Taking Children Seriously

Are common preferences always possible?

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Thu, 13 Feb., 1997, at 12:22:39 -0600

A poster wrote:

Why do you believe that it is always possible to create a common preference?

This question is important because it is the same as

Or, when applied to human affairs:

One could view the whole of critical rationalism as a general methodology for what one should do in the face of conflicting theories. But one could also regard critical rationalism as a substantive theory of the physical world – the theory that the world is such that certain types of processes solve problems, while others don't.

Just to set the scene, bear in mind that a huge amount of problem-solving (that is, finding common preferences) has already happened in the world, and often, when a problem has been solved, it has been solved in the face of doubt that a common preference was possible. As Janet Reiland wrote:

I have found that the more we try to find common preferences, the better able we are to find them, and therefore find them in situations we would have not thought possible before (and certainly in situations that most parents would never even think to try to find them.).

People who try making their interactions non-coercive often report that they have been surprised when a common preference has been found – that they had thought it wouldn't be possible for such-and-such a problem, but that when they tried, it was easy. Of course it doesn't always work that way, but the fact that it often works that way shows that the mere conviction that finding a common preference will not be possible is no guide to whether it actually is possible.

The idea that common preferences are always possible is part of the explanation of the fact that the common preference has been as possible as we have already observed it to be.

(This is not to say that the vast number of existing confirmations of the idea that common preferences are possible inductively justifies the idea that they always will be. It doesn't. The point is that we want to explain what kind of a universe we are in, that has that property.)

If the universe were such that only 53% of problems can be solved, that would leave unexplained why it is 53% and not some other proportion. In other words, there would then be much more to explain. Why is it possible to solve the problems that can be solved?, and Why are there no common preferences possible for the rest?

If this explanatory theory (that common preferences are always possible) were false, that would mean that although people can settle some problems by finding a common preference, in other cases a problem will arise where one person wants one thing and the other person wants something else and there just isn't anything that they would both prefer to their initial wishes. In such situations, there would be an inherent conflict of interest.

That conflict-of-interest theory is itself a commonly-held explanation of some observed facts, namely that people often fail to reach common preferences. We explain this differently: the people are either not trying to find common preferences, or have hang-ups and irrationalities that are impeding their thinking and cooperation. But according to this conflict-of-interest theory, the reason people fail to reach common preferences is usually that common preferences do not exist for those problems.

A person who believes that theory will always be puzzled if he finds a situation that looks like an inherent conflict of interest but turns out not to be, as commonly happens when people try TCS.

As Janet suggested, it is very easy to look at a situation, and analyse it, and determine that a common preference isn't possible when in fact it is. And in fact, not only is it possible, but once one makes a relatively simple change of attitude, one finds that common preferences are actually quite easy to find.

Such experiences raise a severe problem for people who believe that in some situations there are inherent conflicts of interest:



One has to take into account the fact that coercion prevents the formation of common preferences.

Consider this proposed policy: “when I have devoted a certain amount of time or a certain amount of attention to the problem of finding a common preference, but have failed, then I shall use force”. The trouble is that that policy in itself amounts to a threat made at the beginning of the process, and so it prevents finding common preferences.

I think that these and other difficulties (with conflict-of-interest theories, and hence with doubting that a common preference is always possible) are insuperable. They are also unnecessary, since experience is perfectly consistent with the view that common preferences are always possible. You don't have to tie yourself up in knots postulating all these grim, unexplained features of reality. So we don't.

When is a theory not an active theory?

At 2:27 pm -0500 on 13th February, 1997, Jan Narveson wrote:

Sarah's argument that there are always common preferences needs, I think, some comment – not that it is wrong, exactly, but it is very misleading.

Every now and then people have conflicting desires. Jones wants to do x, and if he does it, then Smith, who wants to do y, will be unable to do it.

What happens next?

Either they find a common preference, or they do not. In the cases where they do not, that raises the question why they do not. The conflict-of-interest theory explains such cases by asserting that there is no common preference to find in those cases. In contrast, the TCS explanation is that the people are either not trying to find common preferences, or have hang-ups and irrationalities that are impeding their thinking and cooperation. These are two competing explanations. The point of my argument was to show that the conflict-of-interest explanation raises problems, such as, why are some problems solvable but others not?

One possibility is that one or the other will alter his course of action in light of the fact above. Realizing that if I try to go through the intersection now, I will run into or be run into by Smith, I decide to wait for him to go first. In this way, I don't get my most preferred outcome – to get across now – but I do get one that will do – getting across a little later, and also avert a considerable cost which I surely want to avoid.

It is not true to say that driving through the intersection now is your preferred outcome! If it were, you would do so, just as some “maniac drivers” do! In their case, prima facie, that is indeed their preference. In your case, given all the considerations, you prefer to wait for Smith to cross.

This theory you talk of as your preferred theory simply isn't! It is not an active theory in your mind, but merely a theory of the “I wish I had a million pounds” variety. That is to say, we can all have these little day dreams and thoughts, but they are not active theories. The person who has an active theory that they want to be a millionaire goes out and robs a bank or finds a way to earn a million pounds honestly. Or, if the person has that theory and is honest, and cannot find a way to earn that money, he is distressed, in conflict, enacting one theory while still retaining a conflicting theory – that is to say, he is acting under coercion. When one waits for the green light, prima facie, that is not what is happening (unless one is actually in a very bad way psychologically.)

This seems to be a confusion about what I mean by “active theory”. A theory is not “active” merely if it exists in the mind, or is being thought about. To be active, a theory must be, as it were, issuing an instruction now. To use an analogy, if two conflicting theories are active in the mind, it is like two computer programs simultaneously sending conflicting commands to the same output device (or to a third program).

Common preferences solve all problems

At 2:27 pm -0500 on 13th February, 1997, Jan Narveson wrote:

In human affairs, we often are in situations in which one or the other of two characterizations hold:

a) Co-ordination: here what A wants and what B wants are wholly consistent, BUT in order that both get what they want, they must act “together” in the following sense: both doing x is fine, both doing y is fine, but one doing x and the other y is not fine (in all cases, ‘fine’ and ‘not fine’ for both or all parties concerned). In such situations, we need a device for enabling us all to be sure that we do the same thing, whatever it is. Our desires are not at all conflicting, but there is a real possibility of screw-up. Common preferences by themselves are not sufficient. Sally likes to go to the beach and to the movies, and in either case wants to do it with George; and vice versa. But an arrangement is needed for them to be sure they both end up at the beach together, or at the movies together.

Making such an “arrangement” is a special case of finding a common preference – reaching unanimous agreement about when/what to do together. It is a special case because of the assumption that the parties already have identical initial preferences, and their only problem is to identify what those are.

There isn't an antecedent common preference for the communicative device or decision procedure (flipping a coin, say?) that solves the problems, but there is a common basis for arriving at such.

It is false to say that common preferences are “by themselves not sufficient”. Perhaps Jan has forgotten what we mean by common preferences. To remind you, a common preference is a real solution of the problem. It not a compromise (where neither of the parties really prefers the outcome), not coercion (where one or other party prefers the outcome while the other person still retains an active wish for the outcome to be other than it is), not self-sacrifice (which is self-coercion), but something better: an outcome created by the knowledge-building institution under which the decision-making process operates – an outcome which was not in existence at the start of the interaction, an outcome which each party prefers to his initial competing theory, an outcome which if someone were to suggest the parties reject in favour of one of their initial competing theories, the party whose initial theory that was would say “No! I prefer the new theory.”

In this case, the problem to solve is the one Jan describes as requiring an “arrangement” to ensure they both end up at one or other place together.

Prisoner's Dilemma

At 2:27 pm -0500 on 13th February, 1997, Jan Narveson wrote:

In human affairs, we often are in situations in which one or the other of two characterizations hold:

[See above for “a)”]

b) Prisoner's Dilemma: Here things are more complex, and there is a partial conflict of interest. Smith beating up Jones and taking his money is best, in Smith's view, though worst for Jones; Jones would also like to beat up on Smith and take HIS money – best for Jones and worst for Smith. But if they both try to do this, they both end up with extensive injuries and pain, and more or less equally poor as when they started out. Both will do better to refrain from such aggressive activity. This is a common preference, but not their first preference.

If Smith and Jones are not acting on their “first preference”, they are acting under coercion. That is to say, they have not found common preferences within their minds. Each is in the psychological state of enacting one theory (the theory which causes each to refrain from the aggressive activity mentioned above) while a rival theory (that it would be preferable to beat the other up and take his money) is still active in his mind.

However, most people do not in fact actively want to beat someone up to take his money. They may occasionally have an idle day dream of doing such a thing, but they would not actually want to do that.

Now, there is a question: is mutually agreed activity always best for each party? Not obviously.

If there is no “mutually [agreeable] activity [that is] best for each party” that is the same as saying there is no common preference possible.

The chicken does not agree to have his head cut off and be turned into soup, but I like chicken soup, and there's nothing the chicken can do about it, things being what they are.

Um... if this is intended to be a metaphor for how Jan approaches his interactions with other humans, it leaves something to be desired!

But among rational adults, there generally is something we can do about it, and in the ultimate run of things there's always something we can do about it.

Exactly. But why adults? Surely the important thing is the “rational” bit, not the “adult” bit? Otherwise Jan is classifying children with chickens in one category, and adult humans in the other.

Now, Prisoner's Dilemma (PD, for short) shows the need for a more complex understanding of common preferences. In PD, it is rational (I think – but there is disagreement about this) to take the cooperative option, and act such that both of us can get our second-best outcomes,

In the PD, as in all conflict-of-interest scenarios, all the stated options are irrational. Not in the game theory sense, but we are not playing games here. The only rational thing to do when one seems to be in this dilemma is to find new, better preferences and probably new, better options as well.

rather than try to “do down” the other person and attain our most preferred outcome, thus inviting a response that make us about come out third-best.

There are many reasons why doing down the other person should not be (and usually isn't) one's preferred option. The fact that he may retaliate is hardly relevant. In close interpersonal relationships it should never enter one's calculations at all.

(There is an enormous philosophical and game-theoretic literature about this.)

And it is all irrelevant to issues of interpersonal relationships. To describe and analyse real interpersonal interactions as ‘Prisoner's Dilemmas’ is to define away at least two vital factors in solving interpersonal problems: the fact that people can alter their preferences, and the fact that people can create new options.

TCS theory: some clarifications

A poster wrote:

The theoretical assumption is that a child is rational and creative unless coerced, whereby then the child may find it difficult to be their self.

I think it would be a mistake to assume that anyone, child or adult, is perfectly rational. What TCS parents assume is that their children have rationality. That is to say, the children are capable of learning and do learn. The same is true of adults, but it seems a reasonable assumption to make that adults, having been raised coercively, are likely to have more areas of irrationality than TCS children, because irrationality is something that is usually caused by failures to solve problems, which then become hangups, and this is usually caused by coercion. Even TCS children are likely to have some irrationality, some areas in which they are unable to think, unable to change their ideas in the light of criticism, but in the event that there is a disagreement between a TCS child and a parent that appears to be unresolvable even after everyone's best efforts, it seems reasonable to assume that it is probably the adult who is the cause of the impasse rather than the child, and to let that assumption inform one's actions.

Another poster replied:

In many regards, I can see that the above assumption can be held to be true but I am still unhappy in that I feel that the words ‘rational’ and ‘creative’ contain the seeds of idealism or perhaps a misplaced optimism.

See above. There is a difference between the TCS idea that children have creativity and rationality, and this idea being mistakenly attributed to TCS, that children are perfectly rational and creative. To suggest that is to suggest that children have no trouble solving any problem whatsoever. That is not what TCS is saying, and indeed, if it were true, there would be no need for TCS parenting in the first place! It is precisely because children are not perfectly able to remain rational and creative in the face of parental coercion that TCS is so important!

The theory is idealistic, but I fail to see how that makes it an invalid theory.

It is not an idealistic theory. TCS is, I conjecture, a true explanation of the reality that no other educational theory has ever explained. It is the solution of the problem no other educational theory has solved, namely, the problem that people get hurt. And it is the only educational theory that has ever been consistent with other prevailing ideas, such as human rights, the logic of how knowledge grows and how people learn, and so on.

In the absence of optimism, I think I need a model which explains why a child will set out to seek common preference

TCS theory explains this. The answer is that other things being equal, people want to solve problems, and problems are solved by creativity, and they are solved better when everyone's creativity is applied to solving them and not to fighting battles. That is why, other things being equal, people want agreement rather than conflict, they don't want to use force, they prefer peace to war. Of course other things are not always equal, especially in the case of coercively-raised adults...

In the absence of optimism, I think I need a model which explains why a child will set out to seek common preference, if, as is the case with TCS, the child can meet his preferences without reaching a common preference with his parents/guardians.

No, that is not TCS. That is almost as far from TCS as the more common situation, in which pre-TCS parents impose their initial preferences on their children because they have the power to do so. In both of these non-TCS cases, there is no knowledge being created, there is zero creativity. By contrast, TCS decision- making institutions facilitate the creation of new knowledge by virtue of their rationality. To the extent that the decision- making institution is truth-seeing, open to criticism, and so on, knowledge (real solutions instead of coercive non-solutions) may be creative. To the extent that they are not, knowledge cannot be created, agreement will not be reached, coercion will occur.

So why would a TCS child choose to find a common preference instead of doing what most parents do and simply impose his or her initial theory on the parent? Well, because (1) it is the right thing to do; (2) it is in the child's self-interest to do so (the same is true for the parent of course!) because the outcome of a rational, creative decision-making process is, to each and every party involved, better, preferable, to his or her antecedent theory of what the outcome should be; (3) not having been thwarted and coerced the way most children are, TCS children are more likely to want to find solutions that don't leave their parents crying into their tea! They are likely to want everyone to be happy, because it feels good! Pre-TCS people also want everyone to be happy and to solve problems and so on, but they are more likely to be inconsistent in this and to be compelled by their coercion-damaged psychology to hurt their loved ones instead of always finding common preferences.

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