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Rock, Paper, Scissors

“That’s not fair” is the injured cry of schoolchildren everywhere, but children—and adults—are more likely to think they recognize (un)fairness than to be able to discuss it intelligibly and productively. In his essay “Equality[1],” Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that fairness “is a form of desire for equality for its own sake.” That sounds rather abstract, but a moment of relocation in the classroom or playground will show what is meant. Late last spring a couple of boys in my room began an argument about who should get what, and my eavesdropping instantly told me that there would be no evidentiary or testimonial way of resolving the conflict. The boys reached that conclusion at about the moment I started to eavesdrop, and decided to let Rock Paper Scissors work things out. Soon they had cooled down.

Now, Rock Paper Scissors is not a jurisprudential enterprise with due process; what it does is to set up a randomized contest in which the two participants have an equal chance at victory. The participants set aside any claims to justice, which have no chance of being correctly evaluated, in favor of equality of opportunity to win arbitrarily. Like the arbitrary convention of dueling that blood washes away dishonor, Rock Paper Scissors says that strength, in trumping weakness (of materials, not of participants, e.g., scissors cut paper but are broken by rock), washes away grievance. Unlike a duel, it gives both participants an equal chance at strength, thus privileging equality for its own sake. It has the further instrumental virtue of pre-empting interference by eavesdropping teachers who might act unfairly or attach punishment to resolution. It may even save a bruise or two.

Rock Paper Scissors is actually a surprisingly sophisticated and even shocking social construct. Participants must give up the possibility of genuine redress in favor of an artificial mechanism that offers no intrinsic satisfaction, only the extrinsic ones of equality of opportunity and possibility of victory. That this is not a mechanism of redress will be immediately apparent to anyone considering the First Amendment: who would take seriously the possibility that people “petition[ing] the Government for a Redress of Grievances” would be satisfied by playing Rock Paper Scissors with the President? And yet in some schoolrooms it works.

I am not arguing against Rock Paper Scissors. Rather, I am arguing that using its equality of arbitrary opportunity for conflict resolutions requires some careful thought or prior acculturation and the adoption of a view that Sir Isaiah would say is “one among many: the degree to which it is compatible with other ends depends on the concrete situation, and cannot be deduced from general laws of any kind; it is neither more nor less rational than any other ultimate principle.”  Things that “depend on the concrete situation, and cannot be deduced from general laws of any kind” require “man the political animal,” as Aristotle called us: people who live in groups and are constantly accommodating ourselves to each other or asserting ourselves against each other. The human faculties needed by excellent political animals (or their leaders) are what Pascal calls finesse, what Kahnemann calls system one, what Gardner calls interpersonal intelligence, and what Jung calls a superior feeling function. These powers are combined in Barzun’s “perpetual discretion” of the good teacher and are either a natural endowment or the work of a lifetime in acquiring–if they are acquired at all.

Compared to their complexity, the putative faculty of “emotional intelligence” seems rather thin and unsatisfactory, and the idea of “teaching” it must include notions of acculturation, lifelong learning, and regeneration that will go well beyond the schemes of workshopping and scripted learning typically peddled in their stead. Indeed, there does not even seem to be a clear notion of what “emotional intelligence” is, and what “social-emotional learning” entails. If it is not to be another bit of washed-up Edbiz wreckage like “transactional analysis” and “self-esteem”, we will need a huge clarification. If I like Rock Paper Scissors, it’s not because it is a tool of the “emotionally intelligent” but because it is one welcome process that careful upbringing,  acculturation, clear thinking and perpetual discretion make useful in its place.



[1] Available in its complete form in Concepts and Categories and in a usefully abridged form in Introduction to Great Books 2

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