Monday, February 28, 2011

You gotta break some eggs

The old saying goes roughly along these lines:

To make an omelet you have to break some eggs.

The idea being, of course, that sometimes you have to do some bad things to get a good result.  Sthenno came over the other day and told me about a quote from a modern philosopher he likes, which goes roughly like this:

You can break an awful lot of eggs without ever making an omelet.

Essentially this is trying to convey that you shouldn't expect that just because you are trying to do something useful that it is okay to do a bunch of bad things - sometimes you will end up doing the bad things and get nowhere.  Of course all of this is just a rephrasing of the more famous and straightforward lines:

The end justifies the means.

The end does not justify the means.

The trick, like many old sayings and maxims, is that the statements are utterly useless and can be safely discarded.  Anyone that tells you that they believe the second one is crazy - cutting people open with a knife is bad, but you would find that not many folks actually believe that surgery to save a patient with a burst appendix is bad because you are cutting him!  The first one is also ridiculous as I would be comfortable saying that making a pie is a good thing but uncomfortable suggesting that it is fine to slaughter 10,000 people in order to make said pie.  Practically nobody (there are a few crazies who break the rule, presumably) actually believes either of these stupid statements.  What they do believe is somewhere along the line between those extremes.

The important thing to understand is that we need to do bad things sometimes to achieve good results.  There can be no debate about that.  The challenging part is the weighting function.  We need to figure out exactly how bad things are and how good things are and then do a lot of math and comparison.  People don't agree on those numbers, of course, so we end up fighting over how to spend money, make laws, and other such things.  The second major component of the function that people largely ignore or don't understand is the probability portion. We need to be sure that we don't do something bad for certain when the good result is very unlikely.  Killing someone in a philosopher's imaginary world to save two other people is a fine thing but in the real world we usually know that killing somebody is bad and we aren't sure that we are actually going to save two people.  What if they would have been saved anyway?  What if they are going to die anyway?  What if we are just being tricked by someone into doing something bad?

People really need to get their heads around the idea that you cannot sum up all the complexities of decision making with simple phrases like the ones above.  Real life is deadly complicated, we need to make guesses at probabilities and results and go with them and reducing those complex and important choices to catchphrases isn't helpful.


  1. The second phrase is not saying that the end does not justify the means. It's saying while the end can sometimes justify the means, often when people use certain means with the expectation that they will have an end that justifies them, the end they wanted never comes about. You may have to break eggs to make an omelet, but the fact of breaking the eggs is not sufficient to create the omelet.

  2. Also the first two sayings are not nearly as broad as your generalizations. They're relating breaking eggs (the means) with making an omelet (the end) which are at least on the right scale.

    But perhaps more importantly, there might just be ways to make omelets without breaking the eggs: