a philosopher and as a father and as a teacher and as a citizen of the moral community. Yay!

Now that might be true. If so, that would be a happy coincidence. Sometimes there really are such happy coincidences. But the pattern of reasoning is, I think you'll agree, suspicious. Life is full of tradeoffs among important things. One cannot, realistically, always avoid hard choices. Happy Coincidence reasoning has the odor of rationalization. It seems likely that I am illegitimately convincing oneself that something I want to be true really is true.

The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot. Sometimes people try so hard at something that they end up doing worse as a result. For example, trying too hard to be a good father might make you in a father who is overbearing, who hovers too much, who doesn't give his children sufficient distance and independence. Teaching sometimes goes better when you don't overprepare. And sometimes, maybe, moral idealists push themselves so hard in pursuit of their ideals that they would have been better off pursuing a more moderate, sustainable course. For example, someone moved by the arguments for vegetarianism who immediately attempts the very strictest veganism might be more likely to revert to cheeseburger eating after a few months than someone who sets their sights a bit lower.

The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot reasoning harnesses these ideas for convenient self-defense: Whatever I'm doing right now is the most I can realistically, sustainably do! Were I to try any harder to be a good father, I would end up being a worse father. Were I to spend any more time reading and writing philosophy than I actually do, I would only exhaust myself. If I gave any more to charity, or sacrificed any more for the well-being of others in my community, then I would... I would... I don't know, collapse from charity-fatigue? Or seethe so much with resentment at how more awesomely moral I am than everyone else that I'd be grumpy and end up doing some terrible thing?

As with Happy Coincidence reasoning, The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot reasoning can sometimes be right. Sometimes you really are doing the most you can do about everything you care intensely about. But it would be kind of amazing if this were reliably the case. It wouldn't be that hard for me to be a somewhat better father, or to give somewhat more to my students -- with or without trading off other things. If I reliably think that wherever I happen to be in such matters, that's the Sweet Spot, I am probably rationalizing.

Having cute names for these patterns of rationalization better helps me spot them as they are happening, I think -- both in myself and sometimes, I admit, somewhat uncharitably, also in others.

Rather than think of something clever to say as the kicker for this post, I think I'll give my family a call.


Eliyohu E. Rubinstein said...

Aaarrgh! Your honesty and brutal self-reflection just hit me head on..
I think I'll keep this short, and will not go on to read just now the other 2 posts that looked interesting, and instead go and read my kids a story before bedtime instead.
(welcome to England btw)

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the challenges of adulthood. Everything in life is a choice with consequences - some good, some bad, some in the gray area.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Eliyohu: I hope the children enjoyed the story!

Anon Apr 30: Absolutely.