Oct 09 2017

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire-quoteThis aphorism has been around since about 1600, originating with Voltaire in French. I have found it to be a useful concept – not an iron-clad rule, but an excellent guiding principle. The perfect is the enemy of the good (sometimes “good enough”).

What this means is that we should not be paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an improvement on what we have now.

In reality this can be a tricky principle to apply, however. Like the informal logical fallacies, or any informal guideline for clear thinking, there are no rigid rules or definitions. Judgement is required, which means that subjectivity and bias are also involved.

There are two specific ways this principle is either applied to not applied that tends to come up with skeptical topics. The first deals with our own activism – when should we apply this principle?

For example, over the years I and some of my medical colleagues have had a disagreement about how best to approach topics like vaccine exemptions. We all agree that non-medical exemptions decrease vaccine compliance and are a threat to public health. We all agree that in a perfect world states would not allow non-medical exemptions (only exemptions for children who medically are unable to be vaccinated).

What we disagree on is what our public position should be. Should we only advocate for the position of no non-medical exemptions (the perfect), or also advocate for lesser positions that are still an improvement on what most states have? For example, states may eliminate philosophical exemptions, but still allow religious exemptions, and they can make it more difficult to obtain religious exemptions (like attending a class on the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases). These lesser measures are also effective, but not as effective as completely eliminating non-medical exemptions.

We have the same dilemma when it comes to chiropractic – should our position be to reform the profession to make it science-based, or to oppose the profession as being inherently unscientific?

The conflict is often between moral and intellectual purism vs pragmatism. The purist position often feels better. We praise “moral clarity” and it’s easy to criticize someone advocating for compromise as being “mealy mouthed” or weak. Often extreme historical cases are invoked in order to justify the purist position, usually slavery. Should we have tried to restrict slavery and lobby for better treatment of slaves, or ban slavery outright as a moral outrage. Of course there is only one answer.

But not all social questions rise to the level of slavery. And further, banning slavery was the end result of a process that did involve half-way measures, such as banning the slave trade, and restricting the proliferation of slavery. Banning slavery itself was just part of a larger process of racial freedom (albeit the most dramatic one). Further, Lincoln himself had to compromise in the process of emancipating the slaves and ending slavery, to criticisms from the abolitionists. So even slavery itself is a complicated historical example in order to make the point for “moral clarity.”

What the example really is, is an attempt at transplanting the moral clarity on slavery that we hold today onto the past. This creates a contrived example that favors moral purity over pragmatism, because it removes all the context that makes pragmatism necessary.

At the same time, the morally pure position needs to exist and someone needs to advocate for it. The abolitionists needed to be there, making their strong moral case against slavery. But they would not have succeeded without the pragmatists (and even then it required a bloody civil war).

In the end it seems that there needs to be a delicate balance between our goal, the perfect morally pure position, and the good enough that we will accept along the way in order to compromise. Further, we need to judge each situation on its own merits. Some questions do require moral purity, others are more nuanced or require compromise among those with equally valid but distinct moral values. You can’t treat every political battle as if it’s slavery.

There is also a second distinct way in which this principle comes up in skeptical contexts. I often see the perfect held up as an obstructionist strategy. These types of arguments often are used to oppose a measure someone does not like because that measure is not a perfect solution.

For example, anti-fluoridationists will argue that fluoride does not completely eliminate tooth decay. They will also argue that people could simply brush their teeth regularly. Essentially what they are saying is that if everyone had perfect oral hygiene, we would’t need to fluoridate the water. So we should be putting our efforts into promoting oral hygiene.

The poor logic here is that public health measures should be judged on a risk vs benefit and secondarily return on investment approach. Does this specific intervention have benefit in excess of risk, and are the benefits worth the cost? It doesn’t really matter that there are more effective measures out there, especially if those perfect solutions are unobtainable.

That is really the strategy – to hold out the unobtainable perfect solution to obstruct lesser but still effective and practical solutions.

Similarly, anti-GMO activists argue that we don’t need nutritionally enhanced foods (like golden rice) or that we don’t need to increase food production. All we need is to completely fix poverty, have optimal food distribution, and eliminate food waste. These, of course, are unobtainable goals (at least in the foreseeable future) but are used to obstruct workable GMO solutions.

I also find this strategy is common in the anti-gun control camp. We don’t need to regulate guns, all we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide. Those are the “real” problems.

Often the answer to these obstructionist arguments is to say – sure, let’s work on those complex social problems. But meanwhile, we can mitigate the damage they do with some sensible regulations.

To reiterate – the notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good, like any logical principle, is not a formula you can simply apply to a question. It is a guiding principle that may help you think a bit more clearly about a problem.

I also think that, while there is certainly a need to recognize and aspire to morally pristine positions, we should not denigrate the pragmatic middle. It is also often said that part of America’s greatness is our genius at compromise. Perhaps this is something we need to value more.

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