Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 22 2023


Note: Contentious topics are used for illustrative purposes only; I am not advocating for you to take any specific ethical position.

"There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs," is a famous saying about economics and economic policy. It acknowledges the reality that there are benefits and drawbacks to anything in life. Small creatures are agile; large creatures are strong. A high-paying job might be less engaging, whereas a fulfilling job might be low-paying. When you commit to doing one thing with your time, you are trading away the opportunity to do something else with that time (known as "opportunity cost" in economics). Your choices are always made to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.

Since everyone has their own goals, values, and ethics, they will weigh the pros and cons differently. A masculine man might not purchase an item because the last one in stock is pink, whereas a feminine woman might see that as a positive and make the purchase (all other things being equal). The problem comes, of course, when you have to make trade-offs that involve others. Do you protect your child from anything bad in the world or expose him or her to things so that they will be better prepared to face them in the future? Do you set a rule in society that prioritizes public safety or individual liberty? Since everyone makes different decisions based on different trade-offs that they are willing to make, your decisions might not be the right ones for them—or, even if they are, might not be the right ones from their point of view at that moment.

One way that people handle the stress of trade-offs is by focusing on the benefits of their decisions and ignoring or minimizing the drawbacks. For personal happiness and peace, this is generally a good idea. After all, there can be nothing but negative feelings if you lived the rest of your life thinking about the car, spouse, major, job, or other option that you didn't choose wondering if it would've been better for you. However, when dealing with others, it can come off as ignorant at best ("You're ignoring [major counterpoint]!!!!") or gaslighting at worst ("Why are you telling me that my concerns are completely invalid???"). Imagine if you take a hugely contentious topic, from whether to let your teenagers go to a party to how to set laws for abortion, immigration, or a pandemic response, and you tell someone with a different perspective that what they care about doesn't matter. Worse, imagine that they said that to you. Do you think it would make things better or worse with them?

We've seen this happen in a variety of circumstances. Parents who tell their children, "No," to the party without explanation makes them think that their parents don't trust them. Pro-life advocates think that pro-choice advocates are completely delusional because the trade-off of the freedom to stop a pregnancy is literally killing a human organism. Pro-vaccine-mandate individuals think that anyone shouting, "Freedom!" is killing people, and anti-vaccine-mandate individuals think that anyone shouting, "Safety!" is an oppressor (and, more recently, possibly forcing ailments from the side effects onto people). The truth is that both sides are simply prioritizing what they care about more and dismissing the other side, but in doing so they are no longer acknowledging the trade-off and are simply going to push their opposition further into their position.

Since using such contentious scenarios might be distracting from the point, let me state it more plainly: trade-offs should be understood when assessing a situation, minimized and ignored (for the most part) for yourself after making a decision, but then acknowledged and discussed with empathy when communicating with someone else if you want them to accept your point of view as valid (even though they disagree). Let's quickly go through steps that you can follow so that you can manage trade-offs as best as possible in your life:

I know that this is a tough blog post; most people in society have decided to become absolutists and to cast out anyone who disagrees with their weighing of the trade-offs. Many people might think that forgetting the trade-offs to be happier is delusional, while others might think that having a fallback option is welcoming failure into their lives. And, to practice what I preach (because these are, in fact, trade-offs that I am making with this post!!!), I respect your differing opinion as to what to prioritize or how to go about managing trade-offs. I know the temptation to claim that you have the "one true opinion" and that everyone who disagrees with you must follow Hanlon's Razor (i.e., dissenters must be ignorant->stupid->evil, in that order).

In popularity contests, it definitely seems to work that if you dial up the pros and minimize the cons you can rally as many people to vote for you as possible and become a big fish in your little tribal pond. That's what politics, social media, and affinity groups are all about: "We have the same goals, values, and ethics, and so we are banding together to live by them!" But you do have to live in harmony with people who have different goals, values, and ethics, and so when outside of those monolithic groups, you are best to try to show understanding and reach compromises wherever possible instead of trying to impose your beliefs and your will onto them. It'll likely be better for everyone.

And that might be the ultimate trade-off: the trade-off between what's best for you and what's best for others (when what's best for them is not what's best for you). I don't have an answer other than the classic oxygen mask mantra: "Put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others." (because you can't help anyone if you're passed out) From there, it's up to you how you balance that trade-off. Follow the process above, though, and you should be able to navigate it in the best way that you can.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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