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Better in the Long Run?

David Cowles

Jan 23, 2024

“If any action is ever to be considered morally superior to any other action, that superiority must reside in the act itself and not in its consequences.”

How often have you said, “It will be better in the long run if…”? Seems straightforward - just so long as we know what ‘it’, ‘better’, and the ‘long run’ mean: What will be better? What makes it better? And when?

Let’s worm our way in. “When will it be better?” Assuming we know what ‘now’ is and that we can snapshot it, we just need to know when to take our second picture for comparison purposes. But that’s problematic.

The universe is expected to endure another 85 billion years. Which moment in that time frame will we designate as being ‘the long run’, i.e., our target moment for measurement purposes? And why that moment rather than another? 

Both Classical and Christian cultures make a lot of ‘the hour of our death’. Did he die heroically? What was the state of her soul? But why should that ‘final moment’ take precedence over any other moment? Is our ‘final moment’ one moment among innumerable others? Or is it the summation (Ʃ) of all our moments? Does your life really flash before your eyes?

The universe is becoming progressively more disordered. Counterintuitively, there does not appear to be any limit to that disorder, other than heat death, i.e., non-existence. To the extent that value is contingent on at least a modicum of order, it will become ever more difficult to find value in the future. 

In contrast to the Enlightenment belief in ‘progress’, physics seems to support the much maligned notion of a primordial Golden Age that devolved into the present sorry state of affairs. The only problem with this is that it seems to equate Golden Age with Big Bang, and it’s hard to see how this moment of maximal order could also be the moment of maximal value.

It seems that the relationship between order and value is not a simple linear function. Value is probably greatest in a ‘Twilight Zone’ where the ratio of order to disorder falls within a critical range. In any event, the notion of value without any order whatsoever is a bridge too far, at least for me.  

The ‘long run’ covers quite a span: from ‘the end of the day’ to ‘the end of time’. So when remains elusive. How about ‘better’? What’s ‘better’ and how do we measure it? Jeremy Bentham suggested we use ‘aggregate net pleasure’ as our measure. John Stuart Mill expanded Bentham’s ‘pleasure’ to the even more elusive ‘happiness’.

Elsewhere, we considered Utilitarianism more fully. Even if one could locate a moment in time when aggregate happiness was maximal, it would be hard to equate that with ‘value’ if it was merely an island in a sea of misery.

Thanks to Leibniz, we can avoid this by using the integral rather than the value at any given t, as our measure of the ‘long run’, but this requires us to sum ‘value’, Planck moment by moment, over at least 85 billion years. 

Notice how we’ve worked our way back from when to what. Now what’s this ‘it’ that is supposed to be ‘better in the long run’. Is it my personal state of mind? Or the aggregate states of mind of my family and friends? Or is it possible to define the domain more broadly? What roles do age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, ideology, class, and caste play in defining the ethical domain?  

Working out an answer to this question has been our species’ #1 ethical task. Matthew’s “And who is my neighbor?” stands beside Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be?” as ultimate questions.  And just as we seem finally to be headed toward some consensus on this matter, a brand-new variable has been introduced: other species!

New, not new! Torah (1,500 to 500 BCE) makes it clear that the welfare of animals and agriculture was of critical concern to the early Israelites. Yes, they understood the utility value of ‘best practices’, but that was not the whole of it: ‘nature’ has inalienable rights too! PETA would have been in its glory.

Unfortunately, Europeans lost sight of this wisdom, and we are paying the price. Now, the world is buzzing with ideas about how to make up for the damage we have inflicted on the biosphere, and we have finally come to terms with the fact that we are not descended from angels.

We are, in fact, descended from other apes, primates, mammals, animals, and finally, from bacteria. We are discovering that the physiological and behavioral lines supposedly dividing us from ‘the others’ are more like smudges. Our species’ next great task is finding a proper place for other species in our ethical tent. And then there are bots! 

So the seemingly simple notion of ‘better in the long run’ turns out to be impossibly complex. What is the ‘it’ that is supposed to get better? What’s ‘better’ and how would we quantify ‘better’ so that we could measure it? 

Finally, what do we mean by ‘the long run’? The very next Planck instant (t + h)? Or the moment of heat death (ω)? Or some preferred moment between t and ω? Or the sum Ʃ of all t between t + h and ω?

‘Better in the long run’ turns out to be a ‘word salad’. We cannot define any of its terms, and no proposition framed this way can ever be tested. Like most ethical standards since Machiavelli, ‘better in the long run’ means ‘do whatever you want to do today’. Nothing is prohibited so everything is permitted. Quite literally, anything can be justified by resorting to an imaginary future.

If any action is ever to be considered morally superior to any other action, that superiority must reside in the act itself and not in consequences that we can neither predict nor control. We can be neither omniscient nor omnipotent, but we can be Good.

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