By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Fallacy of Perfectionism

I have blogged on this previously; but it bears repeating as I think of my discussions with people about issues concerning education, crime, and poverty.

We often get the argument that reform A or proposition B aimed at improving education or reducing crime or poverty is wrong because it does not go far enough. It does not "go deep enough."

That is a logical fallacy because the practical issue is whether the action is worth taking, not whether the action is perfect or goes far enough. That something does not "go deep or far enough" means that more should be done in the future--it does not necessarily mean that the present proposal should not be enacted.

It is a truism that more should always and can always be done in the face of any complex, long-term problem. Thus, the perfectionist objection to a particular course of action is fallacious--because no course of action can ever meet its perfectionist standard. By reductio ad absurdum, we conclude that a criterion under which no practical action can pass muster is by its nature useless as a criterion for practical action and reform.

What we need is a criterion which tells us if this particular action is worth doing in the first place. This type of reasoning is similar to the reasoning of marginal utility used in economics--is there an improvement at the margin?

If, we instead focus only on the social enormity of a problem, we will view any marginal improvement as defective. What is more logical is to focus at the margin: does the marginal benefit outweigh the marginal cost?

Life is lived on the margin. Our lives and societies exist decision by decision, step by step. To overcome the complex legacies and burdens of racism, poverty, crime, and bad education requires us to focus on the margins. If we look for the perfect solution that will shatter a complex past legacy of dysfunction, we will find nothing perfect and end up doing nothing at all. And, at the margin, doing nothing carries a higher opportunity cost than doing something good, however imperfect and however incremental.

This fallacy of perfectionism is usually accompanied by the straw man fallacy, that is, attributing to the other side the absurd view that taking some particular action now forecloses or rules out more action in the future. You will rarely, if ever, meet sincere reformers who advocate a reform and at the same time arbitrarily rule out any other future reforms. Every sincere reformer always wants more--but she knows that more starts with taking a first step in a series of steps, a first step which opens up the way for future remedies.

My favorite example of the fallacy of perfectionism is the objection to the use of school vouchers in failed inner city school systems, even though we keep losing one generation after another in a clearly failed system. If a ship is sinking and people are swimming in the water, rescue as many as you can. Just because you cannot reach everyone does not mean we should do nothing. We should do everything we can do.

Fortunately, most social problems are not as immediately life-threatening as a sinking ship. We can usually keep coming back to rescue more and more people as time goes on. And some of the rescuers can even be some of the people who were first rescued.

(Image in public domain)