27 April 2007

When Values Have No Value

From Harper's April 2007 index:

  • Percentage of American adults held in either prison or mental institutions in 1953 and today, respectively: 0.67, 0.68
  • Percentage of these adults in 1953 who were in mental institutions: 75
  • Percentage today who are in prisons: 97

Lots of men love alcohol and love their families. The men who love alcohol more than their family have very different lives from the ones who love their family more than they love alcohol.
A list of values is of little value for decisions unless it is prioritized. For instance, an institution may value both innovation and tradition. If the institution is a computer chip manufacturer, they may do well to value innovation more than tradition. If the institution is a church, they may do well to reverse that, valuing tradition more than innovation.

Some choices in life and politics are between bad and bad. Politicians like to pretend that they will institute a system that will provide for the needy, but only the needy. Well, this promise is nonsense. A welfare system will have a margin of error. It will either do the bad thing of abandoning genuinely helpless people who need help - the orphans, the mentally incompetent, the unfortunate - or it will do the bad thing of subsidizing the lifestyle of the lazy, the leeches, the societal parasites who exploit assistance. The question is not whether you'd like a perfect system. Everyone would. The question is whether you would prefer a system that ensures that the weak and helpless were cared for at the risk of including those who ought not to get help or a system that makes sure no cheaters get helped at the risk of abandoning those who genuinely need help.

Will a politician accept a system likely to encroach on individual rights or likely to result in abuse of the crowd? Give the individual the rights to own guns even when you know that this will mean more tragic deaths? Give the individual the right to privacy, to free assembly, to criticize the government even though you know that this will result in more chaos, more protests, more disruption of daily life and, yes, even more deaths? We like to think that such choices have to do with the common good. It may be more honest to think about these choices as the choices between bad and bad. Do we limit individual rights or accept more tragedy?

In this sense, the game of politics is rather like the children's game of "Would you rather ... be sat on by an elephant or eaten by a tiger?" Wouldn't it be fun to force candidates to play this game? Would you rather take away freedoms of everyone or allow the tragic death of some? Leave unfortunates homeless and ill or subsidize the slothful? Alllow tyranny to persist or launch an invasion and occupation? Chase investment capital out of the country or abuse workers? Bankrupt farmers or subsidize the cost of food and increase the incidence of obesity? Destroy the environment or trigger an economic depression? Subsidize a person in a mental institution or in a prison, treat him like a person with a mental health problem or a criminal?

Politicians tend to sound alike when talking about the ideals they espouse and would pursue. The compassionate conservative might sound just like the pragmatic liberal. But how different they might sound if instead of talking about the ideal they'd pursue, they spoke instead about the lesser of evils, of how they might choose between two bads. Now that would be fascinating to hear and would, I think, tell us much more about who they really are. It is the choice made between two goods or two bads that defines us.


David said...

Also easier to be pandered to rather than to take responsibility for our own well-being, our own health care, our own education, our own children, our own neighbors, our own communities, etc. As for causes, my brother-in-law is a psychiatrist at a state prision (near you Ron) and when I ask him about looking at causes among his clients he only smiles.

David said...


Don't think I don't appreciate your passion for helping others. There should be more like you.

Chrlane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chrlane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tisha! said...

As usual very profound!

I also would like to see our leaders reflect on the lesser of evils, of how they might choose between two bads...they sugarcoat so much or simply criticize others without allowing us to examine their analytical skills.

Life Hiker said...

It would have been interesting to hear GWB talk to us about the real intelligence on Iraq and the various potential outcomes if we were to invade - before he told us his choice, and why he made it.

cce said...

life hiker - I'm not sure GWB had or has a full grasp of the real intelligence on Iraq or the various potential outcomes of our invasion. I'd like to think his handlers had some knowledge of the complexities but I'm pretty sure they decided that informing W was just too much information in the hands of the inept.

Ron Davison said...

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by your comment about pandering. Are you suggesting that this .67% of the population is simply irresponsible? I suspect that the percentages of certain types of people doesn't vary much. Didn't Christ say, The poor you shall always have with you. I suspec that .67% of the population is simply in need of some kind of help and doubt that advances in genetic engineering or education will ever reduce that to zero.

Ron Davison said...

Leaders who are more transparent in their decision-making do create more knowledge. Parents and teachers who explain themselves to their children and students help to create smarter adults. Sugarcoating or spinning just confuses people trying to learn, I suspect.

Ron Davison said...

I've thought it would be fascinating to hear what Bush was really thinking and then it occurred to me that his simplistic explanations of his reasoning may, indeed, have been just what he was thinking. No conspiracy, no Machiavellian maneuverings, no complex and grand plans to hide.

Ron Davison said...

I once read about aliteracy. The illiterate can't read and the aliterate don't bother. I suspect that George may be aanalytic.