Counterfactual and a Half

I don't like counterfactuals.

A counterfactual question is one that asks what would be happen if something that was false were true. What if the moon were made of cheese? What if Hitler never dropped out of art school? What if you had to give up either chocolate or cheese?

My problem is that people often don't stick by the changed assumption. For instance, one ice breaker is "if you could have any superpower, what superpower would you have?" but people often don't really stick by "you could have any superpower." They probably wouldn't be happy if I answered that my superpower would be to be able to do whatever I want at any time in perpetuity with no bounds, including causing everlasting world peace. Most superpowers violate the laws of physics, so my superpower isn't even less reasonable! People are especially bad when they ask ethical counterfactuals. For instance, an adherent to deontology, a rule-based ethical philosophy, might critique a utilitarian if they said that they would torture one person if they knew it was the only way to save 10 lives. But their critiques would usually be some combination of "you don't know that it will save 10 lives," or "there are ways other than torture," or "torture gives bad information," all of which contradict the scenario (and all of which are good reasons for someone who believes in utilitarianism to avoid torture). I think that counterfactuals are a big problem for ethics in general. People often avoid the simple, intuitively right, answer because they ask things that are untrue and that would change the situation if they were true.

Counterfactuals are one of the reasons that I dislike much of the economic theory that is taught in American schools. Economics, as it is often taught, relies on the theories that people have perfect information, act rationally, and try to maximize their individual profit (though, of course, there are plenty of economists out there who study the real world rather than these assumptions). All three of those assumptions have been proven to be false on many occasions. Many of the unrealistic economic theories come because their entire study is one big counterfactual. If you could have any superpower, what would it be? If people had perfect information and acted rationally to maximize their profit, what should George Bush do to fix the economy?

I prefer to think concretely about the world as it is and as it could be rather than as it isn't.

Note: the title of this article is a reference to Hyperbole and a Half, a blog that wrote about people who say "alot."