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The Third Alternative

Believing in Santa Claus gives children a sense of wonder and encourages them to behave well in hope of receiving presents. If Santa-belief is destroyed by truth, the children will lose their sense of wonder and stop behaving nicely. Therefore, even though Santa-belief is false-to-fact, it is a Noble Lie whose net benefit should be preserved for utilitarian reasons.

Classically, this is known as a false dilemma, the fallacy of the excluded middle, or the package-deal fallacy. Even if we accept the underlying factual and moral premises of the above argument, it does not carry through. Even supposing that the Santa policy (encourage children to believe in Santa Claus) is better than the null policy (do nothing), it does not follow that Santa-ism is the best of all possible alternatives. Other policies could also supply children with a sense of wonder, such as taking them to watch a Space Shuttle launch or supplying them with science fiction novels. Likewise (if I recall correctly), offering children bribes for good behavior encourages the children to behave well only when adults are watching, while praise without bribes leads to unconditional good behavior. Noble Lies are generally package-deal fallacies; and the response to a package-deal fallacy is that if we really need the supposed gain, we can construct a Third Alternative for getting it.

How can we obtain Third Alternatives? The first step in obtaining a Third Alternative is deciding to look for one, and the last step is the decision to accept it. This sounds obvious, and yet most people fail on these two steps, rather than within the search process. Where do false dilemmas come from? Some arise honestly, because superior alternatives are cognitively hard to see. But one factory for false dilemmas is justifying a questionable policy by pointing to a supposed benefit over the null action. In this case, the justifier does not want a Third Alternative; finding a Third Alternative would destroy the justification. The last thing a Santa-ist wants to hear is that praise works better than bribes, or that spaceships can be as inspiring as flying reindeer.

The best is the enemy of the good. If the goal is really to help people, then a superior alternative is cause for celebration—once we find this better strategy, we can help people more effectively. But if the goal is to justify a particular strategy by claiming that it helps people, a Third Alternative is an enemy argument, a competitor.

Modern cognitive psychology views decision-making as a search for alternatives. In real life, it’s not enough to compare options; you have to generate the options in the first place. On many problems, the number of alternatives is huge, so you need a stopping criterion for the search. When you’re looking to buy a house, you can’t compare every house in the city; at some point you have to stop looking and decide.

But what about when our conscious motives for the search—the criteria we can admit to ourselves—don’t square with subconscious influences? When we are carrying out an allegedly altruistic search, a search for an altruistic policy, and we find a strategy that benefits others but disadvantages ourselves—well, we don’t stop looking there; we go on looking. Telling ourselves that we’re looking for a strategy that brings greater altruistic benefit, of course. But suppose we find a policy that has some defensible benefit, and also just happens to be personally convenient? Then we stop the search at once! In fact, we’ll probably resist any suggestion that we start looking again—pleading lack of time, perhaps. (And yet somehow, we always have cognitive resources for coming up with justifications for our current policy.)

Beware when you find yourself arguing that a policy is defensible rather than optimal; or that it has some benefit compared to the null action, rather than the best benefit of any action.

False dilemmas are often presented to justify unethical policies that are, by some vast coincidence, very convenient. Lying, for example, is often much more convenient than telling the truth; and believing whatever you started out with is more convenient than updating. Hence the popularity of arguments for Noble Lies; it serves as a defense of a pre-existing belief—one does not find Noble Liars who calculate an optimal new Noble Lie; they keep whatever lie they started with. Better stop that search fast!

To do better, ask yourself straight out: If I saw that there was a superior alternative to my current policy, would I be glad in the depths of my heart, or would I feel a tiny flash of reluctance before I let go? If the answers are “no” and “yes,” beware that you may not have searched for a Third Alternative.

Which leads into another good question to ask yourself straight out: Did I spend five minutes with my eyes closed, brainstorming wild and creative options, trying to think of a better alternative? It has to be five minutes by the clock, because otherwise you blink—close your eyes and open them again—and say, “Why, yes, I searched for alternatives, but there weren’t any.” Blinking makes a good black hole down which to dump your duties. An actual, physical clock is recommended.

And those wild and creative options—were you careful not to think of a good one? Was there a secret effort from the corner of your mind to ensure that every option considered would be obviously bad?

It’s amazing how many Noble Liars and their ilk are eager to embrace ethical violations—with all due bewailing of their agonies of conscience—when they haven’t spent even five minutes by the clock looking for an alternative. There are some mental searches that we secretly wish would fail; and when the prospect of success is uncomfortable, people take the earliest possible excuse to give up.

The Proper Use of Humility




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