It’s What You Don’t See That Misleads You

Often, it’s not what you see that misleads you. It’s what you don’t see.

In economics, it’s called “the broken window fallacy.” Broken windows create jobs for people who replace windows. Therefore, the fallacy concludes that broken windows are a good thing. They create jobs. We should break as many windows as possible.

It’s a fallacy because it ignores the hidden costs of repairing broken windows. Such repair eats up time, labor, and money that might have been used to make other things. Those things don’t get made. Instead of adding new value to the economy, we’re just repairing something so that we don’t lose value.

(In economics, other factors sometimes complicate things, but they’re not relevant here.)

French economist Fredric Bastiat (1801-1850) called it the problem of “the seen versus the unseen.”

Our preference for the seen over the unseen misleads us all the time. What we see feels real to us; what we don’t see seems unreal, even if we know about it on an abstract level.

Maybe we’d end up making the same decisions anyway. But since the unseen seems unreal, we barely consider it — if we even consider it at all.

A lot of social discord results from people seeing, and not seeing, different things:

  • Corporate CEOs see the money they can save by firing thousands of workers and offshoring production or importing H1-Bs. The CEOs don’t know any of the fired workers and never see them, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Apple customers see shiny gadgets and a politically-correct CEO. They never see the abused workers in Apple’s third-world production facilities, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Open-borders activists see poor people from crime-ridden countries who might be better off in America. They don’t see the costs and hardships imposed on American people and communities, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.

So it’s often helpful to ask: “What am I not seeing about this situation?”

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Is the Bible Worth Reading?

Is the Bible worth reading?

I think it is, but you can find intelligent, moral people on both sides of that question.

American novelist Mark Twain, best known for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, had a low opinion of the Bible:

“It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

On the other hand, the Bible provides:

  • Some good moral instruction, as Twain admitted.
  • Stories that pose moral dilemmas and challenge us to think about them.
  • Knowledge required to understand Western civilization, much of which is in response to the Bible. Even Islamic civilization looks to the Bible, though Muslims interpret it in their own way.

One of the Bible’s most important lessons is that moral choices aren’t always simple and obvious.

Consider Genesis 22‘s story of the binding of Isaac. Abraham thinks that God is giving him an order:

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering …”

That story demonstrates the two main reasons that our own moral choices can be agonizingly difficult.

First, we’re often not sure of the facts.

In the story, is God really speaking to Abraham? How can Abraham be sure? How sure does Abraham need to be, in order to justify following the order? Awfully darned sure, one would think.

Second, even if we’re sure of the facts, we still might not know the right thing to do.

If Abraham is sure that God is talking to him, should he obey the order? The order seems clearly wrong. As the Creator of the universe, God could zap Abraham into oblivion for disobedience, but that’s not a valid argument for following the order. Fear of punishment is not a substitute for logic.

Abraham decides to follow the order, but at the last minute, an angel comes to stop him. The best version of that scene comes not from the Bible but from Woody Allen:

“And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, ‘How could thou doest such a thing?’

And Abraham said, ‘But thou said–‘

‘Never mind what I said,’ the Lord spake. ‘Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?’

And Abraham grew ashamed. ‘Er — not really — no.’

‘I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately run out to do it.'”

Some scholars think that the story marks the Bible’s rejection of human sacrifice, which was common in the Ancient Near East. Other scholars think it’s an intentional “Kobayashi Maru” problem to make us examine our own character.

But whatever it is, it shows how the Bible can shake loose our prejudices and make us think more deeply. People who don’t read the Bible don’t get those benefits from it.

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Understanding Control and Perspective

It helps a lot if we understand two principles: control and perspective.

First, there are some things we can control and other things we can’t control.

When we get upset, it’s often because we mistake one kind of thing for the other.

Are you stuck in traffic? Frustrated? Getting frustrated has no effect on the traffic. You won’t get where you’re going any faster. All you’ll do is give yourself a stomach ache. Traffic is one of the things you can’t control.

Reframe the situation: you’re not “stuck.” Instead, you’re getting extra time to plan your day or listen to music. The traffic is only there to give you practice in being patient.

Are you stuck in life? Not where you want to be? Not who you want to be? There are things you can’t do about it, but there’s a lot you can do. You can choose your goal, then do what’s needed and possible to achieve it.

You can also choose your attitude: Are obstacles a barrier to stop you — or are they a challenge for you to overcome? You can control how you look at them.

And that leads to the second principle: perspective.

We had an election yesterday in the United States, and people on both sides are getting stomach aches about it. They shouldn’t.

Perspective dictates that when things are close to us, they look bigger than they really are. Applied to life, most things that happen are neither as good nor as bad as they seem at the moment they occur.

You should do what you can do to improve things. But you should also trust that the universe will unfold as it should.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

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The Way to Go

“To every man there openeth
A Way, and Ways, and a Way.
And the High Soul climbs the High way,
And the Low Soul gropes the Low,
And in between, on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth
A High Way, and a Low.
And every man decideth
The Way his soul shall go.”

John Oxenham

The idea of individual responsibility came fairly late in human history.

In ancient times, individuals were seen only as part of their family, clan, tribe, or nation. The group bore collective responsibility for the actions of any of its members.

That’s no surprise, because it’s how our minds work. We use concepts to group similar cases together. Such generalization helps us think about them more efficiently.

We seldom realize how great an intellectual achievement that was. Nor do we realize how subconscious generalizations bias our thinking.

Numbers are an example. They’re a fairly late development. A number such as three covers related cases based on them having three items in each case. Ancient people, and some primitive tribes even now, lack a single concept for it. In one example, there are:

“… [seven] distinct sets of number words: one for flat objects and animals; one for round objects and time; one for counting men; one for long objects and trees; one for canoes; one for measures; [and] one for counting when no definite object is referred to.”

It took an intellectual leap to realize that “three” was the same idea whether it applied to flat objects, round objects, or anything else. We’re so accustomed to the general idea that it seems totally obvious to us, but it wasn’t obvious to our ancestors. When they finally saw it was the same idea in all those different contexts, they could think more efficiently. General concepts are now a fundamental way in which we understand the world.

Thus, our default reaction is to see people as group members rather than as individuals, such as Americans, Canadians, Jews, Gentiles, Republicans, and Democrats.

Often, that’s helpful. Generalizations help us make accurate predictions. They often enable our group and us to survive in a world that is at best competitive and at worst dangerous.

Sometimes, however, they bias our thinking in ways that can harm us and other people.

When we catch ourselves thinking in terms of “us” versus “them,” we should take a breath and make sure we’re thinking clearly. If we don’t get our facts straight, then we risk blundering into injustice.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

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Job and Culture


In yesterday’s blog post, I referred to “automatic pilot.”

And as often happens when I write, I wondered if I needed to explain what it was.

Any readers who didn’t understand “automatic pilot” would have missed my point.

Suppose that I refer to the sufferings of Job. Probably half of the people reading it will understand that I’m talking about a person described in the Bible.

The other half will think it’s about the difficulties of finding employment or working in a corporation.

For the latter group, I can explain what I mean, but it takes extra time and distracts from the main point. It makes communication more cumbersome and difficult.

The more people have in common, the easier it is for them to communicate, cooperate, and live together in harmony.

Conversely, the less they have in common, the harder it is for them to do those things.

Large Western societies tend to be diverse in countless ways. We proclaim proudly that “diversity is our strength.” But social diversity also means social division. People of different nationalities, languages, histories, moral beliefs, and religions must work together to create a humane and tolerant society.

It’s not an easy thing to do. But we have to do our best. The alternative is not a good one.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

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Get Help from Your Automatic Pilot


We spend a lot of our lives on automatic pilot. We act out of habit, without thinking about what we’re doing.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we had to think our way through everything we did, we couldn’t get most of it done.

Suppose that you’re driving to work and another car abruptly cuts in front of you. You don’t have time to think through the correct reaction. You just react. Your automatic pilot knows what to do.

Sometimes, our automatic pilot even knows things that we don’t know consciously.

This morning, I needed to say something in Spanish but couldn’t remember how to say it. So I just started talking, and the right words automatically came out of my mouth. Then I remembered the idiom I’d forgotten — because I heard myself saying it.

Our automatic pilot can also help us be better people.

Every time we act in a certain way, we strengthen our habit of acting that way: Honesty. Kindness. Forgiveness. Courage. Rationality. Optimism. Serenity.

We can even practice actions and attitudes just by thinking about them. That’s an important benefit of religious observance, such as worship services, daily prayer, study, and meditation.

Olympic athletes supplement their physical exercises with “mental practice” that helps them improve their performance. We can do the same thing. Such practices remind us that there’s more to life than what’s in front of us at the moment.

Then, when a crisis arrives — the moral equivalent of a dangerous road situation — we don’t need to think about what to do. We’ve already practiced it. Our automatic pilot can take over and guide us to safety.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”

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Everyone’s Welfare Counts

We should try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

It sounds like a pretty good idea.

And it is. But it’s not the whole answer.

The problem is that like lower animals, humans distinguish between their own group and other groups. They value members of their own group more than they value members of other groups. In extreme cases, they completely deny the value of people who belong to other groups.

As a result, “the greatest good for the greatest number” leads to two more questions:

  • Which people count?
  • Are some actions wrong even if they produce the greatest good for the greatest number (of the people who count)?

Equality — but only in moderation

Many people believe that the welfare of some human groups doesn’t count at all. When put into action, that kind of thinking can lead to murder, war, and attempted genocide.

On the other hand, valuing everyone equally means valuing no one specially.

And if you don’t consider your family’s welfare more important than the welfare of any random person on the planet, then pardon me, but I think there’s something wrong with you.

Everyone deserves (1) equal treatment under the law, (2) basic courtesy, and (3) at least some consideration of his or her welfare. As long as you don’t violate those requirements, you can treat people as unequally as seems reasonable.

The greatest good for the greatest number isn’t everything

Sometimes, societies can achieve the greatest good by unjustly harming individuals or groups.

Most people think that’s wrong, though most societies seem to try it. Even if hanging an innocent man or expelling a falsely-accused student might do some good, it’s still wrong.

It all comes down to choice

Most moral issues can be argued forever. The question that each of us must answer in the here and now is:

What kind of person do I choose to be?

Do I choose to be the kind of person who treats people unjustly to gain some advantage?

And do I want my society to follow that principle?

Or do I choose to be a better person than that, and try to make my society better as well?

The answers are up to you. Du bist dran.

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