Monday, July 09, 2007

Good enough is good enough

Steve Gimbel does ask interesting questions: When Is Good Enough, Good Enough? But he often tries to hint at answers, and sometimes frames his hints in a false dichotomy:
On the one hand, the line is, "no, the purpose of ethics is to define 'ought,' to set out the ultimate picture of perfect human behavior, of what a human life could be at its best." To lower the bar would be to undermine the very purpose of ethics, we want to know how to live a good human life not just a good enough human life.

On the other hand, the argument is that ought needs to entail can. If we are talking about how people should live, then it must be possible for people to actually live that way.
In this case, both alternatives implicitly accept a priori that there is some ethical ideal, "the ultimate picture of perfect human behavior"; the question is, can we realistically aspire to this ideal.

But "the ultimate picture of perfect human behavior" is a notion for totalitarians, however well-meaning. There is no ultimate picture, no best human life. There is only the life each of us wants to have, according to his or her own subjective desires. "One man's meat is another man's poison;" what's good for me might be terrible for you. But why should we choose?

If nothing I one person did could possibly effect another's happiness, there would be no need for ethics at all; the best we could do would be to give each other optional advice, and advice isn't normative. Sadly, our actions do affect each other, quite a lot of the time, generating conflicts. And thus the study of ethics, then, becomes not the search for perfection, but a search for ways to resolve those conflicts.

What's the best price for a car? The answer is different for the buyer and the seller. The notion of the "objectively" best price for a car is incoherent. How much does the buyer want the car? How hot is seller to get rid of it? There's no sense in which any price can be considered objectively optimal, but whatever price the two agree on is, by definition, good enough.

In the same sense, ethics are always about conflicts, where one person's better is another's worse. In this sense, there can never be perfection, optimality or any coherent notion of "best". There can be only good enough.


  1. I think that promoting ideals which are in excess of the human capacity to live them, can actually be a form of abuse. I have in mind certain types of sexual ethics, both of the traditional and of the politically correct modern varieties.

    How related is the idea of ideal behavior to the fact that our culture is based on an imperialistic, proselytizing, "true" religion, which postulates that all others are false?

    Is the idea of a "best" behavior related to that of a "true" God?

    Probably not, given the Greek roots of philosophy. But conceivably the "one true religion" idea has cross-contaminated the "best ethics" one.

  2. I will slap myself on the wrist for using "politically correct" in the last comment, because I guess broadly leftist people such as myself can't use it without random viewers thinking they're somehow part of the unthinking Right in some way.

    But I very much believe that "ought needs to entail can." "Ultimate pictures of perfect human behavior" can only be understood by people who have some experience of not quite perfect human behavior. We like to inculcate "ultimate pictures" in children and adolescents and to try to save them from the corruption of too much worldly knowledge of what usually happens. This can make the sensitive ones way too hard on themselves, causing unnecessary guilt and pain, which is why I suppose I react viscerally against "perfect pictures" as they are preached to the young.

    Also a great deal of our moral development comes from an inevitable process of trial and error, of making mistakes and correcting them. The rigid moralism of our culture, exemplified by the phrase "zero tolerance," implies that we can imbibe the ability to behave morally from verbal instruction, preferably emotive and aversive and oversimplified, and then apply these "perfect" rules to our imperfect lives. This does not work. We need to act in the world and learn to calibrate our actions to the responses the world gives to us; and ethics makes more sense to us the more experience we have of the imperfect world. I have little use for ethical systems which are not based in pragmatic experience. In terms of Gimbel's discussion that might make me more of an Aristotelian.

    I think the idea behind "perfect ethical systems" is that we will always be imperfect but the striving does us good. In my experience that may vary among personality types. For myself, I have found that my best ethical insights come from compassion and empathy which come from an acceptance of the imperfection of my own self, rather than the constant goading after an impossible ideal.

  3. First of all, I argue that ethical perfection is incoherent. It's not that perfection remains outside the ability of our imperfect selves, it's that perfection cannot be rationally expressed, much less epistemically justified: There cannot, by definition, be an objectively perfect or optimal outcome to a negotiation between competing interests.

    A game-theoretic concept like Pareto optimality does not capture the sort of ethical perfection that Steve seems to be getting at in his original post, and it's been proven that in even minimally complex games, even game-theoretic optimality is not logically possible.

    But even if there were a coherent notion of ethical perfection, why should it be unattainable in practice? The notion of humans as inherently imperfect seems like a very Christian notion to me, meant to inspire automatic, incorrigible guilt for the purpose of emotional manipulation.


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