Monday, May 6, 2013

Kierkegaard, Agassiz, and Rational Choice

Kierkegaard, Agassiz, and Rational Choice

This last weekend, I attended a celebration of Kierkegaard’s 200th Birthday.  Think of it as a rich pastry cooked in a foreign land: dense, flavorful, but a little unfamiliar to the tongue. Given the extraordinary level of accomplishment on the panel and in the audience, I suspect that I was invited so that they could demonstrate a little I.Q. diversity.

So, what does an entire day with the thoughts of a morose Dane get me? I’m not a philosopher--my orientation in entirely political.  I am interested in why people make the choices they do; what motivates them to act, or spend, or vote as they do?

Economists sometimes use the concept of Rational Choice; people are motivated by profits and filter economic choices by projecting what their potential gain or loss will be on a given transaction.  Sociologists also apply Rational Choice to help clarify why humans interact the way they do; instead of cash, it is prestige, influence, approval and time that are the currency being exchanged. Economically, socially, and politically, rational individuals (and rational groups) should act in a way that maximizes returns.  Win friends, win money, win elections.

But they don’t always engage in Rational Choice, a point vividly illustrated to me by three people at the conference

The first was Richard Robb, an economist, who asked a very simple, almost throwaway, question.  Why do people ignore portfolio theory and try to invest on their own when history shows that the vast majority of them will substantially underperform? More starkly, why ignore the data in front of you and take a chance on an uncertain future in which the odds are you will choose poorly and negatively impact your economic future?

The second was Kimerer Lamothe, a former professor of philosophy and theology at Harvard and Brown.  In remarks at the conference (and at lunch) she said that Christianity drove Kierkegaard’s philosophy, not merely as an ethical code, but more broadly as a mooring for all other choices.  I always saw a clear distinction between the secular world and the religious, but what happens if there isn’t?  How does a person, or group, decide rationally when religion (or any other unshakable point of reference) is the primary channel for decision-making?

The third came up in a conversation I had with a seatmate who identified himself as an entrepreneur.  He was disgusted with the political process. It wasn’t clear what side of the aisle he was on (and I didn’t ask) but he expressed dismay that something like background checks for gun purchases, almost universally supported by the public, couldn’t get through the Senate.  And he was deeply concerned that the State and Federal governments aren’t taking their public pension obligations seriously.  This would inevitably end up in eliminating basic services in order to pay for public pensions (stop picking up the garbage so you can send checks to retired sanitation workers.)  In short, the political system was failing to engage in Rational Choice.

But why?  We have been at this for more than 200 years, and with the notable exception of the Civil War, we haven’t had this type of extended deadlock before.  It appears that part of what is happening is that the world is growing exponentially more complex and more interconnected.  You would think that more knowledge would optimize political Rational Choice, but in fact, it seems to induce fear and passion more than cooperation.  Instead of thinking more broadly, people are retreating behind a set of preconceived notions and anxiety, amplified by those who profit from it.

That’s why Professor Robb’s question on portfolio management was such a terrific one, since the answer seems so obvious.  If you were given the choice to pick between two envelopes, one highly likely to have $100 in it, the other highly likely to have $200, you would almost certainly pick the $200 one.  But many people don’t.  Why they don’t could be ignorance, it could be (an often misplaced) sense of personal stock-picking talent.  Or, it could be something purely emotional: either a mistrust of Wall Street, or a willingness to accept the possibility of a lower return in return for the satisfaction of doing it on his or her own (a desire to play by one’s own rules, regardless of the cost.)

I think that last one relates to Professor Lamothe’s defined channel of thought, or What Would Kierkegaard Do.   People who engage in WWKD don’t necessarily have to be driven by a particular type of religious virtue.  One can be just as fervent about civic goals, or political ones.  What WWKD does is tilt the balance from an economic or social or even political rationale to a type of passion for discreet, and exclusive ideas or credos.  While faith and a strong moral code may lead to a more civil society, that type of an approach, grounded in absolute certitude, can be the enemy of nuance, and Democracy is all about nuance.  So, someone who cares, for example, about guns, or abortion, or immigration, might no longer be concerned about an optimal result in the rest of the political economy. He just needs to win on his point of theology. And he might see those on the opposite side of that one issue to be the enemy, even if he might agree with them on a host of other issues.

 To illustrate this, yesterday I read an on line argument between an NRA member and someone who advocated only for “Heller” type gun restrictions.  It quickly got nasty, until it ended with “the only civil liberty that Liberals care about is baby-killing.”  That’s a big leap and huge assumption, and to be blunt, a kiss-off. Those folk will never work on anything together.  As Kierkegaard himself said, “Once you label me, you negate me.”

In normal times, the political process would absorb these things, ignore the outliers, and engage in its own form of Rational Choice, an imperfect compromise that would have a positive, if not optimal result.  It would, in my seatmate’s words, enact both universal background checks and public employee pension reform because they both made sense.

But we aren’t in normal times.  We are just too dug in to our respective positions. We seem to have forgotten that political opinions are not the equivalent of the Revealed Word, and that disagreement is not the equivalent of heresy.  Too many of us have stopped thinking, and are no longer engaging in rational choice.

Louis Menand, in The Metaphysical Club, wrote about the brilliant and charismatic Swiss-born paleontologist, geologist, and natural historian Louis Agassiz.  Agassiz came to Boston in 1846 for the Lowell Lectures, and he stayed.  The series was a huge success, drawing as many 5000 people at a time, and spurred, in 1847, the establishment of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, with Agassiz as head. Agassiz wasn’t just a mesmerizing speaker; he was the world’s foremost ichthyologist and is credited as one of the discoverers of the Ice Age.  But he had a weak spot, his monumental self-esteem, and when he coupled that with his embrace of “scientific racism” and polygenism (species, and races, were individually created by God and did not evolve) he left himself open to ridicule.  His ideas on racial inferiority were widely quoted, and used as a justification for slavery in the South.  He spent the last years of his professional life in an endless and fruitless quest to disprove Darwin, “finding” evidence that did not exist, systematically excluding facts and observations that didn’t meet his world-view, and largely abandoning the scientific method.  In Menand’s words “Agassiz simply could not recognize Darwinian thinking as science.”

Are we doomed to follow Agassiz, so dug in to either a religious or secular theology that we simply can’t get our heads out of the box and come up with good solutions? 

I still have hope.  As Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”