Reading an interview with George Soros in the Baltimore Sun of 11 September, part of a plethora of media coverage linked to Soros’s $100 million donation to Human Rights Watch last week, I was struck by the elegance and simplicity of the personal philosophy that lies behind his decision making.
Asked by the interviewer to describe ‘the personal philosophy that has guided his business and investment decisions’, he refers to his experience while studying economic theory at the London School of Economics in the late 1950s. ‘I began reading the works of the political philosopher Karl Popper,’ he says. ‘I was struck by the contradiction between Popper’s emphasis on imperfect understanding and the theory of perfect competition in economics which postulates perfect knowledge. This led me to start questioning the assumptions of economic theory.’
This single insight is reflected in the ‘two relatively simple propositions’ that he says form the ‘core ideas’ of his philosophy. ‘One is that in situations that have thinking participants, the participants’ view of the world is always partial and distorted. That is the principle of fallibility. The other is that these distorted views can influence the situation to which they relate because false views lead to inappropriate actions. That is the principle of reflexivity.’
It is easy to see how these two propositions could apply to philanthropy. Indeed, the example he gives is from the social sphere. ‘For instance, treating drug addicts as criminals creates criminal behavior.’
What we can take from this is in itself contradictory. Nothing is more important than correcting the distorted views that lead to inappropriate actions. Yet the principle of fallibility suggests that this is an impossible task, given our partial and distorted views of the world. An endless striving to overcome our essential fallibility seems, in Soros’s view at least, to be the task facing all of us.