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.


Comments for this post are closed