Common preferences are possible
October 2, 2014 Leave a comment
There are many situations in which two or more people who intend cooperate on some issue disagree on what to do. The standard approach to this is to conflate two different kinds of situations under the word “compromise”. Compromise is sometimes used to mean that both of the people involved in the disagreement end up adopting an idea they deem worse than their original preference, or an idea that has some features that are worse than the original preference. This is stupid for two reasons. First, it doesn’t solve problems that the people involved have with the new solution. Second, whatever solution they end up adopting is going to be awful on its own terms because it is not optimised to solve any particular problem.
The other kind of deal that people often call a compromise is the situation where the people involved change their preferences so that they agree about what to do and neither of them has any criticism of the new course of action. This does not have either of the problems of the first meaning of compromise given above, so it ought to be called something different. Since it is a preference the people involved have in common let’s call it a common preference (CP).
A criticism may be some explicit idea about something that is wrong with the proposed solution. In that case, you might come up with a new variant of the current idea that addresses the criticism. Or you might find that you have to throw the idea out and try to come up with something different in the light of the knowledge that your previous approach didn’t work.
A person may also criticise a solution by saying he has a feeling he doesn’t like. An emotion is the result of inexplicit traditional knowledge. It’s a bad idea to disregard this knowledge without replacing it. Ways to get past such a problem may include asking questions like “Why do I feel bad about this? Is there a way to modify my actions so you don’t feel bad about them? If I can’t think of a way to modify my actions so I feel good about them why is that the case?” For more see Elliot Temple’s essay about emotions.
The fact that two different people happened to be involved isn’t of any particular significance. A single person can have two priorities that he thinks are in conflict. So a common preference ought to be viewed as reconciling two or more sets of ideas about what to do rather than two people.
You might think this all sounds very grand but you’re a busy person, or you’re lazy or whatever. I can’t find a CP for every problem. But there is no particular reason to think that CPs are hard or impossible to find. If you don’t have to do something immediately you can carefully discuss options and try to come up with new options. If you run out of time you should pick among the uncriticised options in some way that everyone agrees with other than discussing all their merits or problems. For example, if you have two ideas left you might ask if people object to deciding between them by flipping a coin if nobody involved objects to deciding that way. The results may not be very good, but that’s what you should expect if you make decisions sloppily so it would be a bad idea to get upset about it. You can also exclude some options just because you don’t have time to implement them since the criterion for picking the action is that you want to try to implement it.
In 2002, David Deutsch wrote:
[T]he finding of a common preference does not entail finding the solution to any particular problem.
The economy does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular enterprises fail all the time. Particular inefficiencies may remain unimproved for long periods. The economy as a whole may have brief hitches where mistakes have been made and have to be undone; but if it stagnates to the extent of failing to innovate, there is a reason. It’s not just ‘one of those things’. The reason has nothing to do with there being a glut of nautiluses on the market, but is invariably caused by someone (usually governments, but in primitive societies also parents) forcibly preventing people from responding to market forces. Stagnation is not a natural state in a capitalist economy; it has to be caused by force.
Science does not require infinite creativity to make new discoveries. Particular lines of research fail all the time but where science as a whole has ceased to innovate it is never because the whole scientific community has turned its attention to the nautilus but invariably because someone (governments and/or parents) has forcibly prevented people from behaving according to the canons of scientific rationality.
An individual personality does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular a priori wants go unmet all the time, and large projects also fail and sometimes a person has a major life setback. But if they get stuck to the extent of failing to innovate it is not because they have spontaneously wandered into a state where their head resembles a nautilus but because someone has forcibly thwarted them once (or usually a thousand times) too often.
[P]roblems can be continually solved without infinite creativity, without perfect rationality, and without relying on any particular problem being solved by any particular time. And that is sufficient for — in fact it is what *constitutes* — economic growth, scientific progress, and human happiness.
I think there’s a little more to be said about this. People are not born knowing standards of rationality. And indeed there isn’t a closed list of such standards. New problems and ideas bring up new opportunities to fool yourself. But if the only problem was that people didn’t know the standards they could just invent and try stuff as they go along. So failures of rationality are a result of some knowledge that blocks the invention and testing of new ideas including standards of rationality.
Some of instances of such knowledge may be inexplicit. Parents coercing their children usually don’t have some explicit idea about why they’re doing it. They just think that little Jimmy should brush his teeth and that the way to get him to do that is to make him brush his teeth. This might prevent the child from finding better ways to deal with his teeth, or ways to enjoy tooth brushing or whatever.
Other instances of progress blocking knowledge are explicit. Witness the millions of words used by philosophers trying to explain how to justify ideas (show they are true, or probably true, or good). Trying to justify an idea can entrench it instead of allowing error correction. Also, since justification doesn’t work the argument that these philosophers give is not true as it is stated. So justificationism makes ideas less clear and harder to criticise since you have to try to reconstruct what the argument should be from what was written. And the justification may hide the absence of any substantive argument.
CPs are possible provided you don’t adopt ideas that prevent error correction.