Thursday, March 17, 2022

Is Solving This Problem Wise?

It seems a silly question at first, especially for an American.  If there is a problem, of course we're going to try and solve it. But look at what happens just a little ways downstream, once you embrace the idea that "we have to try and solve this."  If our best idea doesn't work, we're going to go with our second-best idea.  If that doesn't work, we are still figuring that we've got plenty of good ideas, we just haven't quite understood the problem and hit the right one. Eventually, we have tried many things that have not worked, and we are getting to some pretty strange solutions.

Now, that is the pure situation, and reality is going to be different.  All of those previous solutions are going to do something, and some of them are going to do good things. That will sucker us into doing that thing twice as hard, then three times as hard, then Lord knows how many times harder. Yet somehow we don't get to actual solutions for these large things.

Concrete examples might help. I first came across the weakness of the idea in CS Lewis's "Why I Am Not A Pacifist," which he delivered to a pacifist group. 

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life might be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists of tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made.

Yes, precisely.  Once we have embraced the idea that we must solve World Hunger rather than this hunger, or achieve Universal Peace instead of fixing today's situation, or Systemic Racism versus identifiable injustices means we have ceased solving anything at all.  We are now merely reciting platitudes. The problem is not (no escape here) that we have diluted our efforts and spread ourselves too thin, though we have indeed done that. It is that we have changed our aim without noticing. Jesus doesn't say anything about Universal Peace or World Hunger or Systemic Racism, even though he addresses some examples of all those problems.  I don't think it is good for us to run ahead of Him and say "Oh, I see the pattern here!  I can generalise this into a much bigger goal! Got it!" I think he could have summarised in that way if He chose.  He summarised the forty days of temptation in the desert down to three main categories of a couple of sentences each pretty darn well, after all.

Norman Borlaug did a great deal to solve World Hunger.  He wasn't trying to solve world hunger, but to improve some plants.

Larger problems are a snare which prevent us from fixing anything at all.  The devil laughs.


Korora said...

The cops who arrested James Earl Ray did more for the fight against white supremacism than everyone who thinks they have a perfect solution to the problem.

Thos. said...

Well said.

I've come to understand that (for me at least) the lesson of the parable of the good Samaritan is that my duty (if I really mean it when I say that I am a Christian) is to help the person who is right in front of me - whoever that happens to be.

I am to help them directly, without pause or hesitation; and I am to employ my own skill, strength, time, money, and "stuff" to do it.

There's nothing in the story about organizing others to care for people, or drive out the thieves, or make the road safer, or even about feeding the hungry in the next town.

Nor is there anything about appropriating others' time or money to achieve any of these ostensibly good ends.

There's not even any suggestion that it might be good to join up with other good people and work together on helping people. [I'm not saying it's wrong to do that though.]

My job is to help the person right in front of me (and to recognize that if I'm actually looking right in front of me, there's pretty much always someone for me to help right there). I suspect that if I really "looked" right in front of me, I'd be so busy I'd never even have time to think about any "bigger" problems.

Of course, I pretty much suck at it. (But it might be that I suck a little less in my middle years than I did as a young man. Maybe)

james said...

It often isn't easy to even define what the big problem is.

In math the rule of thumb is that if you can't solve the problem you're working on, try a bigger one that includes it. But math is well defined, and your solutions or failures don't change the nature of the problem.

james said...

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the midst of the French Revolution the revolting citizens led a priest, a drunkard and an engineer to the guillotine. They ask the priest if he wants to face up or down when he meets his fate. The priest says he would like to face up so he will be looking towards heaven when he dies. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. The authorities take this as divine intervention and release the priest.

The drunkard comes to the guillotine next. He also decides to die face up, hoping that he will be as fortunate as the priest. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. Again, the authorities take this as a sign of divine intervention, and they release the drunkard as well.

Next is the engineer. He, too, decides to die facing up. As they slowly raise the blade of the guillotine, the engineer suddenly says, "Hey, I see what your problem is ..."

G. Poulin said...

I have noticed a tendency among Christians to draw out general principles from the words and acts of Jesus, principles that he never intended to teach. For instance, because Jesus once or twice fed some hungry people, it becomes the mission of the church to end world hunger. Or because he occasionally healed some people of their diseases, it becomes the church's mission to improve health care for everybody. Jesus' much more limited intentions in doing these things is ignored. The general principle, which is entirely fictive, replaces the original intent. That's how we end up with false gospels.

G. Poulin said...

In reply to Thos : Jesus's answer to the lawyer's question "Who is my neighbor?" is "Good Samaritans are your neighbors", not "Guys in ditches are your neighbors". The lawyer is supposed to see himself as like the beat-up fellow, looking to see who will come to his aid --- and look, it's the despised Samaritan who turns out to be the neighbor. Jesus isn't trying to get his followers to be more altruistic -- he's trying to get them to be less xenophobic. We should always see ourselves as the needy one, the one who needs saving, and never as the potential hero of the story.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is fascinating to me that a biblical interpretation that intends kindness and good for mankind smuggles in such difficulties. I will offer what I think is a key. I would ordinarily not object to the more expansive interpretation, trying to reason that I do not necessarily understand all things and well-meaning people can develop different emphases that are entirely legitimate. It's not like that perspective is opposite from Christian teachings, and generalising is not forbidden, certainly.

But those who take this view move so quickly to the idea that this is the gospel, this is the only way that warning flags go up for me. It is not universal in that group, but it is so common that I think it is a signpost. Hubris, or something like it, is baked in. It is very Screwtape.

G. Poulin said...

Poulin's Law : In any church where any form of the social gospel gets a foothold, the gospel proper will eventually be found to be unwelcome. It's not just a different Christian perspective; it's an anti-Christian perspective. You are right to smell smoke.

Donna B. said...

I see a correlation with Scott Alexander's "Justice Creep" but I can't quite figure out why.