Sowell: Trade-Offs Versus Solutions

From A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, page 17.


Prudence—the careful weighing of trade-offs—is seen in very different terms within the constrained and the unconstrained visions. In the constrained vision, where trade-offs are all that we can hope for, prudence is among the highest duties. Edmund Burke called it “the first of all virtues.”21 “Nothing is good,” Burke said, “but in proportion and with reference”22—in short, as a trade-off.

By contrast, in the unconstrained vision, where moral improvement has no fixed limit, prudence is of a lower order of importance. Godwin had little use for “those moralists”—quite conceivably meaning Smith—“who think only of stimulating men to good deeds by considerations of frigid prudence and mercenary self-interests,” instead of seeking to stimulate the “generous and magnanimous sentiment of our natures.”23

Implicit in the unconstrained vision is the notion that the potential is very different from the actual, and that means exist to improve human nature toward its potential, or that such means can be evolved or discovered, so that man will do the right thing for the right reason, rather than for ulterior psychic or economic rewards. Condorcet expressed a similar vision when he declared that man can eventually “fulfill by a natural inclination the same duties which today cost him effort and sacrifice.”24 Thus a solution can supersede mere trade-offs.

Man is, in short, “perfectible”—meaning continually improvable rather than capable of actually reaching absolute perfection. “We can come nearer and nearer,” according to Godwin,25 though one “cannot prescribe limits” to this process.26 It is sufficient for his purpose that men are “eminently capable of justice and virtue”27—not only isolated individuals, but “the whole species.”28 Efforts must be made to “wake the sleeping virtues of mankind.”29 Rewarding existing behavior patterns was seen as antithetical to this goal.

Here, too, Condorcet reached similar conclusions. The “perfectibility of man,” he said, was “truly indefinite.”30 “The progress of the human mind” was a recurring theme in Condorcet.31 He acknowledged that there were “limits of man’s intelligence,”32 that no one believed it possible for man to know “all the facts of nature” or to “attain the ultimate means of precision” in their measurement or analysis.33 But while there was ultimately a limit to man’s mental capability, according to Condorcet, no one could specify what it was. He was indignant that Locke “dared to set a limit to human understanding.”34 As a devotee of mathematics, Condorcet conceived perfectibility as a never-ending asymptotic approach to a mathematical limit.35

While use of the word “perfectibility” has faded away over the centuries, the concept has survived, largely intact, to the present time. The notion that “the human being is highly plastic material”36 is still central among many contemporary thinkers who share the unconstrained vision. The concept of “solution” remains central to this vision. A solution is achieved when it is no longer necessary to make a trade-off, even if the development of that solution entailed costs now past. The goal of achieving a solution is in fact what justifies the initial sacrifices or transitional conditions which might otherwise be considered unacceptable. Condorcet, for example, anticipated the eventual “reconciliation, the identification, of the interests of each with the interests of all”—at which point, “the path of virtue is no longer arduous.”37 Man could act under the influence of a socially beneficial disposition, rather than simply in response to ulterior incentives.

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