Why can’t one make judgments on a person / situation / thing with full accuracy?

You may hear things like this often:
– She is good; he is bad; they are awesome;
– Literature is great; literature means nothing; literature is so and so;
– It’s great that this wood exists; it would be better if roads had no bumps.
In this blog post I’ll try to explain why these, while not necessarily wrong, are also not necessarily right.

Warning: a rather complicate blog post ahead.

Let’s start with a situation – you say of someone – “It’s so bad that X smokes”; I will try to explain why this affirmation is neither necessarily true, nor false.

First of all, we have to start with some criteria based on which to make the judgement; the values below are sample values that can be used to analyze the text “It’s so bad that X smokes”:
– My system of values tells me that life is priceless;
– I value others over myself;
– Long-term happiness is better than short-term happiness;
– I think that money should not be wasted;
– Bad habits can influence others into making them try those bad habits;
– We should care for our planet.

If we take all of the above affirmations and try, with them in mind, to analyze: “It’s so bad that X smokes”, we get something like:
– “My system of values tells me that life is priceless” – therefore, X should care for his life too; smoking is generally considered as damaging to your own health, and to the health of others, therefore “It’s so bad that X smokes”;
– “I value others over myself” – by smoking, X makes other suffer (he smells, he gives them second-hand smoke, he sets a poor example, he spends money on a vice, rather than on a positive thing which would help others); therefore “It’s so bad that X smokes”;
– Long-term happiness is better than short-term happiness; X considers one-time pleasure as fine; he prefers to smoke and enjoy the moment, not thinking on the long-term consequences; I disagree with this; therefore “It’s so bad that X smokes”;
– I think that money should not be wasted; my values tell me that there are important things in this life (happiness of others, health of others, basic need of others), and by satisfying my vices, I don’t help others in anyway, thus a vice is a waste of money; therefore “It’s so bad that X smokes”;
– We should care for our planet; the smoke is bad for the air, producing cigarettes involves a lot of work which contributes to the pollution of the planet, any product pollutes the Earth one way or another, and the residues of smoking bring more garbage in the world; therefore “It’s so bad that X smokes”.

I gave you five possible scenarios which, even taken separately, all lead to one conclusion: “It’s so bad that X smokes”.

How can I argue with this? How can I say, in the defense of X, that smoking is not inherently bad?

  • First of all, if we agree that X is a very rational human being, and despite of some thoughts about the process of smoking, X still decides to smoke, perhaps X has some different values than mine; perhaps one of his values are more similar to these:

– My system of values tells me that life is not really that important; I don’t care about life that much;
– I value myself over or at least the same as others;
– Long-term happiness is worse or at least no better than short-term happiness;
– I think that money can be wasted; at least my money;
– I really think that bad habits shouldn’t influence others into making them try those bad habits; they have free will, don’t they?
– The planet can take care of herself;

Now, the very first idea is this – my values and X’s values may not be the same; from my perspective, the sentence: “It’s so bad that X smokes” remains true; but from X’s perspective, the sentence is false; to make it universally acceptable, we can transform it to make it look like this:
“From my perspective, it’s so bad that X smokes; from X’s perspective, him smoking is just fine”;
Whenever saying that a thing / a situation / a person / an act is a positive one, one needs to have a clear reference – it is positive compared to what? What’s the frame of reference?
You can choose various factors when selecting values – morality (this includes spirituality and religion), practical use (what do I get out of this?), social norms (tradition, local habits);

  • The second argument refers to time, space and external factors;
    • Regarding time – we can learn from Wikipedia that people were smoking as early as 5000–3000 BC; I think it’s safe to assume that back then the view of the world was different than today’s society; yet, I have told you nothing about X; X could as well be a primitive person from 2000 BC; can the judgment “bad” or “good” be applied in the same terms now as then? It gets more complicated – to X, living 4000 years ago, the values I have and how I apply those values to make them into actions make little sense; X doesn’t know that “smoke kills”, that smoking is bad for both himself and others, he may consider that Earth resources are infinite, he doesn’t considers neither his time into preparing the cigarette and smoking it nor the resources used for this as a cost etc.; to say, now, in 2000, that 4000 years ago X did a bad thing while smoking is a rather strange thing to do; when judging him, we must his context;
    • Regarding space – World Health Organization had in 2008 a “WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008: the MPOWER package“;
      You can see in the report that there are countries were more than 50% of the population smokes and there are countries were fewer than 20% of the population smokes; it makes a difference if X is smoking and almost everyone around him smokes or if X is smoking as a solitary figure in his society; the judgment: “It’s so bad that X smokes” should also take into account space;
    • Other external factors – it matters if people around X smoke, what is the price of cigarettes in X’s country, how much does X smoke, did the parents of X smoke or not? The list can continue, whether or not X abides the law when smoking, what are the moral ethics of the society in which X lives regarding smoking; if we were to say that it’s bad that X smokes, we should take other factors into account;
      So, smoking has been viewed differently in the past, and will be probably looked at in different terms in the future, is viewed differently in different countries and societies, and is influenced by a lot of other external factors.
  • Another argument in analyzing this sentence – “It’s so bad that X smokes” – is taking into account the opportunity cost;
    According to Wikipedia,

Opportunity cost is the cost related to the next-best choice available to someone who has picked among several mutually exclusive choices. It is a key concept in economics. It has been described as expressing “the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.” The notion of opportunity cost plays a crucial part in ensuring that scarce resources are used efficiently. Thus, opportunity costs are not restricted to monetary or financial costs: the real cost of output forgone, lost time, pleasure or any other benefit that provides utility should also be considered opportunity costs.

In our example, while X smokes a cigarette X could have done another thing, be it one which we consider good or bad, which would derive him a different pleasure;
So, we say “It’s so bad that X smokes”; but what if X has a habit of gambling, and he spends a fortune on gambling and he can only stop if he smokes? This seems pretty bad, so smoking is not that bad of an alternative; but what if X usually plants trees in the wood, and with his new vice of smoking, he stopped doing this? In this case smoking is a bad alternative;
Whenever someone says: “It’s so bad that X smokes”, does that someone takes into account what X could have done it that time? Probably not; even if that someone would take into account this, it would be hard to analyze things, because things get complicated over long-term; what would X have done in 20 years of non-smoking? How would his life look different?

  • Another argument is derived from chaos theory; another quote from Wikipedia:

Chaos theory is a field of study in applied mathematics, with applications in several disciplines including physics, economics, biology and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions; an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. […]
Sensitivity to initial conditions is popularly known as the “butterfly effect”, so called because of the title of a paper given by Edward Lorenz in 1972 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.

To come back to our example, can we say “It’s so bad that X smokes”, considering the chaos theory? Not really; we can’t really know what other things might trigger this; possible positive scenarios of X smoking:
– X reaches the age of 20; he starts smoking; he gets ill, starts researching smoke; quits smoking, but becomes a leading scientist in the anti-cancer fight; he makes a very important discovery on cancer;
– X reaches the age of 20; he starts smoking; his best friend sees how bad this is for X and starts a foundation to help others quit smoking; the foundation has a very big impact; now to say that this is a positive scenario, we would also have to know what X would have done had X not started smoking in the first place;
– X reaches the age of 20; he starts smoking; he goes on a plane with 9 non-smoking friends; they are forced to land in a deserted area, at night; wolves surround them; he is the only one with a lighter, due to this habit of smoking; they light a fire and survive until rescued;
– Examples can be smaller or bigger than this, but consider this – if X smokes or not, this influences a lot of things around him: the profit of the cigarette manufacturer, the air pollution, how others view him, what kind of social interactions he has, how he smells, how he views the addiction issue; all of these can have a positive or negative impact on the world; put this on a long time-frame, and things become too complicated to be able to be analyzed; you can’t actually say, on an 100 years frame, what did smoking did to X and the society around him; and to get to know what did smoking / not smoking could have done to all the society, the world as a whole is, again, too complicated to be analyzed; we just don’t have enough data.

So, how would the “right” solution looks like? What can we do say about X’s habit of smoking? I think a rather fair (oops!, this might be a word which would require a more complex analysis to be confirmed as true) saying would be:
– Medicine tells us that, according to studies, smoke has the following bad effects on health: A, B, C (for a list of diseases, see Wikipedia);
– While it’s not 100% sure that X will suffer from a chronic disease due to smoking, studies have shown that smokers have an economic impact on a country’s medical system, due to the fact that healing diseases costs the state money;
– Although it’s not certain if the habit of smoking by X will induce a positive inspiration on a person or a negative stay-out-of-this habit example, there is a risk that when someone sees X smoking, that someone might copy its habit;
– According to its own statements, had X not smoked: he would have donated the money to a local charity foundation, he would have practiced more sports, he would have been happier; do note that these affirmations don’t necessarily imply that X or society would have been better had X not smoked;
– Based on the social norms in the country, the fact that X smokes in public places is considered unethical;
– X’s religion has a negative view on the smoking.

I was biased in the examples above, and gave only examples which would make the habit of smoking by X look bad; even with all that data, there’s still so much missing in the picture to be able to accurately say that “It’s so bad that X smokes”, that it’s better anyone refrains from it; what could stop it? I will present you arguments based on the ideas presented above:
– We know nothing about X’s values; and even if my values would be against smoking, X’s values would be against smoking, and there would only be one person in this world who would consider smoking to be good, then we couldn’t say “It’s so bad that X smokes”, because there would be at least one person in the world who probably wouldn’t agree; my values are not the values of the society as a whole; sure, I can say “According to my values/opinion/view, it’s so bad that X smokes”;
– We still know little to none on a lot of factors which would make the analysis wrong; how can we know how much of X’s habit is inherited or learned in the society? Even our values may be wrong – although we have a lot of data on smoke impact on health and on the environment, we can’t say with 100% accuracy, that the habit of X will have only a negative impact on himself, the society and others, based strictly on the current knowledge on health and ecology; sure, we can estimate with a high accuracy that it’s most likely to be a negative impact; it’s even enough to say “we’re pretty sure”; but it’s not accurate enough to say with 100% determination that: “It’s so bad for his health and for the environment that X smokes”; an accurate affirmation would be: “Based on our current information, it’s safe to say that it’s an overall negative thing for his health and for the environment that X smokes”; this yes, is fine;
– One can’t know for sure what X’s life would have looked like hadn’t he smoke; people tend to assume “if X doesn’t smoke, X will do something better instead”; this isn’t necessairly true;
– Life is complex – a small action as buying or not a cigarette pack today can develop into other things; if someone sees X smoking, this single event might change its life in better or worse; on a long-term period, this is impossible to analyze; X might influence another person in an inspirational way or be a bad example; the smoking habit will certainly influence other aspects of the life; it’s all too complex to analyze.

I showed you above why this: “It’s so bad that X smokes” is a sentence which, while not necessarily false, is not necessarily true either; it’s just too complex to be qualified as true or false; let’s apply this logic to all of the affirmations in the first paragraph:

  • “She is good; he is bad; they are awesome;”; critics:
    • Clearly, we analyze this based on our values; but for the affirmations to be exact, they’d had to valid through everybody’s set of values; which is obviously not true;
    • Let’s have an Y person and say that Y is performing good at his job in an top performing society (a developed country), or let’s put Y to be a good professional in a low performing society (a corrupt and inefficient country); our view on “good” probably differs now; although he’s the same person, the analysis is different – it’s not much of a virtue to be good when everyone else is great, but it’s so very great to be good in a system which encourages you to never perform well;
    • Let’s say Y has a life at the end of which Y becomes a good professional in his job; you say Y is good; on the other hand, Y can also lead a life by which he is not just a good professional, but a star; you say Y is good or perhaps very good; but looking at things like this, would you say that in the first case Y did good to become just good at his job? Or it’s actually a failure to the star professional which he could have been?
    • In Romanian, we have a saying about medical procedures – the operation went great, though the patient died; sure, we can have a very hard working, top performer, virtuous person, who makes a very bad decision, which affects many lives for the worse; is this a good person or not?
    • Y has a sister, Z; Z’s behavior will be affected by the decisions Y makes; if Y does morale decisions, he may influence her to also care for morality; but she can also rebel against this, perhaps if Y imposes his decisions too much; it only takes a first negative act to start a bad life; Z can be evil if Y is good; in that case, is Y good or bad?

What can we say about Y?

    • According to the predominant religion in Y’s country, Y leads a virtuous life;
    • Y has the following qualities – quick thinker, good control of emotions, sportsman, living a healthy lifestyle;
    • The impact Y has on me is so and so;
    • Y’s sister, Z, says his impact on her life by her brother was so and so;
    • During the past 10 years, Y did this: started a career in advertising, founded a family, volunteered for a local NGO;
  • “Literature is great; literature means nothing; literature is so and so”; critics to this:
    • To me, this may be the case; to others, no; I can’t impose my view on the world, even with “just” an affirmation;
    • Prior to the written word, literature had a totally different value than today;
    • People have dedicated a lot of time to creating what we call today “world literature”; how could we know what the world would have looked, had this time been dedicated to something else? I’m not saying this would lead to a better or worse example, I’m just saying it’s impossible to make a definite call;
    • How do you know what effect will literature bring 200 years from now?

Still, what can we say about literature?

    • Literature, means to me this and that;
    • Literature has provided the following effects in history: a, b, c;
    • Studies show that people who read literature tend to: d, e, f;
    • Literature writers tend to have a much greater g, h, i, than the rest of the society;
    • Literature grew from j to k and then to l due to m;
  • “It’s great that this wood exists; it would be better if roads had no bumps”; critics to this:
    • Perhaps those who are being paid by contracts to repair road bumps would prefer the situation to remain the same – roads with bumps on them -, won’t you say?
    • Let’s say a couple of teens has a car accident; they must walk through the nearest town; they’re in Africa, very hot; only on a deep road bump do they find some water, which keeps them alive just enough for them to reach the town; do you think they appreciate the bump in the road being there?
    • What if 40 years from now we’ll all be able to fly and we find out that instead of fixing road bumps, we should have focused on hurrying the flight development via more funding?
    • Gangsters follow a businessman by car; they want to shoot; due to a road bump, the gangster’s car moves unexpectedly and the bullet that was meant to kill the businessman just misses; another road bump (a big one) puts the gangster’s car to a halt; the businessman is saved (twice) by the road bumps; could the road designers have predicted this when they made a poor road 5 years ago? No; is it important today, 5 years after? Yes it is; it was too complex to be analyzed at the time;

Hmm, but can we say something about road bumps?

    • A lot of people report feeling frustrated by road bumps;
    • Road bumps are the cause of many car problems;
    • Some road bumps have caused accidents in the world which resulted in loss of human lives;
    • According to surveys, roads without road bumps are perceived as safer;
    • According to studies, there is a correlation between 4WD (four-wheel drive) cars usage and percentage of roads with more than 4 bumps on a kilometer;
    • My feelings towards road bumps are this and that.

Practical uses of this message – I hope I was able to demonstrate correctly above that some sentences, to be valid in all circumstances, should be presented in certain ways, with some extra clarifications; how can you use the above explanations for a better life?

  • If I were you, I’d look more carefully at the way some sentences may be interpreted; if a sentence sounds like an universal truth, you might want to refine it, to make it specific for a certain situation; I’ve seen some cases in which this is seen as wrong: “Why do I need to specify that’s my opinion? It’s obviously my opinion”; actually, this isn’t the case; the sentence “People are good” may represent a value of the company I work for, may be an opinion of mine, may be applicable (this is the way the I meant to say it) only to the local community I live in, may refer to today’s society, not one 200 years ago, it may refer to being good for me as a person (not to the planet, not to other people); say what you mean by “People are good”;
  • Let’s say you hear someone say “I’m the best person in the world”; is that a wrong or a right affirmation? Well, considering the chaos theory, where even day-to-day gestures may trigger events that can ultimately decide very important events, that person may as well be the best person in the world; it’s an uncertainty; surely, there are other factors to be taken into account – if that person can’t give solid arguments for that affirmation (and according to the demonstration above, he/she really can’t), then it’s an affirmation which is said without enough data; this is, thus, controversial;
  • You look at a couple and say – “They are so wrong”; the next thought should be “Oops, perhaps they are, but perhaps they aren’t, things are more complicated”; you should then try and explain it like this: “They are wrong, from my perspective, considering these values, for these reasons: this and that”, for a brighter image, you could consider what may be the positive outcomes of the act that makes you feel they are doing something wrong;
  • Winston CHURCHILL said:

    No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    OK, we have incomplete data, we live in a world with not enough information; before acting, should we first take the time to get all the possible data, look from every possible angle, try to understand everything, read all about it? I don’t think this is a solution either; my points above only emphasize that a final affirmation: “X is good”, “Y is bad” is, in some situations, hard to prove 100% right; but this doesn’t mean that paralysis is a better solution; some situations ask for quick decisions; sometimes not deciding leads to the worst possible outcome; sometime, you need to take a leap of faith; surely, we might be wrong, but doing nothing at all may be for the worst;

  • Sometimes, you have to take into account that the world is less-than-perfect; there are conflicting theories, there is some difference between planning something and the actual result, things change from one day to another; sometimes, the theoretical bad decision, is a good practical one; other times, a decision which has poor immediate results, proves to be better on the long-term; solution? Do your best with the given data; do take some risks; do try new things; do experiment; do try to minimize the poor outcomes; do learn from past mistakes; do get preliminary data;
  • Also, we are not Gods; we don’t know and can’t possibly know all the possible consequences of our actions; yet this is fine; in the situation when the operation went great, though the patient died, the doctor is not guilty; sure, it would have been better that the patient lived; but as long as the doctor took the best possible actions, to his knowledge, things are fine;
  • Let’s say Diana is a fine lady surgeon; how should you say this in words? I like the approach of lettings facts speak for themselves – “Diana has successfully handled 2,129 cases”; or “Diana has 42 years of practice in surgery”; or “Diana received an international award for her contributions to surgery”; another valid solution is to present my opinions on her: “Diana left me the impression of being an excellent doctor”; or “I can say that me and Diana had an excellent relationship patient to doctor; she responded to all of my questions, she seemed to me very well prepared, she never interrupted me”; or “I can feel that Diana did a great job as a doctor in my case”; similar, it’s appropriate to say what others say about a person: “The patients with whom I’ve talked while I was in hospital, all spoke well about Diana”; or “She has been awarded the title ‘The doctor of the year’ by the hospital employees”; less impressive are overall affirmations: “Diana is a great doctor”; “Diana does wonders”; “Diana is very good person”.

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