The Army of Economists

In a wide-ranging and interesting conversation Daniel Dennett reflects on hypocrisy and whether it may sometimes be optimal:

Suppose that we face some horrific, terrible enemy, another Hitler or something really, really bad, and here’s two different armies that we could use to defend ourselves. I’ll call them the Gold Army and the Silver Army; same numbers, same training, same weaponry. They’re all armored and armed as well as we can do. The difference is that the Gold Army has been convinced that God is on their side and this is the cause of righteousness, and it’s as simple as that. The Silver Army is entirely composed of economists. They’re all making side insurance bets and calculating the odds of everything.

Which army do you want on the front lines? It’s very hard to say you want the economists, but think of what that means. What you’re saying is we’ll just have to hoodwink all these young people into some false beliefs for their own protection and for ours. It’s extremely hypocritical. It is a message that I recoil from, the idea that we should indoctrinate our soldiers. In the same way that we inoculate them against diseases, we should inoculate them against the economists’—or philosophers’—sort of thinking, since it might lead to them to think: am I so sure this cause is just? Am I really prepared to risk my life to protect? Do I have enough faith in my commanders that they’re doing the right thing? What if I’m clever enough and thoughtful enough to figure out a better battle plan, and I realize that this is futile? Am I still going to throw myself into the trenches? It’s a dilemma that I don’t know what to do about, although I think we should confront it at least.

It would be astounding if there were never a situation in which a lie was effective in producing a good result, i.e. a noble lie. But is a rule of noble lies effective? In a long sequence of calls to war, how many have been just and wise and how many have been driven by vainglorious leaders and foolish pride–so which army do you want? I prefer the silver.

Note also that Dennett mixes narrow self interest and rationality in his description of “economists.” But one can be fully rational without being narrowly self-interested. Dennett, for example, cheats a bit with his puzzle. The premise is some “horrific, terrible enemy” but then later the economists ask “am I so sure this cause is just”, to which the answer should be, given the premise, yes. In which case fighting is a rational response.

Hat tip: Brian Donohue.


I would pick the Gold Army, but I don't see what's hypocritical about it. I would pick the Gold Army because I think it is the one more likely to defeat my real enemy in this situation. Everything about that is simply utilitarian and designed to achieve a purpose. Make a game theory matrix or decision table on it, if you like. It seems like we make such choices all the time. A prime example would be voting. How many times has your choice of candidates included one you thought was anywhere near your personal ideal?

Let's assume Gold Army and Silver Army face off. Which is more likely to charge blindly into battle? Which is more likely to modify tactics and make efforts to win the hearts and minds of the occupied, thus ensuring a lasting victory?

If anything the description of Gold Army reminds me of the French army and the British Expeditionary Force of World War 1. They were not particularly well trained or encouraged to do anything but charge into the fray or maintain their entrenched positions.

Whereas the German army was run by generals who were obsessed with train timetables and had some of the best understanding of small unit tactics — and encouraged its soldiers to use them. And a wildly outnumbered German army managed to hold the Western front until the arrival of American troops (who had adopted aggressive small unit tactics) and soundly defeat Russia (which was not exactly a Silver Army).

I don't think your association of ideological commitment with tactical rigidity is at all justified. You have made this association and then run with it using WWI, but you haven't actually shown that the British and French were more committed to their cause than the Germans, or more likely to believe that God was on their side. I doubt this was the case.

I think true believers are more likely to wage war innovatively. They are more likely to fight in the first place, more willing to take on a superior force, and more likely to keep fighting even when traditional tactics fail. Necessity is the mother of invention. Islamic Extremists are a good modern-day example.

It's not hypocritical because there's no particular reason to think that God *isn't* on the Gold army's side. After all, we've been told that the enemy is uniquely horrible.

That's funny. I'd pick the Silver Army. Economists are devoted to a principle of rational self-interest, so all questioning aside, they're going to fight. The Gold Army, on the other hand, believes in a higher purpose, which means that they're going to be more focused on ethical thinking. I'd be worried they'd start asking questions like, 'Is it really okay to kill in the name of God?' 'Doesn't God command us to love our enemies, and warn us that he who lives by the sword will die by it?' Religion helps people cultivate compassion. Economics sees people as tools to be used to accomplish one's interests. When you're fighting a war, the last thing you want is an army of people who think about ethics and compassion, right?

Why would you assume that self-interest would make an individual fight? A selfish person would thinks it better that he lives than his army win and a "fanatic" would think its better that he dies than his army lose. Whose risk profile seems more likely to fight? The self-interested person would encourage everyone to fight his war and risk as little as possible. Now put that attitude in every solider of an army and you think they would win. Your analysis blows me away with how wrong it is.

All the great nonviolent movements in history have been religious. Economists, on the other hand, can be convinced of anything if you tweak the numbers just right.

pick up a copy of Catch-22. it's the best there is!

I think such a question is hard to discuss without discussing the economies of scale in fighting a war. This scale effect means that there is a strategic complementarity in fighting, which results in multiple equilibria. Thus it can be very important to create "public knowledge" that everyone else is going to fight, in order to converge to the good equilibrium. In order to get this result, noble lies could potentially be useful, as could prohibition of insurance schemes (in this case making side deals with the enemy for post-occupation rewards).

It seems Alex is cheating at least as much as Dennett by saying "the economists ask “am I so sure this cause is just”, to which the answer should be, given the premise, yes. In which case fighting is a rational response." This site is Marginal Revolution; is it really so hard to believe that, at the margin there will be more Silver Army soldiers who just as equally rationally try to free ride on other soldiers' sacrifices? Military indoctrination is a solution to the collective action problem that armies are only effective if soldiers incur great risks and sacrifices--internalized costs--for the positive externalities for their comrades and countrymen. While certainly there will be rational economists who, fighting a just cause, look at their personal morality and charge the trench and follow orders (or perform a more cynical calculation that the risks are outweighed by the possible benefits of glory and medals), I don't there's any legitimate question that the discipline of the Gold Army will be better than the Silver Army and, ceteris paribus, will outperform the latter. Look at all the economists who proudly announce that they never vote because voting is irrational. Alex votes, but he's more civic-minded than the hypothetical economists at the margin that Dennett is worried about.

This kind of thought isn't exactly new. As I understand it, this puzzle is directly related to an evolutionary view of culture. Under this view,
1) It's not really a "puzzle", since you don't really have that choice. You can't instantly decide to change culture. You would need to convince most parents to teach their sons the way you want it (good luck with that in the US). And then it would take at least a generation.
2) The fact that people are willing to sacrifice for the country, religion whatever is not exogenous. It is instead an evolutionary result, as societies where this was true would more often succeed in defending themselves or attacking others.
3) Point 2 suggests that, if you start a change towards an "economists" army in the US and such a change didn't happen elsewhere, it would be hard to maintain warfare supremacy.
4) But then, that doesn't take into account the changes in technology. Maybe high-tech warfare may require less people, so the economists will be able to free ride on the diminishing golden fighters.

Akerloff has lots of interesting insights on the transmission of cultural traits, as does Thierry Verdier and others more recently. For a view outside economics, see Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson.

Given drones this is not a choice that advanced economies will need to worry about for much longer.

I believe you're assuming that only one side has drones.

Well, Dennett is 'bright' -

A movement calling itself the "Brights" is so tin-eared, self-reverent and alienating, that it should be no surprise whatsoever that it included (until his death) third-rate "minds" [sic] like Christopher Hitchens (who got a THIRD - worse than a "gentlemen's C" - at Balliol: to the extent that credentials matter, having participated in a meritocratic race and finished in the bottom quintile is a bad thing).

I'm an atheist - to the core of my being - but would run a mile from any group that called itself the Brights - and that's before we consider the type of individual who would be attracted by such a moniker.

(In the same way, the 'elect' groups like the Apostles at Cambridge creep me the hell out).

Dennett and his ilk are very fond of dreaming up ludicrous "tests of rationality" - like those that the (again, self-reverent) "rationalists" like Eliezer Yudkowski pose for their (lay) audiences... e.g., (and I'm not kidding): "Which would you rationally choose: torturing an individual for 50 years, or having dust flecks land on the eyelids of 3^^^3 [7,625,597,484,987] people?". ("C: this is a stupid example" was not an option).

For those without the benefit of internet-'rationalist' tropes: the supposed right answer (if you want to be considered 'rational' by these folk) is that you torture the individual ... from which we might deduce that web-based "closed-shop" autodidacticism Granger-causes the acceptance of a naive version of utilitarianism with:
* utility summable-across-individuals;
* no discounting (there's a time dimension in the example);
* no increasing marginal disutility of discomfort;
* no desire to see if the people CONSENT to the flecks (e.g., no test of utility interdependence) and
* the absence of many other sensible things that are contained in the tens of thousands of pages of economic literature that these folks haven't read.

It is almost axiomatic that any example that has "economist" as one set of agents, is likely to have been thought up with the sole intention of trying to use some or other straw-man argument in order to make economists and economics look silly.

Dennett's real faulty premise (likely mood affiliation) is assuming that young soldiers have to be indoctrinated in order to want to fight wars.

" In a long sequence of calls to war, how many have been just and wise and how many have been driven by vain glorious leaders and foolish pride–so which army do you want? I prefer the silver."

Here, you also reject the premise. The question is not what you prefer as a general case, but when faced with a clearly bad enemy. You have not answered the stated question.

I think the answer is not so clear. On the modern battlefield you need bright, independent leadership. Fanaticism could lead to soldiers who blindly follow orders. My best guess is that if you are talking about the big battle at Fulda Gap happening, you want gold. In an asymmetrical war, if you are the side with all of the tech and money, you want silver. If you are on the side with fewer people and poorly armed fighting a long term guerilla war, you want gold.


Yep, Tyler Cowan did not answer the question, but what is the question meant to tell us about? If the question is meant to give a guide to a real-world decision, then Tyler's rejecting of the question and raising of another one is important.

There are plenty of examples of religious people functioning in all the military roles you have described (fanaticism, bright independent leadership, stubborn waging of guerilla war). Economists, not so much, unless we include Communists generically as economists. The truth is that this is an uncommonly silly hypothetical.

What's up with the lie interpretation? Groups, to work effectively, need a common glue. Dennett chose God in this example, but he could choose patriotism, public service, etc.. I suppose rationality could be a common purpose to serve, but it's hard to imagine taking a bullet for the transitivity property.

Also what he describes (as you allude to) is not an army of economists, but a bunch of individuals who are economists. I work in a real 'army' of economists, complete with officers and lines, but we also have fairly open discussions and debates (subject to the constraint of getting the work done). Serving a common goal does not mean turning off your brain. It simply means orientating your arguments and actions toward those common goals and not your own personal interests. Put another way, I would not choose an army that was made up of the best and brightest soldiers around the world over one that was united behind a common cause.

An army of economists? Really? Claudia....I don't even have the words. I could just see trying to teach your kind how to throw a grenade....."on the other hand...."

I did put it in quotes right? In no way am I trying to trivialize the armed forces. But I would say that working with 300+ and counting economists in a somewhat formal structure of staff and officers to serve a common purpose has some parallels. Obviously, we don't get weapon training, but we do have formal training on how to speak in the board room. Very funny about the two handed economist joke, but I actually found that to be one of the harder things to unlearn. As an economist (and by nature), I see the many sides of issues, but as a staff economist I need to help develop and then clearly communicate one view, the staff view. Of course, with all the caveats and further review, but it's still different than give and take among individual economists in seminars or conferences.

Eliezer Yudkowsky used a very similar example here:

"Let's say we have two groups of soldiers. In group 1, the privates are ignorant of tactics and strategy; only the sergeants know anything about tactics and only the officers know anything about strategy. In group 2, everyone at all levels knows all about tactics and strategy.

Should we expect group 1 to defeat group 2, because group 1 will follow orders, while everyone in group 2 comes up with better ideas than whatever orders they were given?

In this case I have to question how much group 2 really understands about military theory, because it is an elementary proposition that an uncoordinated mob gets slaughtered.

Doing worse with more knowledge means you are doing something very wrong. You should always be able to at least implement the same strategy you would use if you are ignorant, and preferably do better. You definitely should not do worse. If you find yourself regretting your "rationality" then you should reconsider what is rational."

At first, these look like quite similar problems - we are comparing two groups of soliders, one which can think freely and rationally, and the other which simply follows orders. But Yudkowsky is trying to argue that the rational army should win, that is, that we should prefer to have a rational army. If the rational army loses, then they can't be as rational as we think they are. What's missing from both accounts is the incentives - does the rational army (or, more to the point, its members) have a reasonable incentive to defect? The irrational army does not, because in Dennett's example they would fear the punishment of God, and although Yudkowsky doesn't cover this explicitly, it's assumed that the irrational army follows orders at all times.

If you believe that your army is going to lose, you may wish to defect. The first person to defect is likely to be rewarded by his new allies, so as to encourage further defections (although he can't rule out the possibility that he will be killed, paraded on television or otherwise held up as an example of the degenerate foe), but if the entire army defects then they'll all likely be enslaved, imprisoned or otherwise punished and humiliated. Allowing some defection may actually be healthy - it removes those who are disloyal or who don't really want to fight, and makes it clear to the others that the "first defector" slots are all taken and anyone trying to defect now will simply be taken prisoner.

Given some negative impact from defections, the question is whether or not the rationality of those remaining presents enough of an advantage to outweigh this. This is an empirical question for which I imagine we have few examples. Maybe sports teams could provide some useful data?

Also, if you're really interested in the idea of a rational individualist army vs. a hierarchical one, I recommend New Model Army by Adam Roberts, which explores exactly this theme in a fictional near-future setting:

Yudkowsky is religious, too. He just thinks that his God is a self-creating series of robots that will grant his 'information pattern' eternal life in a cloned body with superpowers.

gold army, hands down.

I'm an atheist, and I used to believe that religion was something to be put aside so that people could better understand "the truth" and make better decisions for themselves, in the here and now.

Older and wiser now I realize that although there is no god, and no "right" or "wrong", religion is a critical piece for a good functioning human society. Not just for armies, but for the majority of society who has to do the hard, dirty jobs that keep things working.

People need the comfort of religion, they need to understand that there is a reason, something bigger than themselves. Without that structure, most people fall into hedonistic nihilism. I doubt an army of economists would even fight for long. They would likely rather surrender and live under the bad, then fight and die and become nothing.

Society needs religion, even if there is no god.

I'm an atheist too, and I see the Gold Army as the enemy. Send them into battle. If they all die that will improve my society, not just by raising average IQ but also by reducing the number of people harboring bad memes.

Obama is looking for a Secretary of State. Put your name down.

You would lower the average IQ. Believing is positively associated with earning power, which is positively associated with IQ. For me atheists are sophomores - wise fools. You have learned a lot. Next step in learning is to become aware of how much you really don't know.

Lets try longer association chains!
Non-belief is positively associated with urban residency, which is positively associated with earning power, which is positively associated with IQ.
Non-belief is positively associated with higher education level, which is positively associated with earning power, which is positively associated with IQ.
Oh, maybe associations don't stack!

Shorter Memnon : "I got nothing"

If all the atheists left the US, you would lose 90% of the scientists, but 1% of the prison population.

Then again, if you're religious, you may actually believe that this would increase average IQ.

Believing is positively correlated with IQ - really? Sez who?

Nyborg's 2008 paper in "Intelligence" ("The intelligence–religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans") found that "Atheists scored an average of 1.95 IQ points higher than agnostics, 3.82 points higher than liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than dogmatic persuasions" (that's from the abstract at ).

Academics - particularly in the hard sciences - have a significantly lower rate of belief in Invisible Sky Wizard nonsense than the masses, too... and higher IQs than the average.

If you have a citation for your claim that belief is positively associated with IQ, it would be doing God a favour if you shared it with us.

It's certainly a matter of relative effectiveness and efficiency, but the situation presented is rather like the stock market in that no one method (or in this case, no one set of assets like either in-line or lateral thinking) can be relied upon to produce success perennially. Sooner or later (and not infrequently as a result of a string of previous successes by one side) the terrain will shift and the useful assets with it.

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

In modern society, hypocrisy is scorned because it means the person at least pays homage to virtue. Better to have no virtue, nor pay any lip service to it.

I put hypocrites into two camps: the believers and the non-believers. A smoker who tells their child not to smoke because they know smoking is bad, but can't quit, is a virtuous hypocrite. At some point they may live up to their standard and I don't fault anyone for failing to live up to their standards. The non-believer tells other people not to smoke because that's the popular public position, or maybe they want to take your cigarettes. They don't believe the message at all.

Anyone who thinks the Silver Army won't come up with their own self-serving economic theory is delusional. I think the Silver Army is probably what the Romans had: highly paid and highly honored professional soldiers.

Reading the part about not shaking the faith of the church, did anyone think of the NYTimes and its readers?

A hypocrite is someone who PRETENDS to be pious or virtuous without actually being so.

The smoker who advises others to quit is not a hypocrite.

The person who tells people that you shouldn't smoke but hides his own cigarette smoking is a hypocrite.

A person who tells people that you shouldn't smoke, but then succumbs to the weakness of smoking addiction in a few occasions might be a hypocrite. It depends on whether he continues to smoke and hides the smoking. There isn't any bright line. In that case, it might be a virtuous lie to hide a single incident in order to maintain the self-discipline of those who follow the person's advice.

I might smoke a cigar in celebration of some rare event, but I would never tell anyone I am a smoker. I'm not. Of course, there are some vices that have a permanent or lasting effect from the first instance. Smoking isn't one of those.

More narrowly, a hypocrite is someone who PRETENDS to be pious or virtuous without actually being so and who doesn't CARE about being pious or virtuous. Someone who genuinely believes that smoking is bad, can't kick their own habit, but hides it because they are ashamed of it, is only a marginal hypocrite at best.

I think Alex has it right. There are at least three cases that Dennett should consider.
1. The one he lays out.
2. The case where *our* leaders are "something really, really bad" and are starting an unjust war.
3. The case where you don't know in advance whether your cause is just.

In cases 2 and 3, the army of rational, skeptical people seems preferable. Arguably, that's part of the reason we have a democracy and civilian control of the military. We want the people to judge, as much as possible, whether they agree with the leaders' claims that the enemy is so terrible that we should go kill them. Starting with the premise that the leaders should not be questioned assumes that skepticism has no value -- that's a weird argument against skepticism.

An army of economists? The mental picture alone is hilarious.

Imagine the logistical nightmare of trying to get the requisite number of elbow patches to the front lines.

I already wrote this essay. Came to a different conclusion, oddly enough.

Ah so rationalists can come together and fight for a common cause when the stakes are high enough? Hmm. I would argue that working together and following orders is a learned reflex and not one you can just conjure up in a crisis. Kind of like Alex saying well if the economists saw it as a just cause they would fight valiantly. Just like how in 2008-09 when financial markets were crashing and job losses piling up...all those academic economists got off their hobby horses, crossed discipline 'party lines' and collectively (and without personal credit) agreed on the best way to address our problems. Sure some did that and I am not saying that such a mass response would have been better...debate is important too. My point is it takes more than an enemy to bring an 'army' together.

I'm sorry, I can't get past visions of the Crimson Permanent Assurance here.

Seriously, though, did you read/listen to the whole thing? Dennett describes an emerging understanding of human neurons as 'agents' that have harkened back to their 'lone wolf' eukaryotic origins, rather than simple 'fire/no fire' gates.

In other words, unlike traditional 'command and control' Army A-type structures seen among most cells (e.g. muscle cells), human brain structure may favor a volatile and riotous process of decentralization.

Back to armies- the US, e.g. always had the reputation for greater autonomy and decentralization than, say, the Soviets. So, there's really a continuum here. In nature, many different points along the continuum seem to work depending on the circumstances.

No I did not read it carefully. I am sorry I made any comments here, my mistake.

I think you misread my comment. Didn't think I was gainsaying anything you wrote.

My own comment was a lame joke by me, followed by 'Seriously' directed at me, not you, followed by the rest.

Well, normally when I make a non-humorous observation and someone responds that a Monty Python sketch is lodged in their head I think I have gone astray. Not a big deal, but thanks for the clarification.

The straw men seem to be:

1) a purely noble (hypocrisy-free) justification for war. Even with Hitler, there's plenty of hypocrisy. Why did the U.S. enter the war late when it knew The Final Solution was happening? Why appeasement?
I learned from The Fog of War by Errol Morris that the Vietnam War looks very different if one looks backward from the Berlin Wall falling, rather than looking forward at the situation from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Domino Effect looks like a silly excuse after there are no more Soviet dominoes on the board, but it looks less silly with nukes 90 miles from the coast. Thought experiments and post hoc storytelling allow the uninvolved to feel knowledgeable, at little personal cost.

2) I agree with NNM4. "We" have the power to "hoodwink" youth into such a mindset? As if current soldiers are automatons? Perhaps they simply have a different experience/ideology/worldview than all that is contained within Dennett's intelligence?

I find that many intelligentsia I encounter find any sort of fighting abhorrent (inherently Evil, sort of a secular postmodernist's Satan). The more they're employed/educated by the academy, I find the more they hold this view. Why? Because they can; because they don't expect to get into a fight anytime soon, and maybe have never gotten into a real fight (risk of serious injury) in their lives. So thought experiments like this one allow them to exert control over an arena of existence in which they usually have little experience/competence. An arena of existence which is truly mysterious (watch the Rumble in the Jungle; how did Ali survive, much less win?), which defies the Rationalist worldview.

3) That economists & philosophers are not indoctrinated. Those academically employed go through at least 8 years of schooling, and often have to kowtow to convention in order to graduate and stay employed. That Dennett tries to reduce the irrational/rational/trans-rational, emergent, and FUBAR experience of war through a narrow rationalist lens is proof of his own rationalist indoctrination. Perhaps, as prior_approval intimates, he's Right because he's Bright.

I would choose the Gold army, because most likely they already stand for some set of morals/values that are net positive, and they most likely can practice/deepen these values with a high degree of freedom in the USA. What values do economists gain while making their way through grad school, and into the job market? The kind of values that will bolster them when death stares them in the face?

The death of one's friend, oneself, or the visible death of an enemy is not a rational enterprise that can be figured out. Leave the post-battle storytelling and analysis to the Silver Army.

Any veterans in the audience? A couple things need to be understood. Military training is not like any other training in that it combines aspects of other disciplines into an particular combination. There is a reason boot camp is what it is, and it is not to get you physically fit (that's a side benefit). Boot camp breaks your psyche, takes all those previous belief systems you held dear (Me first, family second, then whatever else you latched onto) forces you to exchange them for a new one (Orders first, my squad second, me somewhere after those two, and who cares about family, god, or anything else). You don't fight because you believe in a cause, or because you believe the enemy is evil - you fight because your superior tells you to fight. You fight because your superiors told other members of your squad to fight and you don't want to let them down. You fight other members of your squad are fighting to protect you, and you need to help them. And there's a whole bunch of other training designed to develop muscle memory and instinctive response because it's damn hard shooting a weapon accurately if you are overwhelmed with emotional energy.
There are drawbacks. The British lost the battle of New Orleans because they were too disciplined, they continued to follow the orders of incompetent officers and walked into a slaughter. However, that model also allowed a disciplined smaller force overcome superior forces. This idea of motivations is wrong, What matters is discipline coupled with sound strategic planning and tactical execution. And you are never going to learn that discipline from a book, a lecture, or any weekend seminar with some team training guru. You learn that discipline from twelve weeks in Parris Island with a very nice man screaming at you 24/7.

Mind you I was never in the military, I served in the USAF :^)

I always find the ideas generated by ivory tower types regarding the military odd. As you've already pointed out, we don't generally fight for a cause in the first place. Blind obedience to rules doesn't win wars. Never has.

I will let General MacArthur answer you:

As I was leaving the hotel this morning, a doorman asked me, "Where are you bound for, General?" And when I replied, "West Point," he remarked, "Beautiful place. Have you ever been there before?"

No human being could fail to be deeply moved by such a tribute as this [Thayer Award]. Coming from a profession I have served so long, and a people I have loved so well, it fills me with an emotion I cannot express. But this award is not intended primarily to honor a personality, but to symbolize a great moral code -- the code of conduct and chivalry of those who guard this beloved land of culture and ancient descent. That is the animation of this medallion. For all eyes and for all time, it is an expression of the ethics of the American soldier. That I should be integrated in this way with so noble an ideal arouses a sense of pride and yet of humility which will be with me always

Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do: They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation's defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength. They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.

And what sort of soldiers are those you are to lead? Are they reliable? Are they brave? Are they capable of victory? Their story is known to all of you. It is the story of the American man-at-arms. My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then as I regard him now -- as one of the world's noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.

He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy's breast. But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements. In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people. From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage.

As I listened to those songs [of the glee club], in memory's eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs, on many a weary march from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle-deep through the mire of shell-shocked roads, to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always, for them: Duty, Honor, Country; always their blood and sweat and tears, as we sought the way and the light and the truth.

And 20 years after, on the other side of the globe, again the filth of murky foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts; those boiling suns of relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms; the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails; the bitterness of long separation from those they loved and cherished; the deadly pestilence of tropical disease; the horror of stricken areas of war; their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory -- always victory. Always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men reverently following your password of: Duty, Honor, Country.

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind. Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are from the things that are wrong.

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training -- sacrifice.

In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him.

However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.

You now face a new world -- a world of change. The thrust into outer space of the satellite, spheres, and missiles mark the beginning of another epoch in the long story of mankind. In the five or more billions of years the scientists tell us it has taken to form the earth, in the three or more billion years of development of the human race, there has never been a more abrupt or staggering evolution. We deal now not with things of this world alone, but with the illimitable distances and as yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe. We are reaching out for a new and boundless frontier.

We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy; of making winds and tides work for us; of creating unheard synthetic materials to supplement or even replace our old standard basics; to purify sea water for our drink; of mining ocean floors for new fields of wealth and food; of disease preventatives to expand life into the hundreds of years; of controlling the weather for a more equitable distribution of heat and cold, of rain and shine; of space ships to the moon; of the primary target in war, no longer limited to the armed forces of an enemy, but instead to include his civil populations; of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.

And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.

Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment. But you are the ones who are trained to fight. Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be: Duty, Honor, Country.

Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide men's minds; but serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the Nation's war-guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict, as its gladiator in the arena of battle. For a century and a half you have defended, guarded, and protected its hallowed traditions of liberty and freedom, of right and justice.

Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be. These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution. Your guidepost stands out like a ten-fold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country.

You are the leaven which binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense. From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation's destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds. The Long Gray Line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

This does not mean that you are war mongers.

On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.

Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

I bid you farewell.

It's not as clear cut as that. Discipline and small-unit loyalty are hugely important, but they aren't the only things. For Cause and Comrades documents the often massively crazy bravery of Civil War soldiers who had no training and little discipline to speak of. There is also the considerable evidence that some proportion of the patriot armies (usually 10-20%) were not the poor down-and-outers typical of recruits for the era and that these unusual recruits, driven by patriotism, provided a hard core to the army that helped it weather many vicissitudes. There is also the evolutionary argument. Armies seem to converge on providing discipline and small-unit loyalties of the kind you describe, but they also seem to converge on urging symbols of patriotic or ideological motivation too. And when armies move away from this, they often get thrashed by other armies that reinvent this extra layer of ideological motivation and use it as a force multiplier--the revolutionary French, e.g.

You have it the nail on the head. Excellent statement.

" I prefer the silver." And that, Alex, is why -- were you ever to find yourself in a real war -- you would quickly find yourself standing up to your knees in a rice paddy with your entrails in your hands. Stick to you little world. It's designed to be safer for fools such as you.

As for Dennett, he's merely another in the endless parade of sackless blatherers who have figured out how to get other sackless blatherers to promote him. Deep down, he's shallow. Depend upon it.

Another way to say he's shallow is that folks like Dennett can blather about subjects in which they have questionable competence at no personal cost, i.e. he will at no point be called upon to test his ideas, and he will certainly never volunteer to.

Great story- compelling and rich.

Isn't the answer even simpler?

A self-interested economist understands there can be no higher causes, simply situations that will increase your personal welfare. i.e. I prefer world peace and everyone happier because it makes me happier. However, if I get killed, *I lose*, full stop, as I now have a welfare of zero. At this point, all my higher causes are worthless.

Except for the exception where the alternative is death or a life so bad that you would commit suicide instead, then it makes no sense to significantly risk your life for a cause when your risk will only infinitesimally increase the chance of victory.

The silver army would be comprised entirely of soldiers that realize that risking your life is irrational and would lose almost instantly. Of course, those same economists came from a country where they'd all rationally refused to spend the effort to vote, so it was a hell-hole anyway.

In my opinion you make the false assumptions that dying in a war is a certainty for every soldier, and that an army would not take rational actions to punish shirkers.

No, I'm saying that any army were all the soldiers were universally attempting to ensure an absolutely minimal risk to themselves is almost certainly doomed as the army must spend a huge amount of its efforts in attempts to prevent rational shirking.

Risking your life in war in a "public goods" problem. Rational economists, bereft of the ideology that supports irrational sacrifice, would face a "public goods" problem almost instantly.

(Admittedly, I'm using 'economist' as a stand-in for 'perfectly self-interested rational human being' (i.e. homo economus).)

Sorry, but I don´t share your opinion that risking one´s life in war is a public goods problem, because it does not require voluntary action. Also I don´t think that the prevention of shirking would require that much resources. You get orders from your superiors and following these orders might bring you negative consequences, whereas not following orders guarantees you negative consequence (the severity of which can be adjusted to maximize dutifulness). Therefore it would be rational to follow orders, even for perfectly self-interested rational human beings.

Sorry, but I don´t share your opinion that risking one´s life in war is a public goods problem, because it does not require voluntary action.

I think we'll have to disagree. But it should be noted if your claim was true, there'd essentially be no difference in troop quality in armies across the world, just numbers and equipment, and that's certainly in contradiction to every military historian I've ever met or read.

The concept that there aren't significant differences between a committed workforce, and a workforce that is coerced into action through appropriate penalties would, I think, surprise most people who have ever managed anyone.

Dennett didn't postulate self-interested economists, just a bunch of rational economists. It can be quite rational to kill yourself in pursuit of another goal which is important in your utility function.

Daniel Dennett doing a bit of conceptual cheating with his argument .. I'm shocked! Shocked I say!

An interesting question that has not been asked yet is how the two armies would react, if the first few battles are lost. I would think an army of rational thinking economists is more likely to believe the reason is simply bad luck or just initial difficulties, whereas the gold army is in my opinion much more likely to ask questions like "Why has God abandoned our course?" or sth in the same vein, which would be pretty unhealthy for troop morals.

But aside from these minor issues, I´d like to think there are even bigger issues that Dennet simply ignores here. I don´t think there has really ever been the case where it is known before a war and with almost absolute certainty that the enemy is the personified evil. I don´t even think that it was clear just how evil Hitler really was at the time of the United States entry into WW2. Thus a dogmatic justification for a war has the ugly side effect to make opposition to the war almost impossible, especially in case of a theological justification. Therefore a possible reassessment of the war after entry becomes nearly impossible, as well as peace talks to end the war prematurely. I don´t think an all or nothing, death or glory war is a healthy situation to be in.

Furthermore lying about a war might be the optimal short term strategy, but I don´t believe it is very sensible in the long term. Imagine you have lied about a war and were caught and the reasons for the war turn out not to be as just as you made them out to be. What would happen next time you want to start a war? This time your reasons might be just, but you would have a much harder time to convince the public about this.

Or religious armies would think that they're being tried, or that God is punishing them for being insufficiently devoted and innovative, or that God is letting the outcome of events depend on their own unaided efforts in his wisdom, or even that its not their place to question the will of God but only to perform as well as they can in the role He has put them. Religions haven't been around for thousands of years by being terminally stupid.

The Gold Army every time. One of the characteristics of Brights, Humanists, Rationalists and Economists is that they are intolerable intellectual snobs - whose main use for the movement/discipline is to signal their own general intelligence.

Hence they would be incapable of respecting, let alone working alongside, anyone below the tenth percentile of intelligence. Real Armies and Religions can accommodate and deploy a far higher range of talents and virtues in a complementary way.

In any case, after a few hours of fighting, a sergeant in the silver army would say to a female corporal, "I find you an interesting person, would you like to come to my room for coffee?" at which point half the silver army would mutiny, and the whole system would break down in disarray.

Cults outlive communes. Simple as that.

I might put my money on an army of brilliant game theorists. But homo economicus, as I understand him, doesn't really understand the idea of reciprocation, instead treating everything as a stand-alone transaction.

But to function as a group, you need great shared heuristics, not individual "rationality".

Setting aside the false dichotomy for an apparent analysis at the margin:

Iran's mobilization of the Basij salvaged them from defeat in the Iran-Iraq War.

The Taliban and other religious zealots turned the tide in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The forced conscription of untrained troops who fought with guns pointed at them from both sides led to the Russian victory at Stalingrad.

Wave after wave of cheap T-36 tanks and AK-47s wielded by teenagers and women overwhelmed the Nazis at the Eastern Front.

100 divisions of untrained Chinese soldiers pushed veteran forces of the UN back beyond the 38th parallel in the Korean War.

Large numbers of fanatics are often successful.

Counterexamples include the British victory at Roarke's Drift where defensive position, superior firepower, superior leadership and discipline, and superior tactics prevailed over numbers. But this was after a British column had been destroyed by a similar force.

The US prevails because our military is an alloy of precious metals.

I wouldn't even want the economist on my side in a bar fight.

I wouldn't want the economist on my side in a fight over monetary or fiscal policy.

No mixing of narrow self interest and rationality is necessary, so I think you're actually reading that into his thought experiment.

I think his point is not that the Silver Army would calculate on the basis of narrow self-interest, but that they would calculate at all. Presumable there would be no hesitation on the part of the Gold Army, since they believe God is on their side.

A more interesting question to me, given the premises that Liberals = Gold Army L and Christians = Gold Army C (let's keep it interesting with a distinct Fundamentalists = Gold Army F)
....which kind of Gold Army should one prefer?

Economist are mostly pasty white nerds that have never been in a fight and probably have a very low tolerance for violence, pain, or sacrifice (studying for your econometics exam doesn't count).

The idea of an economist army is the most laughable thing I've ever heard. They have approxiamately zero track record of being good soiliers or showing the traits that make good soildiers. Most of these people make a living breaking down country, culture, religion, and tradition, which are pretty much the driving forces behind sustaining all armies.

Economists are best understood as weak willed wormy propogandists for monied interests and nothing more.

Maybe I'm dense, but don't most comments here miss the point of Dennett's hypothetical? The point is not whether the Gold or Silver Army has the better chance of winning (we are to assume the Gold has), but Dennett's trouble with getting the "rational thinkers" to think maybe not so rationally (in Dennett's calculus) in order to be more competitive with the Gold.

Let me let all you rational thinkers in on something: you ain't nowhere near as rational as you think you are.

On a side note: If you believe in evolution, why do you think there are a whole lot more people who believe in God than who are economists? I would say: because the God-belief thing is a survivability trait. And why did it survive? Because armies of God-believers tend to win against armies of economists, any other armies of non-believers and non-armies of "loners" and non-joiners. You might want to reflect on the fact that all humans alive today are the offspring of those who survived the past, a very brutal, ruthless and crazy past. We lord over our cousins, the chimpanzees, who will eat your face, and bite off your fingers, testicles and eyeballs as the first moves in any fight. You might not want to go re-thinking everything about us that made us the baddest asses on the planet.

Let me let all you rational thinkers in on something: you ain’t nowhere near as rational as you think you are.

This is a pointless assertion. Even if it's right, no one could make any use of it.

You might not want to go re-thinking everything about us that made us the baddest asses on the planet.

You are not a fan of cockroaches, are you?

A robot army is the way to go.

I think the clear answer is you want your foot soldiers to be from the Gold Army and your generals from the Silver Army.

Thanks for posting this, guys!

Themes that might have been explored:

- If you want to study philospohy in the 21st century and not be irrelevant, Dennett is a good model.

- Dennett's argument isn't just about religion, of course. There's a great scene from War and Peace when some lunatic rides to his death with Napoleon's name on his lips.

- Recent research, I thought, suggests that soldiers fight primarily for their 'platoon', or some small group around them, not some large, abstract cause. But is this just a feature of the modern armies, like America's? If so, doesn't this greater autonomy make armies look more like the silver army? Because perhaps this is a good thing, if tricky. Makes armies less 'fragile' as it were.

- Taking this thought to a more speculative level, perhaps this is the kind of risky 'bargain' struck in the process of embarking on human intelligence generally.

- In the specific argument, Dennett is confessing to finding it troubling that we, on the one hand, extol people thinking for themselves and being responsible, self-supporting decision-makers, while on the other hand, our existence may depend on what we regard as irrational motivations. I don't think anybody has 'solved' this problem.

What's the chance that the Gold army does something crazy as a result of their conviction, like decide that bullets can't kill them as long as they have sufficient faith in God? (Anyone in the Gold army who got killed by a bullet obviously didn't have sufficient faith.)

Since the silver army would be rational, their every move would be predictable in advance. The gold army would trounce them.

This historical norm has been to indoctrinate the enlisted ranks and non-commissioned officers according to the traditions of the Gold Army (perhaps giving the NCOs some of the authority given to junior officers in the U.S. military) while assembling of Silver Army of hereditary aristocrats (and ergo future political actors in the State) to serve as the officer corps guiding them. A single ideological strategy is maladaptive and prone to screw up, a bit like the way that a very productive monoculture agriculture can be wiped out by a single disease in a devistating way, while a slightly less productive mixed agricultural venture is almost never wiped out this way.

Also, it is worth recalling that the empirical evidence is that soldiers are reasonably oblivious to larger causes and more focused on the social relationships that they have with their fellow unit members. Social cohesion matters more than ideology for effectiveness. The main benefit that distinguishes the well indoctrinated soldier from the less well indoctrinated one is that the former doesn't hesitate to fire a weapon in a battle. With less indoctrinated soldiers, the ingrained morality about not taking human life impede a supermajority from every firing their weapons at all even though the other guys are currently shooting at you. The indoctrinated ones almost all fire their weapons once the battle begins without hestitation (although some regret it later even though it was necessary). But, the indoctrination factor doesn't matter much for people who aren't on the front lines being shot at.

One of the huge differences between war in say, 1917 or even 1944, and war in the 21st century, is that the tool to tail ratio is profoundly different. Even ignoring defense contractors and civilian military employees, perhaps only 10% of uniformed active duty soldiers have any realistic chance of being in a front line battle situation these days, where as in WWI or WWII, the percentage was dramatically higher. For example, it takes approximately 20 active duty airmen to operate a jet fighter, but only one or two of those twenty people is actually in the air shooting and being shot at, at any given time, the other 18-19 keep the plane running but don't fly it. Even in the Army, in a war zone, a whole lot of soldiers are "Fobbits" who never leave the confines of a forward operating base doing things like running communications systems, repairing vehicles, preparing food, etc.

If the economists were smart, they would lure away 10% of the Gold Army to work for them instead with subversive counterintelligence and then crush the rest of the Gold Army with those guys on the front lines and an incredibly efficient supply chain.

"You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics."
- General Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Silver Army, of course.

Whenever you set up a scenario with only two possible choices you are by necessity creating a false set of choices. There is never just a choice between only a Gold Army or Silver Army and it's unlikely that there have ever been armies that were Gold or Silver in the way Dennet describes. Perhaps in ancient and medieval times it was possible to imbue a significant portion of an army with a religious fervor like that of the hypothetical Gold Army but even then it rarely filtered to the lowest ranks of the army. Which is why mercenaries have figured so prominently in warfare down through the ages. And the mercenary army, both in it's leaders and rank and file will think more like the 'Silver' army of Dennett's example. Even in our more recent history like the "Great Crusade" of WWII it's enlightening to read the first person accounts of the average soldier, airman or marine. Even though national leaders and the media might have painted the conflict as a stark choice between good and evil, the average GI on the front line had no such illusions and generally regarded such talk of a great crusade as misleading at best. That lack of religious fervor didn't keep them from winning against foes who really did believe that their version of God was on their side.

I don't want either a Gold or Silver Army. I just want a well educated, well trained, well led, well supplied army that knows how to fight effectively.

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