The ever-present right and wrong

Have you ever had an argument with someone and then thought of the perfect comeback just after the debate is over? Yeah, me too. Rationalist bloggers must be the most susceptible people in the world to this world judging by the number of posts I’ve read that begin with “The other day I was talking to a friend about … and this is why they were wrong…”. Far be it for me to dismiss such posthumous rekindling of lost debates, I actually think that there’s much to be gained by mulling over interesting conversations after the fact. But this post isn’t about whistful comebacks, nor debates among friends, nor even updating beliefs. In fact, this whole first paragraph was simply a red herring so that the first line of my post would be something other than…The other day I was talking to a friend about … and here is why their arguments were wrong.

The particular topic in question isn’t important here because I want instead to make a meta-observation about how people perceive costs and benefits. You see, when people weigh costs against benefits and see that one outstrips the other, the common reaction seems to be to dismiss outright the very existence of the items on the losing side.

First case in point: climate change. It is my belief that, on balance, it would be a good thing if the government introduced regulations forcing new houses to be insulated for energy efficiency. The benefit is an energy-efficient future for the country. The cost is that houses might become slightly more expensive. On my reading, the benefit outweigh the cost. Done. That’s the way to make a decision, but it does not in any way show that house prices will not increase, or that increasing house prices are not bad. It simply states that the bad part (increased house prices) is less bad than counterbalancing good parts (energy-efficiency).

There is no sense in denying that house prices will rise, or denying that rising house prices are a bad thing — that is to miss the point. The right decision hangs on the relative extent of the good and bad outcomes. If, hypothetically, the result of building regulations would be that house prices would soar to such an extent that (absurdly) every single person in the country would become homeless, then the costs would instead outweight the benefits, and building regulations would be a bad idea.

Second case in point: My college recently declared Thursdays as a meat-free day in hall. The benefits were that it would cause a surprisingly significant decrease in the college’s carbon footprint. The costs were that it reduced individual freedom. Those who know me know which side I supported, but the fallacy I want to point out in this post was perpetrated by both sides: While those in opposition were busy arguing that reducing carbon consumption was not at all a good thing, those in favour twisted their tongues trying to show that personal freedom had no real merits. Both of these position are in my opinion absurd. The good-or-badness of meat-free days is dependent on whether or not the costs outweigh the benefits; there is no need to pick a side and deny the very existence of arguments on the other side.

Again a hypothetical scenario serves to illustrate this point: If (absurdly) a meat-free day could save the entire planet from an apocalyptic asteroid impact, then nobody would believe that the affront to freedom could possibly outweigh the enomrous benefit to the entire world. And if (equally absurdly) a meat-free day could only be accomplished by literally locking students in jail cells, then the affront to freedom would surely outweigh the carbon-saving benefits. So reducting carbon consumption is a real benefit and enroaching personal liberty is a real cost. The argument cannot be settled simply by fixating on one or the other. The right choice is a matter of degrees, not absolutes.

So when making decisions, make sure to honestly weigh the costs against the benefits without being tempted to dismiss the existence of items on either side.

~ by alexflint on June 28, 2010.

3 Responses to “The ever-present right and wrong”

  1. A very nice point indeed. way to go ‘rationalist blogger’. Yet, I believe there is a weakness in your argument that can be exploited.

    So during a cost-benefit analysis, in my opinion, people accept (or as u say reject) one over the other so that they are able to go ahead with the decision they take and not let their cognitive load be taken up by this single debate.

    What I mean is that the decision making process is about reaching a point when one (or the majority) is convinced that the decision taken is right and that (the cost or benefit of) one outweighs (the cost or benefit of) the other and not be clouded by the debate all the time.

    And people don’t completely trash the other opinion, they just put one higher than the other in their head so it’s easy for them to deal with it. Take your example of the meat-free day, when the majority (120-80) voted for the motion, it was pretty clear that the benefits outweigh the costs. Yet, the people who voted against have, even now, not forgotten that they lost a bit of freedom (we hear Michelle all the time on this!). Thus, people who voted for it are continuously reminded of that (and some like me are still happy about it every time someone moans!).

  2. Thanks for the comment mate. I think we already agree — I do think that once the costs and benefits have been weighed then a decision needs to be made, but the keyword is “weighed” as opposed to “eliminated”.

  3. […] Cost v/s Benefit analysis is flawed Posted on July 11, 2010 by akshatrathi294 Alex Flint on The Dymaxion Life argues that our Cost v/s Benefit analysis is flawed. I want instead to make a meta-observation about how people perceive costs and benefits. You see, when people weigh costs against benefits and see that one outstrips the other, the common reaction seems to be to dismiss outright the very existence of the items on the losing side…. continue reading. […]

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