False Dichotomies

By | September 11, 2013

They’re everywhere.

Superman or Batman? Star Trek or Star Wars? Football or baseball? It’s one thing to be asked to state a preference, but these choices are increasingly offered as absolutes. The idea that you might really like both of the items in question (in different ways, for different reasons) seems to get in the way of divvying up the human race into opposing camps.

But at least those dichotomies make sense logically. Some Star Wars fans really do despise Star Trek, and vice versa.

Then you see something like this:

Anne-Marie Slaughter envisions an America where caring is as important as competing

We are a nation that thrives on competition, from sports teams to small businesses. We define success by who wins, typically through talent, luck and working harder than anyone else. If everyone pursues their self-interest, all of society benefits.

But winning is not everything, much less the only thing. Competition must go hand in hand with care. As Bill Gates has put it, “There are two great forces of human nature: self-interest and caring for others.”

Care starts from the premise that humans cannot survive alone. Our progress flows from our identity as social animals, connected through love, kinship and clanship. Success should be defined not as individual victory but as group advancement, whether the group is a family, a community or a company. Satisfaction comes less from beating others than from bolstering them, enabling them to reach their full potential.

To her credit, at least Slaughter is making the case for competition and caring that I would make for Superman and Batman — they’re both good and they both have their place.

The problem comes from even attempting to make a dichotomy out of them. Saying that you prefer caring to competition isn’t like saying you prefer football to baseball. It’s like saying you prefer chocolate cake to baseball.

Perhaps the confusion arises from the embedded Bill gates quote. Self-interest and caring for others are not separate forces of human nature. They are both expressions of the one overarching human drive, what around here we describe as the Human Imperative. Humans are constantly trying to make things better, to make everything better. To quote myself:

Some people are focused only on improving the circumstances of others, while others are focused exclusively on improving their own circumstances. Most of us are somewhere in between, devoting some measure of our energies to improving the lives of others (whether those “others” be our own friends and families, our communities, or humanity as a whole) and devoting the rest of our energy to improving our own lives.

Slaughter’s world view misses out on two very important points:

  1. Unforeseen consequences pop up all the time. So actions that are intended benevolently sometimes have disastrous consequences, while actions that are malicious or even just indifferent to the suffering of others often lead to long-term benefits. (See the piece linked above for examples.)
  2. Improvements to the human condition tend to be transferable and they tend to persist. Because of these tendencies, even the most competitive and self-centered efforts bring about benefits that eventually everybody gets to enjoy.

I’m not arguing against caring. I like caring. I care. A lot.

Slaughter’s point is to argue for government programs that she believes represent a caring attitude towards others. Her ideas may or may not be right; I don’t care. Anybody who wants to debate that stuff, have at it. What I reject is her implicit suggestion that anyone who doesn’t favor such programs doesn’t care about other people.

My point is that people who care about what actually happens to other people — as distinct from people who care about being “caring” — recognize that competition is one of the most useful tools in the effort to make things better for other people. Competition is one of the ways we get better at everything, including getting better. So whether Slaughter’s ideas are right or wrong, they would benefit from healthy competition from other ideas. And even if we were to adopt her agenda wholesale, it would be better implemented by competitive teams than by one central authority.

But that’s me. I like baseball and cake.

(Cake photo by Tracy Hunter.)