Friday, January 13, 2006

A Critical Thinking Exercise: Idealism vs. Logic

People like to think happy thoughts. I am one of those people. But sometimes out happy thoughts just don’t stand up to the brute force of logic. For example:

Ideal: Everyone has positive qualities.

This is something that a friend of mine said last year, and it’s been sticking with me. I think it’s probably a generally accepted statement. But I’m not too sure about it.

Logic: Some people have more positive qualities than others. There are some people that are beautiful in every way physically, and are intelligent and kind as well. But if there are people that have more positive qualities, then necessarily there are people with fewer positive qualities. And probability would lead to the conclusion that some people have no positive qualities. Look at it this way. Assume there are 10 total traits, with one positive, one neutral, and one negative possibility for each of the ten traits. If there are 59,049 total people (3^10), then every possible combination would be covered, and there would be one person with all positive traits and another person with all negative traits.

It’s true, of course, that there are many more traits and more possibilities for each trait, but it’s also true that there are more than 6 billion people in the world. I think it’s logical to assume that there’s at least one person out there that has nothing going for them. Of course, this only covers genetic traits.

Let’s try another.

Ideal: Males and females are perfectly equal and capable of doing all the same things except for a physical advantage in the males.

The Language Guy has been really pushing this lately. It’s politically correct to think it and espouse it. But is it necessarily true?

Premise 1: Attitudes about the respective roles of men and women are culturally-based.
Premise 2: Culture adapts itself through the processes of natural selection, and therefore all cultural norms and practices are beneficial.
Conclusion: Attitudes about the respective roles of men and women are beneficial.

Did that shake your foundations? To some extent it should, at least if you haven’t thought about it before. But on the other hand, it was a test to see how much you’re thinking when you read this. There are two obvious arguments against the conclusion.
The first: natural selection has evolved culture to be beneficial up to a point, but it doesn’t work fast enough to keep up with a change in the environment. The environment has changed (physical labor has become less important while mental faculties have become more important), and so what is beneficial has changed also. How and to what extent are the relevant remaining questions.
The second: the attitudes themselves, though based on cultural experience, are simply a reflection of what is normally the most beneficial division of labor. Therefore, the attitudes in and of themselves are not necessarily beneficial because they may prevent people who are well-equipped to do certain tasks from doing them, or hamper people in doing necessary tasks.

Still, we have many ideals that beg for the application of logic. At the same time, the ideals aren’t necessarily harmful even if they aren’t true. The reverse of this approach could be applied as well, in an effort to debunk popular pessimistic ideas.


  1. I'm afraid there is no guarentee that there is even a remote chance that there is someone with no positive qualities. Equally, however, there is no guarentee that everyone has positive qualities. However, positive qualities are arguable, so I would put forth that everyone has positive qualities "from someone (other than themselves) viewpoint."

    As for the next argument, you already kind of destroyed it yourself, but I think it's immediate that premise 2 is wrong, or at least needs far more arguing.

    I'm not sure men and women are completely equal- a better argument is that actually the odds of two things being utterly equal are so low that in fact they might as well be zero, so it is probable that one is "better" than the other overall in whatever criteria you might invent. However, this is doesn't suggest radical differences, and also does not imply which is better.

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  3. Good stuff. Posted a response to the first point in my own blog, including a super-awesome simulation to prove my point.

    As for the second point:

    While I don't have a problem with the logic behind the statement, I DO have a problem with the sentiment behind it.

    The statement is one that is commonly cited by women who are out to prove that they can succeed in a "man's world." It generally is used to imply "sameness" between man and women, which is silly.

    Yes, there are many women that are capable of doing "man" things. But men and women are not only physically different, but mentally different as well. We solve problems differently, we respond to stressful situations differently, etc. Therefore, it is a reasonable assumption that IN GENERAL, there are some things that women are better equipped to do than men, and the other way around.

    I have no evidence to back the following statement up, and it's not intended to be a real scenario, but let's assume that in general, a woman's brain is better equipped to deal with abstract mathematical problems than a man, while a man's brain deals better with spacial reasoning (e.g. navigating in a car).

    What would the benefit be to SWAP these roles just for the sake of swapping these roles? If this were the case and the roles were swapped, then forget every mathematical advance, ever. And do you want to get to Hawaii on your vacation, or Idaho? There's just no point.

    Instead of stressing this false "sameness" between the two genders, and swapping roles for the sake of swapping roles, we should acknowledge that women and men do have different abilities, and learn to work better together by accentuating each others' abilities by working together in the roles we are good at instead of awkwardly assuming roles that we aren't as qualified for in the name of "sameness."

  4. 1. While I get the point that you're trying to make, it fails to take into consideration that "positive qualities" are a) relative and b) mutable. For example, just because you find Jane's shyness to be a positive quality doesn't necessarily mean that anyone else does; and perhaps Jane plans to go to law school, where she'll lose all ability to keep her mouth shut.. While you might not find her new-found aggressiveness to be desireable, it's certainly a positive trait in the courtroom...

    2. As to the men/women debate, in stating that equality is the ideal, you (and anyone else who has invoked that statement) have missed the point -- it's not that men and women are of equal ability, but of equal VALUE. The point is that, aside from those roles that are gender specific (i.e. motherhood or fatherhood), one shouldn't be discounted as incompetent because of one's gender.

    I'm glad you undermined your own argument about culture -- it's very much a chicken-or-egg thing... You're also failing to take into consideration the desire of those in power to stay in power. Attitudes about gender roles aren't necessarily reflective of the most beneficial division of labor so much as it's indicative of which group controls the power structure.

    N.B. On the subject of pessimism, psychological studies have shown that pessimists are much more accurate at predicting future events than their optimistic counterparts. Not that pessimists are psychic or anything, but they're more realistic in their predictions...

  5. ". . . We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . "

    We are all equal when we are conceived. We're not all equal when we depart this world. It's the things we do, the thoughts we have, the mark we make, the lives we touch that define us and give our lives value.

    Equality, in my view, is a subjective concept evaluated via opinion and personal (anecdotal) experience. Naturally, men will have entirely different opinions of the statements of women as both counterparts' personal experiences are necessarily different and, generally speaking, have shaped their opinions in divergent and sometimes mutually exclusive directions.

    Though it is admirable to try and quantify "positivity" and weigh "equality," there aren't enough objective facts upon which to premise an objective analysis. Positive to whom? Equal to what? See what I mean?