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The Better-Best Fallacy

Toni Vogel Carey argues that perfection is over-rated.

As American graduating students know, cum laude is good, but magna is better, and summa is best. That said, the good-better-best relation is not as simple as it seems. Better turns out to be better than we have supposed, while perfection gets only mixed reviews.

In a way, this is a story about the high road versus the low. Set, as you might expect, in Scotland, its characters are mostly Scottish Enlightenment philosophers: David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid, et al.

End-State versus Process

A useful distinction is drawn in socio-political literature between ‘end-state’ and ‘process’ theories. End-state theories are about conscious goals, and the means-end reasoning required to reach them. I call these ‘high road’ theories because, firstly, they are based on reason, which raises homo sapiens above the ‘lower’ animals; secondly, the end state can be highly idealistic, as in Robert Owen’s utopian vision of a society with “no ignorance, no poverty, and no charity,” to quote J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress, “which ensures the happiness of the human race throughout all future ages.”

Process theories, by contrast, rely neither on goals nor, therefore, on means-end reasoning. Consequently these ‘low road’ theories can apply to genes as well as ‘memes’, Darwinian evolution being the paradigm case in point. In the social sciences, the best-known process theory is Adam Smith’s invisible-hand principle. Smith says in his Wealth of Nations that individuals acting solely for their own gain are often “led by an invisible hand” to promote the good of society, sometimes more effectively than when they deliberately try to promote it. Their own acts are often goal-directed, on the end-state model; but the distinctive feature of invisible hand phenomena is the societal outcome such acts unintentionally produce.

We find it hard to believe that self-interest can be conducive to the public good, since most people equate it with selfishness, and so consider it bad for individuals and worse for society. We also find it hard to believe that anything of significance can come about without a purpose and plan, which is one reason for the furor still raging in some quarters over the defeat of Intelligent Design by ‘Grandfather Baboon’. Smith’s theory is rejected by those on the political Left, Darwin’s by those on the religious Right. But one thing these theories have in common is that both seem too good to be true. “Many instincts are so wonderful,” Darwin confesses in the Origin of Species, “that their development will probably appear to the reader a difficulty sufficient to overthrow my whole theory. ”

Smith and Darwin

Too-good-to-be-trueness is not the only likeness between Darwin’s process theory and Smith’s. Commentators have made much of Social Darwinism, the position that biological ‘survival of the fittest’ explains and justifies commercial competition ‘red in tooth and claw’. But that connection, if not specious, is superficial at best. A more fundamental kinship is increasingly recognized by historians and philosophers of science, and by political and economic theorists: the idea of ‘spontaneous order’. Adam Ferguson’s variation on the invisible hand principle says that “nations stumble upon establishments which are… the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” And by ‘establishments’ the Scottish thinkers meant such foundational elements of social existence as language and law, money and property.

In other words, they were social evolutionists, as evidenced by Adam Smith’s well-known four-stage theory of society: from hunting to shepherding to agriculture to commerce – from ‘rude’ to ‘polished’. As evolutionists, the Scots emphasized instinct, intuition and common sense over means-end reasoning. The French philosophes placed Reason above Nature; the Scottish philosophers did just the opposite. David Hume laid down the gauntlet with his famous assertion that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. ” Smith too considered our “first perceptions of right and wrong” not the workings “of reason, but of immediate sense and feeling.” Thomas Reid, generally considered the founder of the Scottish Common Sense School, trenchantly remarked that had “the Author of our being” left the preservation of the species to reason alone, it “would long ago have been extinct.” Wisely, therefore, the Author left this task to nature, whose two great purposes, Smith says in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, are “the support of the individual, and the propagation of the species.”

Darwin, continuing this idea, remarks in The Descent of Man on “the formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process.” It is highly probable, he says, that both “the intellectual faculties” and “sympathy” – a concept central to both Hume’s and Smith’s moral theories – were acquired and perfected through natural selection. When Stephen Jay Gould says that Smith’s and Darwin’s theories are “uncannily similar,” this, not Social Darwinism, is what he has in mind. Taking this thought even further, Alex Rosenberg said in a recent Romanell Lecture that “even the apparent products of human design, and the cognitive activities of their designers, must in the end be understood as the products of Darwinian mechanisms. ”

If that is so, then process theories are indispensable in the social sciences, just as they are in biology. We have been very slow to recognize this. But then, except for Hume’s philosophical challenges and Smith’s political economics, the Scottish Enlightenment virtually disappeared from history and philosophy books for well over a century – like Brigadoon.

Trees and Ladders

The paradigmatic symbol of process theories is the tree, branching out in endlessly varied, unplanned configurations; for these theories describe nature, which as Gould decorously notes, is “full of slop and redundancy.” End-state theories might best be symbolized by a ladder, rising step by measured step, as regular as clockwork. Not only are ladders products of human design and engineering, but they are associated with getting to the top, as in climbing the social, or corporate, or military ladder. On the end-state model, anything below the top rung of the ladder implies a degree of failure or deficiency.

Soon after its establishment in 1831, the British Association for the Advancement of Science cast the sciences in a hierarchical good-better-best mold, with physics on the top rung of the ladder; the other sciences were compared unfavorably to the pristine perfection of Newton’s Principia. This end-state theory still prevails, and it seems apt for some scientific endeavors, such as the quest for a unified field theory and an ultimate Theory of Everything. Much that goes on in science, though, does not fit this mold. For one thing, with Darwin and then DNA, biology is coming to rival physics for pride of place. For another, scientific discovery is often serendipitous; think of Penicillin or Post-it notes. Even theoretical physicists themselves seem to consider science as much a process as an end-state enterprise. “The mainspring of scientific thought is not an external goal toward which one must strive, ” Einstein said, but simply “the pleasure of thinking.”

Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that a number of respected philosophers consider science less like a ladder than a tree. Karl Popper likens science both to Darwinian natural selection and Smith’s invisible hand. So too the philosopher of biology David Hull in his aptly named Science as a Process. Hull, in fact, defines science simply as “a process by which scientists go from some knowledge to more knowledge.” No end-states there.

Comparatives and Superlatives

The end-state/process split has a long heritage. The end-state ‘high road’ goes back to Plato and Parmenides (the Form of the Good, the One), and the process ‘low road’ to Aristotle and Heraclitus (perpetual flux). Aristotle was a biologist as well as a philosopher, and one of his central ideas was that each thing strives to be perfectly itself and to reach its natural place. Plainly this involves a final cause or end state, but reaching it is not a function of conscious design and means-end reasoning. There is a big difference, of course, between Aristotelian and Darwinian evolution. Aristotle’s immanent teleology, though, is in some ways a precursor of ‘functional explanation’ in biology, which is often stated in terms like ‘in order to’ or ‘for the sake of’.

Platonic Forms or Ideas provide the model for wordly things, an ideal standard by which these poorer imitations are to be measured and understood. The implication here is that comparatives (e.g. ‘better’) are to be defined in terms of their corresponding superlatives (e.g. ‘best’). But this idea is apparently unworkable. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on ‘Degrees of Perfection’, David Sanford points out the seeming impossibility of defining a comparative in terms of a superlative without bringing in another comparative. Instead of “Bond paper is whiter than newspaper,” we could say, “Bond paper is closer than newspaper to being pure white;” but that just exchanges one comparative (whiter) for another (closer). And if we try to define ‘pure white’ as ‘the whitest possible’, we seem thrown back, full-circle, on a comparison like ‘than which nothing can be whiter’.

Perhaps it would be better to reverse things, and define superlatives in terms of their corresponding comparatives. This solution seems particularly compelling when you consider that superlatives often are simply comparatives in disguise. We find this with Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, and even arguably with Leibniz’s ‘best of all possible worlds’. As A.O. Lovejoy points out in The Great Chain of Being, the best possible world need not be perfect, or even come close; it need only best the competition.

Real and Ideal

Boyle’s gas law and Galileo’s law of falling bodies are classic examples of the method of approximation to an ideal limit-case. For Plato, Forms are real as well as ideal; in fact they are real because they are ideal. The ideal limit-case of modern science, by contrast, is purely methodological, not metaphysical. Its objective is not to reach the limit-case. It is to pinpoint a scientific law’s precise locus of truth, which actual conditions are never expected to reach, and to connect this science-fictional dot by a continuum to the world we actually observe. That allows the scientist to study things ‘in themselves’, as they would be in the absence of interfering conditions, which in the real world are unavoidable.

The Scottish thinkers aimed to construct a ‘science of man’ on this Galilean/Newtonian model. Thus Adam Ferguson describes moral progress as a “continual approach to the infinite perfection of what is eternal,” and compares it to a curve described by geometers as “in continual approach to a straight line, which it never can reach.”

Unlike particular goals – getting a PhD, say, or making the equestrian team – ideals provide an overarching sense of purpose and direction to one’s life. “Ideals are like stars,” Carl Schurz said. “You will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny. ”

Perfectionism and Perfectibilism

‘Perfectibility’ can be defined either as the capacity to achieve perfection, or more modestly, as the capacity to progress indefinitely toward it. I call the first, which correlates with the end-state ‘high’ road, perfectionist, and the second, which correlates with the process ‘low’ road, perfectilibist. We guffaw at utopian theories as hopelessly unrealistic; and indeed, according to J.B. Bury, Robert Owen’s attempt to actualize his utopian socialist vision proved “a ludicrous failure.” End-state scenarios can be too unforgiving in their expectations, whereas their process counterparts may aim toward an ideal, but they don’t get caught up in excessive optimism.

Speaking of which, consider the form of optimism famously advanced by Leibniz, that “everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.” As lampooned by Voltaire in Candide, this is at once ludicrously cheerful and downright depressing, for it leaves no room for improvement in what we know to be a woefully imperfect world.

But do we actually want the world to be perfect? That would produce two alternatives: remaining forever the same, or worsening. Presumably no one wants the latter; but the former too leaves a lot to be desired. There is the problem of unrelenting boredom, which makes perfection itself look suspiciously like worsening. At the least, as Lovejoy sagely observes, “it is not obvious that remaining forever unchanged should be regarded as an excellence. ”

Perhaps the best possible world, then, is not one that is perfect, but rather one in which, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “there is a force always at work to make the best better and the worst good.” It may be worth noting that Emerson was raised on Scottish Common Sense philosophy as a Harvard undergraduate, and his later essays reveal an ongoing trust in nature and intuition, and a disdain for means-end reasoning.

Ideals provide the bull’s eye to aim for, but as the Scottish thinkers realized, it is just as well that we can only approach, and not achieve them; for we benefit more from the approach than we would from the achievement. To quote from Smith’s Wealth of Nations:

“It is in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of the labouring poor, of the great body of the people, seems to be the happiest …The progressive state is in reality the cheerful and the hearty state to all the different orders of the society. The stationary is dull; the declining, melancholy.”

What I call the better-best fallacy is the mistake of assuming what seems obvious, that the best automatically tops the better. The truth is more nuanced – tricky even, since it leads to a point where tautology meets paradox. The moral of this Scottish tale is that as a guiding star, best is best; but as a rule of life, better is better.

© Toni Vogel Carey 2008

Toni Vogel Carey, a philosophy professor in a former life, is on the US board of advisors for Philosophy Now, and writes about the history of ideas.

To find out more:

• Adam Ferguson, Selected Philosophical Writings, edited by Eugene Heath (Library of Scottish Philosophy, 2007)

• Ronald Hamowy, The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987).

• Toni V. Carey, ‘The Invisible Hand of Natural Selection, and Vice Versa’, Biology and Philosophy 1998, 13: pp. 427-42.

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