When I listen hard enough, and care, and wait – impatiently, over agonizing years sometimes – it might emerge, slowly. I can’t insist though. I find you can’t demand these things on a timeline. There are questions I was insistently asking five years ago that are only beginning to give birth today.
Sometimes that last effort of giving birth happens by just writing it down.
The consideration of principles versus outcomes has been one such question for me. Underlying many arguments is this potent question: What matters here – is it the principle of the thing or is it about what works?
We don’t talk in these terms very much. We argue and argue and never notice we are speaking different languages. But many of the seemingly permanent social rifts of the day – health reform politics, drug legalization, Israeli-Palestinian tension – can be described in this way.
Here’s a concrete example: crime. Someone commits a serious offense, say, armed robbery that results in a shooting death. The innocent individual shot has a young wife and two small children who’ll never grow up to know their father. Our collective impulse is to punish, for justice to be served. As Jonathan Haidt calls it, this is our shared moral pillar of fairness. This is a principled view.
On the other hand, our government is responsible for overseeing not just an individual case, but rather a broad, long-run society with many people’s happinesses to consider. What if the data suggests – as it does – that long jail terms turn first-time offenders into repeat offenders, increases recidivism across all offenders, constitutes a relatively ineffective deterrent, and is dramatically more expensive than rehabilitation? An economist – the ultimate outcomes-oriented profession – might suggest that we should spend funds on books, skills training, one-on-one counseling, group therapy, arts education, and select television shows, or whatever constitutes the most effective evidence-based rehabilitation program. This is the outcomes-based approach: whatever works…even if we are repelled by the thought of a murderer at an easel painting at taxpayer’s expense.
Are we putting people in jail to punish or protect? Is the argument that we are ‘punishing to protect’? If so, perhaps we are being influenced by our moral outlook – since the data strongly indicates that the best long-run protection is effective rehabilitation. It complicates the issue that our principles will change the way we see outcomes.
I believe in principles. It’s very hard to navigate our lives well without them. Nearly all of us live by principles. At their best, principles are a distillation of what we know. Treat people the way you want to be treated. An eye for an eye. Government enterprises are inefficient.
The problem with principles, though, is that they can conflict with each other and conflict with reality as we know it, i.e. with outcomes. They are also subject to the internal biases and subjective value set of an individual with a unique set of experiences – they might be twisted or just plain wrong. And when two people bring two diametrically opposite sets of principles to the table – both sets of which are probably partly right and partly wrong – productive conversation is challenging.
I believe in outcomes as well. I find the world a deeply uncertain place, and the ability to derive consistent results through experimentation is comforting. It offers some measure of order in a chaotic world. Show me the data. For instance, we find if we look at the data, that Communism, while lovely in principle, tends to break down in practice. The experience of our lives is based on phenomena, and reliance on phenomena-based data is therefore a consistently useful and effective strategy.
The problem with an exclusive focus on outcomes, however, is that the data can mislead us. The nature of data is that it is narrow in scope, limited to what we can measure today, and historical by necessity. Even with gazillia-terabytes, data farm acres and enough processing power to make Google sweat, the dataset will always be incomplete. That is, even if we captured all the data we theoretically could, there would still be massive seas between the atolls of data available to us and the objective world. We virtually never have anywhere near the amount of data we’d need to make certifiably optimal decisions with long time horizons. Our conclusions might also be narrowly right but actually very wrong in context. It is that classic problem of the social sciences – especially economics – that in the real world, precision sacrifices accuracy and meaning. Ask any honest long-term forecaster (if you can find any).
It would seem obvious to the thoughtful person that there should be some kind of interaction between principles and outcomes. They serve as checks to each other, nurturing an ever-evolving mutual coherence. Good principles are validated by outcomes, good outcomes are evaluated through the lens of principles.
Two questions occur to me: Which should come first? And which matters more when? These are hard questions.
*Writing by its nature is linear and I’m having a hard time writing a linear story that can answer these questions satisfactorily (which begs a completely different question about whether the linearity of our language reflects or creates the linearity of our experienced lives – a question for another time). But I will try.