Short Term Perfection as the Enemy of Long Time Good

Humans are far from perfect, but generally aspire to perfection. This brings about much progress, but also much grief. Before aspiring to perfection, we must first imagine it, and then weigh its perceived benefits vs costs. And then there's often the question of who's the "we" that will reap the benefits or pay the costs.

Generally, the wider our notion of "we", the less of a zero-sum game we play, while the narrower "we" tends to work selfishly, with less regard for loss to others. It's often an Us vs Them game, vs an Us plus Them game.

So how did we (or most of us) come this far, to modern times? It's complicated! And long. But one unifier among us has been religion. Sure, it's had its costs, and those costs are now increasing compared to its benefits, because unification by choice is more of a workable option now than unification by force. Religion, secular communism, socialism, and capitalism each have their own advantages. In any case, long-lived perfection has eluded all of us, much less eternal utopia.

So historically, there's always been this intimate link between political/religious power structures, and the goals chosen at large for society and civilization. The religious or religiously affiliated power structures have, for the most part, taken us pretty far, and increasingly rapidly, especially since (say) around 0 A.D.

But now, science and liberal democracy threaten all previous dogmas and traditions. And it has complicated our decision making processes, because wide distributions of expertise are more critical to success than narrow foci of authority. Our penchants for perfection of morality and determining how to achieve it, along with how to choose our goals at large and achieve them must give way to better habits of cognitive reasoning, letting go of mythical and imaginary concepts of perfection.

Spreadsheets and probability calculations don't come naturally to emotionally-anchored forms of human consciousness. Past genetic evolution has optimized us more for short term, sensory/emotionally based behavior, especially in the most intimate group/social contexts. We're not naturally programmed to be intellectual or empirically detailed and motivated. We must now progress beyond imagined authorities and absolute rules for perfect life, but without abdicating a responsibility to keep discussing our bigger pictures and purposes that are more inclusive than exclusive of each other's needs and desires. Imagining perfection and unity in divine authority has taken us far, but cannot sustain humanity in a planet-Earth bound context.

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Comment by Ed on March 3, 2015 at 8:14pm

"Our penchants for perfection of morality and determining how to achieve it...."

Being realistic for a moment and considering the infallible nature of humans I believe a perfection of morality is unattainable and, probably, unnecessary. As long as we strive as a civilization to better ourselves and do no one any harm along the way we can be content with our imperfections. I personally would find it difficult to navigate the waterways of a perfect morality. If religion(s) is responsible for making us think we need to be perfect morally then that's one more reason to spread the worldview that perhaps we are better off without it (religion).

Comment by Simon Paynton on March 4, 2015 at 11:56am

Two of the most pressing long-term goals being saving the planet and avoiding nuclear war. 

Comment by Dr. Bob on March 5, 2015 at 10:18am

But now, science and liberal democracy threaten all previous dogmas and traditions.

???  I think you lost me, @ Pope.  At least I don't understand this comment.  Nor the bit about spreadsheets and probability tables.  I would agree that we should abandon "absolute rules for a perfect life", whatever those are.

Are you just saying that rather than striving for perfection, we should simply keep striving to do better?  I'm good with that.  How do we decide what's "better?"  I'm good with saving the planet and avoiding nuclear war, but surely there's more than that?

Comment by Melvinotis on March 8, 2015 at 1:46pm

Pope, I like what you are saying here, but I would add the context of scarcity and abundance as drivers of need, desire, and lack in the human condition. Other factors occur like lifespan, access, mobility, accident of birth, infant mortality rate, manmade and natural biological conditions, the list goes on and on. 

We get to think about things like perfection only after dealing with the hard costs. Even the hard costs are open to debate according to the perception of the populace and even individuals.

IMO things are getting better. Many of the atrocities of the past could not happen today, and many of the advances we now enjoy can now be distributed in a much more egalitarian manner, rather than manipulated for the benefit of a few. 

So what happens when everyone has the chance to know everything? This next generation will be the first to never have known of a time without Google. The children of current monarchs will know that there is no place to hide their infidelities. Does that make for a world closer to the ideal of perfection? I think so. 

Many of the improvements though will come as a side effect of the changes in hard costs rather than as a goal somehow agreed upon by a quorum.  

Comment by Pope Beanie on March 8, 2015 at 4:07pm

@DrBob, I might clarify with "But now, science and liberal democracy threaten all previous dogmas and traditions, by uncovering evidence that (incidentally and quite unintentionally) refutes ancient, sacred literature, and offers new ways to question and challenge traditional and absolute authority. As for what's "better", I can't say any much about that here other than to emphasize the increasing need for better informed and cooperative decision making. At the very least, eliminate authoritarianism and the forceful execution of any idealism.

@Melvinotis, yes, I think I've overgeneralized on the negative effects of perfectionism. I would call terrorism "evil" by nature, but I still insist that terrorist behavior originates from 1) a distorted belief in what's "perfect" behavior, and 2) the arrogance or psychosis to forcefully impose it on others. It's weird... I think I'm addressing people out there more than people in here! Er, I need to get out more. :)

Comment by Pope Beanie on October 25, 2015 at 5:24pm

[I replaced two March 8 2015 posts with this one, for clarity.]

"Spreadsheets and probability tables" just refers to how those skills come by unnaturally, as -opposed to (say) our more naturally built-in drive to survive on a day-to-day, food and shelter seeking, social imperative. We're far removed from those days during which we evolved and optimized socially.

It should not be surprising that a pathology like terrorism can come to exist, along with its hate for progress. I think such confusions and pathology in our modern times are increasingly probable.

Comment by Simon Paynton on October 25, 2015 at 5:33pm

I think we're far removed from our "garden of Eden" days of living in small interdependent prosocial groups on the savannah.  Since 15,000 years ago it's all about massive groups bumping into each other and competing gruesomely. 

Comment by Pope Beanie on October 25, 2015 at 5:49pm

Yes, perfection and good are subjective terms. I hope to emphasize how differently and forcefully cultures (and cults) define them, and that overall, forcefulness (even when as seemingly mundane as everyday peer pressure) is an overall "dark" force, unnaturally exaggerated by unnatural stresses of modern lifestyles. It is usually beneficial to strive for perfection and goodness, as long as their definitions are not specified in stone or other single references, like "The Book".

@Simon, I was about to hit the Add Comment button when your's appeared, so I'll add/reply: Yes, absolutely correct. Even 15k years ago "stresses of modern times" were already, profoundly set into motion. Continuing on, we should be aware of how plastic world cultures are, and how we might learn to soften that plasticity in more world-wide beneficial ways, e.g. by pushing back against concrete dogmas and arrogant ("better than thou") isms.


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