Saturday, December 21, 2013

Objectives And Constraints

Forgive me, Gentle Reader. I'm feeling unusually philosophical this fine Saturday morning, which renders me reluctant-approaching-incapable of writing about the newsgarbage as I normally do. If you find what follows boring, or too high-flown for your tastes, just remember: it's only Saturday.

"Know how to make God laugh? You tell him your plans." -- Origin unknown.

I employed that line in Shadow Of A Sword, to emphasize the inescapable uncertainties inherent in even a successful plan. The speaker, presidential candidate Stephen Graham Sumner, is troubled by the unintended consequences of his successful drive for the Oval Office. Sumner, a bright and knowledgeable man, is aware that every cause has more than one effect, and that there had to be "extra" consequences to his campaign than just the vote totals. Yet he finds himself edging away from his goal because of the violence his pursuit of the presidency has elicited.

(To my fiction readers: Yes, there will be future stories about the Sumner years. Hang in there.)

Those of us who make and chafe at unsuccessful plans -- i.e., everyone -- sing our laments in a different key, of course. But that's in the nature of Nature. We can plan; we can implement our plans; we can pursue them with all the force and skill at our disposal...but we cannot guarantee their outcomes.

The one thing it's within human power to guarantee is that we shall not do some particular thing, or some category of things. All else is subject to being overruled by the laws of Nature.

Isabel Paterson was the first writer I encountered to enumerate these critical characteristics of Mankind:

  1. Man is a rational animal, capable of inferring causal relations from his observations of reality;
  2. Each of us is self-motivating and self-actuating -- i.e., our desires and decisions are individual;
  3. Each of us possesses the ability to inhibit himself -- i.e., to refrain from an action, however desirable he might deem the rewards that might flow from it.

That third characteristic is the one on which I'd like to concentrate for the moment.

Why would Smith, who has conceived of a course of action that he expects would bring him some greatly desired reward, voluntarily refrain from taking that course?

  • He might be too risk-averse to pursue it;
  • He might doubt his own forecast of success;
  • He might be uncertain that the reward is real;
  • He fears unforeseeable unintended consequences;
  • The reward would be accompanied by a loss of equal or greater magnitude:
  • His conscience forbids it.

That last possibility brings us into the domain of ethics and ethical psychology, which makes it difficult to analyze by impersonal means. However, the others are bald recognitions of the inherent uncertainties of life under the veil of time. In effect, they concede the primacy of Natural Law, which operates continuously, offers no exemptions, and is indifferent to individual desires, opinions, and identities.

We cannot be certain that any positive course will eventuate in the outcome we seek, Only one certainty is granted us: that if we refrain from doing a particular thing, then we will not do that thing. A man's firm decision not to act cannot be overridden by any external agency.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that "among these [rights] are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," that bit of wisdom might well have been uppermost in his thoughts. As Robert A. Heinlein observed in Starship Troopers:

And the third 'right'? — the 'pursuit of happiness'? It is indeed inalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can 'pursue happiness' as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.

All we can say for certain is what we will not do; all else is subject to the whims of time and chance.

If our personal certainties are so limited, what does that make of our ability to plan and to execute our plans?

Only this: it demands that we be mindful of the possibility of failure. Given that that possibility applies not merely to a complete plan but to each step in such a plan, the farther forward we plan -- the more linkages of cause and effect we insert between our current position and our intended destination -- the less certain we can be of the outcome. More, every single action will have at least two consequences, at least one of which will be undesirable. (See the Second Law of Thermodynamics for a rigorous explanation.) Thus, when toting up the costs of a plan, those negative consequences belong on the debit side of the balance sheet -- and as they're normally just as impossible to be certain about as any other aspect of our plans, the element of risk will always be larger than we can foresee.

Though I've stepped through this evolution of thought as slowly and carefully as natural language will allow, the knowledge itself is something we grasp not by theorizing but from life itself. Indeed, one cannot lay claim to any degree of maturity without first absorbing it.

If you simply must have a political hook on which to hang the above, it does pertain to the utter failure of nearly all government action. Governments, especially left-leaning governments, are obsessed with outcomes. They're forever telling their subjects about how this or that plan will bring about some desirable state of affairs. They're correct so seldom that the great question is why any half-bright human being ever takes their assertions seriously.

It's an old saw that you can always tell when a politician is lying: his lips move. If I exercise all my Christian charity and completely suspend my well-developed cynicism about men who regard themselves as worthy of wielding power over the rest of us, I can grudgingly allow that every eon or so, a politician who promises some rosy outcome from a proposed course in public policy might just sincerely believe it. He still won't be correct. Those who sincerely imagine that "social progress," however they define it, can be brought about by political action might lack mens rea, but the harm they do when allowed power will not be lessened by their warm hearts or their good intentions.

The ability to inhibit himself, humbly mindful of his fallibility and ethically constrained from doing harm in his desire to do good, is the most important characteristic a ruler could possibly possess. Our present agonies reflect how vanishingly rare such figures really are.

What's that you say? From the above I seem to be advocating anarchism? Why, Gentle Reader! Whatever gave you that idea?

Happy Winter Solstice.

No comments: