Optimization is wickedness

July 12, 2014 § 21 Comments

13 Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat.
14 How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it! – Matthew 7:13-14

36 For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? – Mark 8:36

8 And not rather (as we are slandered and as some affirm that we say) let us do evil that there may come good? Whose damnation is just. – Romans 3:8

Morality constrains action. A man willing to do evil has all the same tactical options that a man unwilling to do evil has, plus the additional immoral tactical options that the good man will not choose. Consider some uncontroversially worthy worldly goals:

  • Feeding the hungry
  • Caring for the sick
  • Defending your homeland from attack
  • Rescuing hostages
  • Feeding and sheltering your family
  • Keeping your marriage together
  • Finding a wife

In many cases the most effective or efficient means available to accomplish these ends will be immoral means. Only those willing to do evil in order that good may come of it will choose them.

Therefore, very generally speaking, we should expect morally acceptable solutions to worldly problems to be less than optimal when evaluated in worldly terms.

It further follows that we should automatically be suspicious when it is claimed that a particular tactic is an optimal way to achieve a certain goal. It is possible that the claim is “optimal within the bounds of the natural and divine law”; but, this being the modern world, it is probably a temptation toward wickedness.

§ 21 Responses to Optimization is wickedness

  • donalgraeme says:

    I’ve really liked your series on this topic. This is a hard road we walk, and when things seem to get easy we should get suspicious.

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  • jf12 says:


  • Dystopia Max says:

    “we should expect morally acceptable solutions to worldly problems to be less than optimal when evaluated in worldly terms.”

    Or, if we were putting it in ways that weren’t meant to paralyze someone from taking any and all action whatsoever, we would define a heirarchy of values, and put some at a higher, some at a lower level. People who actually want to see improvement actualized can do this easily:

    “To a Carlylean, the main event is the struggle between left and right. Which is the struggle between good and evil. Which is the struggle between order and chaos. Evil is chaos; good is order. Evil is left; good is right. Evil is fiction; good is truth. Gentlemen, there is no other road! The facts, it’s true, are stones between our teeth. Shall we chew these stones? If not now, when?

    Note that if we find a way to make this theory work, we completely explain the Misesian perspective. Mises becomes, as promised, a subset of Carlyle. Freedom is good, because freedom is fundamentally orderly – ie, right-wing. Tyranny is evil, because tyranny is chaotic – ie, left-wing.

    Tyranny is one form of chaos; freedom is one form of order. There are others of each, however. And order is always preferred to chaos. Thus, to a Carlylean, the fatal error of libertarianism is the confusion of anarchy and freedom. Not only are they not the same thing; they are opposite poles of the political spectrum. Freedom – spontaneous order – is the ultimate form of order. Anarchy is the ultimate form of disorder.

    To a Carlylean, anarchy and tyranny are fundamentally and essentially allied and indivisible. And again: the apparent affinity between anarchy and freedom is wholly illusory. In fact: to maximize freedom, eradicate anarchy. To achieve spontaneous order: first, achieve ordinary, down-to-earth, nonspontaneous order. Then, wait a while. Then, start to relax.

    Here is the Carlylean roadmap for the Misesian goal. Spontaneous order, also known as freedom, is the highest level of a political pyramid of needs. These needs are: peace, security, law, and freedom. To advance order, always work for the next step – without skipping steps. In a state of war, advance toward peace; in a state of insecurity, advance toward security; in a state of security, advance toward law; in a state of law, advance toward freedom.

    The Newtonian envelope of libertarianism is the last of these stages. Once the state of lawful government is reached, that state can generally improve itself by minimizing its interventions and applying a policy of laissez-faire – advancing from enforced to spontaneous order. With the caveat, of course, that this policy not jeopardize the more important achievements of peace, security, and law.”

    I have to say, Chesterton really didn’t do Carlyle justice in his Victorian Age in Literature:

    “His philosophy largely remained a heavy Teutonic idealism, absurdly unaware of the complexity of things; as when he perpetually repeated (as with a kind of flat-footed stamping) that people ought to tell the truth; apparently supposing, to quote Stevenson’s phrase, that telling the truth is as easy as blind hookey.”

    I will take the Protestant admirers over the Catholic apologists in this case, though much of what Chesterton writes elsewhere is immensely creditable, doubtless due to his upbringing in a Protestant country.

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  • Mike T says:

    This post reminded me of an argument we had about Israel and Hamas. I may not agree with all of the particulars, but I think you are definitely onto something about efficiency uber alles. I’ve had it out with peers in my field about the long term implication of an overly optimized society. The most obvious example is how people simultaneously want technology to destroy as many unpleasant jobs as possible while lamenting that now there aren’t many non-STEM/finance/political/legal jobs that pay enough to enjoy the American Dream. I suppose the ironic justice in it is that as we free people up to not do this work we find that the highest aspirations of many people are hedonistic which means the problem will probably self-correct within a generation or two as society is no longer able to motivate people to do unpleasant, but necessary things needed to keep those creature comforts.

    But back to the terrorism issue, it should be noted that the flip side is that if Israel did send in the ground forces to systematically engage Hamas you’d also have no shortage of whiners complaining that Israel was merciless to the poor Hamas fighters. There is a large contingent of the Christian world that, like Jimmy Carter, has never met an enemy of civilization it didn’t want to reflexively show “mercy and understanding” toward. In general, I’d saw that sentimentalism is the moral hazard that shadows the cold, hard drive toward efficiency consequences be damned. They both derive from a failing to moderate emotional extremes (an absence in the case of extreme efficiency, an excess with sentimentalism). As such, they are both mortal enemies of prudent governance.

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  • […] is sometimes the most efficient means for someone to solve a particular […]

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  • […] written before that optimization of our actions in pursuit of some proximate material goal is inherently evil, […]

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  • […] immigrants to do work that less pliable brown skinned citizens won’t do as cheaply and efficiently. And it means insuring that the way white people see the world rules supreme. (Wait, […]

  • […] Sure, some percentage of women wouldn’t respond well to the advances of the casino Don. Some actually would respond, but then would be angry later that Big Don didn’t appreciate their snowflake specialness. But as we all know, pickup artistry is a numbers game; and celebrity odds start out much higher than everyman in a funny hat.  I am sure it helps to buy businesses that attract trashy ambitious women who like to show a lot of skin.  That is just good marketing when you are optimizing for a particular result. […]

  • […] live within the constraints of consistency (at least not, uh, consistently); let alone within the constraints of objective moral […]

  • […] offends the gods why should you care that you are constantly being watched?  This is obviously an efficient way to design a civil society with minimal violence; a society which does not require a lot of […]

  • […] His onerous commandments would be terribly non-inclusive and unmerciful, not to mention grossly impractical; so of course what God really wants is for everyone to remain in a safe and comfy state of […]

  • buckyinky says:

    I would that all men of good will would take this post to heart before exclaiming “x are the truey.”

    Where x is a true enemy of the good, the true, the beautiful, and y is any type of person identified by one of the cardinal “sins” against the world – e.g., sexists, racists, xenophobes.

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