Saturday, September 19, 2009

The 80/20 fallacy ignores the intrinsic value of one

One of my Facebook friends thought the title of my last post better suited to a discussion of the H1N1 vaccine. That called for a bittersweet chuckle, as it reminded me of the analogy I frequently draw between the effect of leftist Republicans and what I learned during a WHO briefing years ago about the way the AIDS virus affects the body's immune system. As I recall, the virus takes control of cells that perform critical immune system functions. It recodes the infected cells so that the body reacts to them as if they were still healthy. Its as if the troops assigned to guard a city were replaced by a gang of shrewd impostors whose only interest was to get the free food, clothing and shelter the city provides for its soldiers. Their successfully masquerade leaves the city gates and walls unattended. First the enemy's agents, and then its troops can enter at will. In biological terms, the body falls prey to opportunistic infections.

In the political debates and discussions that took place during the founding period, people often drew parallels between the body politic and the individual organism. As I put it to my FB friend yesterday, "In those days people discussed remedies for the body politic with the fervor some now reserve for their individual bodily ills. That may be why they established this historically unique constitutional republic, and we are well on the way to losing it." Be that as it may, I think the GOP leaders who pretend to be conservative while giving preferential treatment to socialists in maschera could easily pass the audition for starring roles in an Advise and Consent style political drama about an elite secret society called AIDS (the Association for the Incognito Development of Socialism.)

This elite secret society would of course include many of the Judas goat talkers and media pundits now busily hawking the "80 percent/20 percent", put Party above all voting fallacy. This fallacy, the logical counterpart of a chemical solution, is eight parts sophistry and two parts pure deception. It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes's famous seven percent solution of cocaine, only instead of speeding up the body's metabolism to cure boredom it is employed during the delicate and lengthy procedures that remove a growth of political liberty from the body politic. The intended effect is to tranquillize those conservative members of the body apt to react most vigorously to the symptoms that accompany the return to historical normalcy, i.e., a state of speciously legitimized elitist tyranny.

The fallacy goes something like this. It makes sense to lend political support to leaders you agree with on eighty percent of the issues, rather than refuse them your support (on account of the twenty percent where you disagree) in situations where that means victory for someone you disagree with on eighty percent of the issues. When dealing with matters that are properly subject to quantitative analysis, this seems fair and logical. Who would refuse someone offering cash and stocks worth eighty percent of their asking price when their stubbornness leads to a leveraged buyout of their assets in which they end up with only twenty percent?

But what if the 'asset' involved was your children? Charles Manson style home invaders offer to leave your home and all your material possessions unharmed in exchange for letting them satisfy their blood lust by killing your two children. The money value of the children's bodies may be around $9.00, depending of course on economic conditions at any given time. Let's say the value of your house, car and other material possessions on hand is around $300,000. If you accept the home invaders offer, you lose only .03% of your possessions. If you reject it, they'll destroy your material goods, and probably kill you and the kids anyway. By refusing, therefore, you end up with less than nothing. Do you let them kill the kids?

Many decisions (more than 80%?) involve keeping, adding to, or giving up what's in your hands. A few (far less than 20%?) involve cutting out your heart. Are they all equal?

Machiavelli recounts the story of a city under siege ruled by a woman with several children. The besiegers manage to capture her son and heir. When they offer to release and spare her offspring in exchange for surrendering the city's liberty, she mounts the walls. Exposing herself with a lewd gesture she refuses their offer, declaring "See what is here. I can bear more sons." The complex moral of that story offers comfort to those readers inclined toward the view (hypothetically of course) that their children are disposable goods. Those incapable of such facile moral relativism (formerly regarded as hardness of heart) at least take away from the story a sense of the difficulties that arise when using quantitative analysis to make decisions about human affairs.

In mathematics, we have no problem accepting the idea that for each system of measurement the unit of measurement derives its meaning from the context and in that context no 'one' has a meaning all its own. That's not so easy to accept when dealing with human beings. We can't simply be indifferent to the qualitative difference between issues that deeply involve and affect our sense of worth and true identity, and those that deal mainly with the material conditions in which we live. It means above all that we can't pretend such indifference when dealing with matters that go to the heart of the emotional, intellectual and spiritual reasons whereby we recognize the moral difference between a human being and a stone, or a house, or a hammer.

It's no coincidence that the 'eighty percent' issues referred to by the Judas goats and other hawkers of the 80/20 fallacy always center on money; the procurement and distribution of material goods; or the pleasures derived from them. The 'twenty percent' issues, on the other hand, mainly involve matters that accept or deny the intrinsic worth of individual human life, and the principles of judgment and conduct that support laws and policies requiring respect for it. Encouraging people to be obsessed with material goods is one of the key components of the procedure required to eliminate their liberty. People who fall prey to this obsession take it for granted that better and worse are measured in material terms. Everything becomes a matter of more or less, focused on the quantity of 'goods', without any thought or regard for the standard that makes them so. Moneymaking is the perfect sacrament of this obsession, since it takes as the measuring standard of good an accumulation of merely abstract units.

But as we have seen, this standard fails when applied to human beings. Most people boldly testify to this failure the moment someone treats them like dirt, or a dog or even yesterday's news. The 80/20 fallacy achieves plausibility by mimicking quantitative analysis. But like the sophists of ancient times, it uses the outward form or appearance of logic in order to divert attention from a deceptive premise, in this case the assumption that it is humanly acceptable to use the same method to take account of human beings and material goods. Thus we are distracted into believing that we get part of what we want, while being gulled into accepting a method of reasoning that denies more than all of what we are.

In the current debate among conservatives, this is literally the effect the fallacy achieves. The conservative identity, and indeed that of Americans in general, involves respect for individual rights and responsibilities. Such respect makes no sense if human beings are not individuals but interchangeable units that have no meaning in and of themselves (no intrinsic value.) Considered en masse it's easy enough to accept the idea that people in society are no more than pebbles in a jar. But when individuals are treated in this way, they generally resent the lack of consideration for what they feel and know themselves to be on the inside, whatever their outward appearance or circumstances. Anger and indignation naturally result, fueling conflicts that eventually lead to war. That's why human justice has to take account of individual worth. Unless individuals are given their due, their society lacks humanity. That deficiency eventually dissolves both its integrity and its cohesion.

This is the moral basis for conservative opposition to socialism. Whatever material good socialism aims to achieve, it does so by sacrificing respect for the distinctively human understanding of good that allows us to recognize the difference between human individuals and the merely material objects that have a form of unity but lack the inward knowledge of its worth. This inward knowledge manifests the soul of all humanity; the subjective certainty that we matter. But what we appear to be in material terms matters precisely because it represents more than we can ever know from its appearance alone. This is why our understanding of justice appeals to the existence and will of the Creator God.

Human affairs require wisdom that goes beyond what can be known by any quantitative analysis or method. Such wisdom takes account of the fact that all human beings know directly from their own nature what cannot be known from observation: the intrinsic value of one. Such wisdom impelled America's founders to realize that laws and judgments that deny unalienable rights strike at the heart of what it means to be treated with just regard for humanity. So do proposals that treat human beings as ciphers to be discarded when some bureaucrats or their quantitative formulas claim they are too old or infirm or irrelevant to justify the expense of caring for their health.

There was a time when we could count on something like this wisdom from people who call themselves conservative. Whatever they call themselves now, the ones willing to accept the 80/20 fallacy are much like the argument they make: they adopt the name and outward appearance of conservatism, but betray its substance. In our present crisis, conservative voters who follow their advice will be doing the same to their liberty.


Larry Walker Jr said...

So to expand the fallacy, only about 62% of eligible voters actually voted in 2008. So that must mean there are roughly 81 million eligible voters who refused to follow the 'Judas Goat'. To be able to tap into that along with the roughly 20% who actually vote based on ideology would be awesome.

It seems these days that only a small percentage, on either side, actually vote on ideology, while most likely the 80% is focused on things like appearance, oratory skills, charisma, sex, race, trivia, or what college was attended.

With varying levels of morality, education, time, understanding, etc... across the nation, it seems that it would be impossible to achieve 'one' out of so many variables. The one thing that we can probably all agree on is the U.S. Constitution, and thus, to agree to support those who seek to follow its tenants, to the letter, on every issue.

What percent of eligible voters voted in the 2008 presidential election?

A: If the Voting Eligible Population was 212,720,027 and there were 131,256,905 valid ballots counted (finally tally), then 61.7% of eligible voters voted in the 2008 Election.

WingletDriver said...

The problem is systemic. More accurately, the systematic undermining of our election process has led to a prolonged dysthymia among conservatives. Rather than vote for McCain, Bush, Dole or the elder Bush, many just sit out the election. Fewer and fewer are willing to hold their noses and pull the lever. If McCain had won, would anything be different? We'd still be accused of being a pack of racists and of being just an angry mob, but we'd still have illegal amnesty, socialized health care and a weak foreign policy. We'd still have no movement on prolife issues and crummy Supreme Court nominees. In the end, the electioneering guarantees us social entropy. Bush was slower to drag us into the financial and social collapse we're facing, but the direction was the same. The Republicans are willing to be the tortoise to the Democrats' hare as we unravel into a third world country so long as they can be assured of a place at the trough.

Chris said...

1st Folks need to rightly define who they are, what they believe, what they stand for, what are the things that matter most to them and of course the country.
2nd find the candidate who exemplifies the ideals that you identify with.
When you do that I think you find the right candidate for you. To me it’s not about party, but I understand one is likely to find the candidate who most closely reflects ones ideas in a particular political party.
I’ll tell you this, there is a freedom of conscience when you vote for the person who is best for the country and matches your particular philosophy. I hated to see Mr. Obama win. I don’t think we would have been thrilled with Jon McCain either.
No, clearly in my eyes Alan is and was the best candidate for the job. I have to say when it comes to oratory skills I do focus on that. One of the many things I admire about Alan is his speaking ability. It is a quality that is so desperately needed and in such short supply these days. But then Alan has been saying the same things for years and years so he should be good at it. That is a reaffirmation that the truth never changes.
Alan said it during an interview with Janet Folger a while back, something to the effect that the wrong candidate from either party can lead us directly to hell, one may get us there a little quicker than the other but the destination is still the same.
In a football analogy its basic blocking and tackling, you can’t win without these basic building blocks. Our political situation is the same; we need to get back to our First Principals found in the beginning of the Declaration.
Thanks Alan.

Angelopeter said...

God bless you Dr. Keyes!! Brilliant article.

This column was one of the best you’ve wrote. After reading it I tried to sum it up with a phrase, Conservatism is an ideology that satisfies the blood and socialism satisfies the skin, lol, if that makes any sense, or in other words……

yes the socialist/communist ideology definitely appeals to the physical, material and worldly practical part of the human creature while simultaneously disregarding the immaterial, spiritual essence of man. We were created as rational animals, and the Divine engineering of our nature demands the proper disposition of our spiritual and physical characteristics. The spiritual essence of the human creature, which is the immortal essence we share with the Almighty, must govern the lower material essence of man. Jacob was greater than Esau, the agent is greater than the patient, the effect is greater than the cause, the immaterial is greater than the material.

The “ life of the flesh is in the blood” and the blood is the one mysterious substance in the human creature which unites the spiritual with the physical. So although conservatism is only a poor, decrepit shadow of the soon to come Kingdom of God (which will satisfy with eternal bliss the whole man) , it can, when practiced within the context of the Eternal law, indeed satisfy our blood. Whereas the socialist ideology seeks to construct a materialistic utopian state that can only satisfy the lower essence of man by appealing to his physical and animal needs, providing him security on the altar of liberty, and equality on the altar of dignity. Satan has entered into the hearts of those who push this system of governance that exchanges the truth for a lie, or the Incarnate Word for 30 pieces of silver.

Conservatism is a fruit born from a group of individuals who share a common fear of God. Children of light who’s free will’s are governed by their intellect (spirit) and its internal law which is conscience. Contrarily the socialist ideology is a fruit born from a group of people who fear physical death. Children of darkness who free will’s are enslaved by the flesh , the world and the Devil.

I apologize for the length, and the madness. God bless you all

chiu_chunling said...

I see a danger in resorting to the "principled" argument too soon. After all, what proof have we seen that those who offer prosperity without principles are any less fraudulent than the outright communists of the far left?

We have seen none, and there is none. Quite the opposite, the fate of all societies which attempt to have wealth without morality is one of history's most obvious lessons. Where material 'means' become the ends of a people, the tendency is for all individuals to seek to consume more wealth than they produce. Once this pattern becomes entrenched, the civilization is doomed.

Morality, the tested pattern of values which tells us what is right and what is wrong, may well have been instantiated by divine revelation. But what matters to us is that the pattern of society which morality recommends to us is the only one in which all the various labor necessary to the continuation of society is fostered, while those activities which are detrimental to society are held in check.

When considering the devil's bargain, it is well to remember that he was a liar from the beginning. The offer of 80% you find agreeable is not to be rejected just because the 20% you're asked to sacrifice is so precious to you, but because the offer is insincere. The Manson's aren't going to honor their agreement to be satisfied with your children, they only make the offer to paralyze your thinking so that you won't devise some means of actually resisting them.

Terry Morris said...

I see a danger in resorting to the "principled" argument too soon. After all, what proof have we seen that those who offer prosperity without principles are any less fraudulent than the outright communists of the far left?

You put the term "principled" in quotes for a specific reason, no? Namely because "principled", or resorting to the argument is itself not principled, at least on the surface. I see your point but don't quite understand it. You see, Chiu, principled conservatism is a real, viable force in and of itself. It does not matter what the so-called "Republican Party" is saying or doing; what matters most is what those who really adhere to its principles are saying and doing. Namely principled conservative individuals like myself.

texan_4_keyes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karin said...

"What are these FEMA camps for?" (texan_4_keyes)


gilbertabrett said...

I went to and typed in fema camps. I was SURPRISED at what came up; especially on YouTube! What in the world is going on? Sounds like someone has been planning this all along. Just one more reason why I think we should just vote EVERYONE out of office and put in some newbies come 2010! GOD save us from these cruel and sneaky people!

chiu_chunling said...

I say "principled" because I do not distinguish between "principled" and "unprincipled" arguments, only between those which reflect reality and those which do not. All men call their ideas "principles", as though that exempted them from the requirement of dealing with reality.

In general, I value the principled conservative because the ideas that conservatives choose to elevate as "principles" are time tested solutions to historical problems. Thus the "principles" of a conservative are likely to reflect a practical approach to reality, while the "principles" of progressives uniformly demand absolute ignorance of reality. But I do not much care about the particular status you assign those ideas which you take as principles, it is enough that those ideas reflect reality and you allow them to guide your actions.

When I do see a "principle" being elevated to support an argument that could be much better advanced with other pertinent facts, despite their lack of whatever qualities mark out "principles", I am prone to become annoyed with the apparent limitations of "principles". I am an utter pragmatist, if I rationally thought that sacrificing a child could really ensure the safety of others, I'd seriously consider it unless I had some alternative that secured the same good at a lower cost. If a despot could be trusted to govern wisely and well, I'd give him my full support. And I'm never one to turn down a free lunch.

But in real life, you cannot buy safety from those who demand the blood of children as their price, despots are absolutely corrupt, and there is no free lunch (nobody knows this better than someone who's always ready to eat one). I care not a whit for "principles", communists and fascists have them as well, and the main difference between yours and theirs is that yours are based on experience with reality and theirs are based on wishful thinking.

So, forgive me or not, I will continue to regard reality as the supreme arbiter of which ideas have value and which are worthless. The passion and sincerity of your principles means something, I'm sure, but it doesn't predict which ideas are practical.

Dawg_em said...

Bottom line... the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Just what, exactly, are conservatives trying to conserve?

Doing the same thing (voting for the same party) over and over again and expecting a different result is one definition of insanity. (Rather cliche' isn't it? But true none the less.)

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