Posted by: captainfalcon | June 2, 2010

A fun fact and a profundity

From my guru:


During the Second World War, the Allies struggled with the problem of defending the huge trans-Atlantic convoys of military supply ships going from the United States to England against then terrible depredations of the Nazi wolf packs of u-boats. The best defense was Allied airplanes capable of spotting u-boats from the air and bombing them, but the question was, What routes should the planes fly? If the planes, day after day, flew the same routes, the u-boats learned their patterns and maneuvered to avoid them. There was also the constant threat of espionage, of the secret anti-u-boat routes being stolen. The Allied planners finally figured out that a mixed strategy of routes determined by a lottery rather than by decision of the High Command held out the most promising hope of success.”


The growth of capitalism transformed certain spheres of human activity – the productive, the economic – by rationalizing them (in Max Weber’s sense of that term). It came to be accepted, even praiseworthy, to apply rational principles of cost, profit, and benefit, to activities that had previously been dominated by customary, religious, or other norms. But broad though the scope of the economic is in social life, there remained a great deal of life that was very much less considerably affected by the change, notably religion, politics, family life, and personal relationships…Utility theory, game theory, and their associated models of rational choice, seek to extend the methods of calculation, the presuppositions and rhetoric of rationalized economic activity into spheres of life hitherto shaped or governed by quite different sorts of considerations. One can make a joke of this move, as when one asks whether love is a zero-sum game, a bargaining game, or a game of perfect coordination.


What makes talk of this sort creepy…is the assumption thereby insinuated that a hitherto uninvaded sphere of human activity should be similarly rationalized – and thus made ready for the extension into it of these models and methods…Nothing is ever said to suggest a reason for accepting that new and peculiar way of looking at things.


Consider simply the notion of compensating someone for a ‘boundary-crossing’ [for violating his rights].  Such compensation involves, among other things, paying him for the indignity of the infraction. Now, it is one thing to pay a man damages for an affront to his honor. It is quite another to say that his honor has a price – that the payment, in fact, has determined the market price of his honor! Indeed, once it has been established that a person’s honor has a price, he may plausibly be said to have lost his honor, in which case its market value is nil.

I take it his point here is not that the models of decision theory cannot (be interpreted in such a way that they) accommodate particular distinctions – e.g. between just compensation and market price – but, rather, that they do not naturally lend themselves to such interpretation.* Thus, they push us to deny the relevance of distinctions that are prima facie invisible to the formalism (i.e. invisible without interpretation). They do so, I’d guess, because we are tempted to draw an equivalence between what is visible to the formalism and what is “scientific.” What is invisible to the formalism is, therefore, unscientific (and thus mystical).

* Wolff’s reply to an imagined interlocutor’s objecting that “I take too simple-minded a view of the matter…Just as there is room in economic calculations…for some workers’ preference for leisure over higher wages, or for a consumer’s “noneconomic” pleasure in doing business where he is personally known, so there is room in [rationalized political philosophy] for obsessive fears of bodily harm, for soul-deep commitments to home and family, or for dogmatic religious convictions” is to insist that “[t]he methodology infects the reasoning.”


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