I’m a big fan of what I call “productive fictions.” These are beliefs or moral stances that may not exactly hold up under strict scrutiny, but you act as if they’re true because they lead to better outcomes.
Take Pascal’s Wager, for instance. This thought experiment by 17th–century philosopher Blaise Pascal poses belief in God as a kind of gamble. You can either believe and potentially win big—think eternal life—or not believe and risk losing out. The “loss,” living a moral life but finding there’s no God, is minimal by comparison. It’s a fiction that can be productive because it guides behavior in a certain way.
And it’s not just religious ideas; our modern society is chock–full of these productive fictions. Think about the legal system, which operates on ideas like the presumption of innocence or the assumption of good faith. Sure, these aren’t always accurate, but they’re foundational for keeping society functioning. It’s a delicate balancing act—knowing these fictions have their limitations but adopting them because they usually do more good than harm.
As for me, I’ve got a few go–to productive fictions:
- Meritocracy: I like to think hard work and talent pay off, even though that’s not always the case. But believing it keeps me motivated.
- Trust your gut: I act on my instincts as a sum of my life experiences. It might not always be spot–on, but it helps me avoid regret.
- People can change: While some human traits are genetically hardwired, I find it more useful to believe we can improve ourselves through effort. It keeps me from falling into a fatalistic mindset.
- Society’s not that bad: Sure, societal issues can hold people back, but blaming everything on external conditions mostly fuels resentment without solving anything.
- The customer is always right: Of course, they’re not, but it’s just easier to operate under that assumption rather than fight it.
- Assume good faith: Even though some folks are out to scam or deceive you, it’s generally better for the social fabric to give people the benefit of the doubt.
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