The Third Alternative

“Believ­ing in Santa Claus gives chil­dren a sense of won­der and en­courages them to be­have well in hope of re­ceiv­ing pre­sents. If Santa-be­lief is de­stroyed by truth, the chil­dren will lose their sense of won­der and stop be­hav­ing nicely. There­fore, even though Santa-be­lief is false-to-fact, it is a Noble Lie whose net benefit should be pre­served for util­i­tar­ian rea­sons.”

Clas­si­cally, this is known as a false dilemma, the fal­lacy of the ex­cluded mid­dle, or the pack­age-deal fal­lacy. Even if we ac­cept the un­der­ly­ing fac­tual and moral premises of the above ar­gu­ment, it does not carry through. Even sup­pos­ing that the Santa policy (en­courage chil­dren to be­lieve in Santa Claus) is bet­ter than the null policy (do noth­ing), it does not fol­low that Santa-ism is the best of all pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tives. Other poli­cies could also sup­ply chil­dren with a sense of won­der, such as tak­ing them to watch a Space Shut­tle launch or sup­ply­ing them with sci­ence fic­tion nov­els. Like­wise, offer­ing chil­dren bribes for good be­hav­ior en­courages the chil­dren to be­have well only when adults are watch­ing, while praise with­out bribes leads to un­con­di­tional good be­hav­ior.

Noble Lies are gen­er­ally pack­age-deal fal­la­cies; and the re­sponse to a pack­age-deal fal­lacy is that if we re­ally need the sup­posed gain, we can con­struct a Third Alter­na­tive for get­ting it.

How can we ob­tain Third Alter­na­tives? The first step in ob­tain­ing a Third Alter­na­tive is de­cid­ing to look for one, and the last step is the de­ci­sion to ac­cept it. This sounds ob­vi­ous, and yet most peo­ple fail on these two steps, rather than within the search pro­cess.

Some false dilem­mas arise hon­estly, be­cause su­pe­rior al­ter­na­tives are cog­ni­tively hard to see. But one fac­tory for false dilem­mas is jus­tify­ing a ques­tion­able policy by point­ing to a sup­posed benefit over the null ac­tion. In this case, the jus­tifier does not want a Third Alter­na­tive; find­ing a Third Alter­na­tive would de­stroy the jus­tifi­ca­tion. The last thing a Santa-ist wants to hear is that praise works bet­ter than bribes, or that space­ships can be as in­spiring as fly­ing rein­deer.

The best is the en­emy of the good. If the goal is re­ally to help peo­ple, then a su­pe­rior al­ter­na­tive is cause for cel­e­bra­tion—once we find this bet­ter strat­egy, we can help peo­ple more effec­tively. But if the goal is to jus­tify a par­tic­u­lar strat­egy by claiming that it helps peo­ple, a Third Alter­na­tive is an en­emy ar­gu­ment, a com­peti­tor.

Modern cog­ni­tive psy­chol­ogy views de­ci­sion-mak­ing as a search for al­ter­na­tives. In real life, it’s not enough to com­pare op­tions; you have to gen­er­ate the op­tions in the first place. On many prob­lems, the num­ber of al­ter­na­tives is huge, so you need a stop­ping crite­rion for the search. When you’re look­ing to buy a house, you can’t com­pare ev­ery house in the city; at some point you have to stop look­ing and de­cide.

But what about when our con­scious mo­tives for the search—the crite­ria we can ad­mit to our­selves—don’t square with sub­con­scious in­fluences? When we are car­ry­ing out an allegedly al­tru­is­tic search, a search for an al­tru­is­tic policy, and we find a strat­egy that benefits oth­ers but dis­ad­van­tages our­selves—well, we don’t stop look­ing there; we go on look­ing. Tel­ling our­selves that we’re look­ing for a strat­egy that brings greater al­tru­is­tic benefit, of course. But sup­pose we find a policy that has some defen­si­ble benefit, and also just hap­pens to be per­son­ally con­ve­nient? Then we stop the search at once! In fact, we’ll prob­a­bly re­sist any sug­ges­tion that we start look­ing again—plead­ing lack of time, per­haps. (And yet some­how, we always have cog­ni­tive re­sources for com­ing up with jus­tifi­ca­tions for our cur­rent policy.)

Be­ware when you find your­self ar­gu­ing that a policy is defen­si­ble rather than op­ti­mal; or that it has some benefit com­pared to the null ac­tion, rather than the best benefit of any ac­tion.

False dilem­mas are of­ten pre­sented to jus­tify un­eth­i­cal poli­cies that are, by some vast co­in­ci­dence, very con­ve­nient. Ly­ing, for ex­am­ple, is of­ten much more con­ve­nient than tel­ling the truth; and be­liev­ing what­ever you started out with is more con­ve­nient than up­dat­ing. Hence the pop­u­lar­ity of ar­gu­ments for Noble Lies; it serves as a defense of a pre-ex­ist­ing be­lief—one does not find Noble Liars who calcu­late an op­ti­mal new Noble Lie; they keep what­ever lie they started with. Bet­ter stop that search fast!

To do bet­ter, ask your­self straight out: If I saw that there was a su­pe­rior al­ter­na­tive to my cur­rent policy, would I be glad in the depths of my heart, or would I feel a tiny flash of re­luc­tance be­fore I let go? If the an­swers are “no” and “yes,” be­ware that you may not have searched for a Third Alter­na­tive.

Which leads into an­other good ques­tion to ask your­self straight out: Did I spend five min­utes with my eyes closed, brain­storm­ing wild and cre­ative op­tions, try­ing to think of a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive? It has to be five min­utes by the clock, be­cause oth­er­wise you blink—close your eyes and open them again—and say, “Why, yes, I searched for al­ter­na­tives, but there weren’t any.” Blink­ing makes a good black hole down which to dump your du­ties. An ac­tual, phys­i­cal clock is recom­mended.

And those wild and cre­ative op­tions—were you care­ful not to think of a good one? Was there a se­cret effort from the cor­ner of your mind to en­sure that ev­ery op­tion con­sid­ered would be ob­vi­ously bad?

It’s amaz­ing how many Noble Liars and their ilk are ea­ger to em­brace eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions—with all due be­wailing of their ag­o­nies of con­science—when they haven’t spent even five min­utes by the clock look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive. There are some men­tal searches that we se­cretly wish would fail; and when the prospect of suc­cess is un­com­fortable, peo­ple take the ear­liest pos­si­ble ex­cuse to give up.