It happened to me again. Reading a book for fun has actually turned out to be philosophically informative for my next major non-fiction book, the Utopias project. In this case, it was Dan Ariely's book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, which my friend Dreamboat lent me a few weeks ago.
Also, I find it comforting that a writer of Ariely's stance in the academy has no problem writing books that, while they contain some heady concepts, are written in a tone and style that appeals to an intelligent mass audience. The style of my own Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is a little dorkier, but I think I’m heading along a similar trajectory of writing popular market philosophy that retains the tradition’s natural creativity and general trippiness.
|Not quite how the experiments look anymore.|
Ariely became a source for the Utopias project because of his enemy in Dishonesty. He’s a psychologist, so he gives the psychologist’s name, the Simple Model of Rational Crime. SMORC. Because psychology loves its acronyms.
As a philosopher, though, acronyms drive me up the damn wall. So I’ll call it the cost-benefit model of reason, reason as the calculator of pure interest, or something similarly evocative. No major figure in Western philosophy has ever ran seriously with this concept. Normally, we’ve each in our own way argued against it or completely ignored it to build a much more interesting conception of human nature.
But one field of human knowledge unfortunately has taken this simple concept too literally. The most influential models of human activity in economic science has defined the individual subject as deciding each choice through weighing potential costs and benefits of each outcome. More complex models, for the most part, only vary how much knowledge the subject has of his choice’s outcomes. There are no other motives for any choice a subject makes in most economic analyses.
Ariely quite easily points out the central flaw in this conception of human nature: if it were true, there would be no human communities because trust would be impossible. He expresses the idea with the same post-Gladwell rhetoric that all intellectual books with these marketing influences encourage:
“We would be unwilling to ask our neighbours to bring in our mail while we're on vacation, fearing that they would steal our belongings. We would watch our coworkers like hawks. There would be no value in shaking hands as a form of agreement; legal contracts would be necessary for any transaction . . . We might decide not to have kids because when they grew up, they, too, would try to steal everything we have, and living in our homes would give them plenty of opportunities to do so.”
This is the cartoonish pop-philosophy of the insane world Malcolm Gladwell has thrown us into. But it speaks to a fundamental truth about humanity, or rather, something inescapable about how human society can function. Society can’t persist among people who are only self-interested.
|Not intended to suggest anything at all. . . .|
The minimal self of most economics models is simpler than any functioning human in social life. Maybe this is why libertarians, and those politicians influenced by libertarian think tanks, persist in believing that human phenomena can have no social causes. Of course, it isn’t the only reason why, just a hidden presumption that reveals an interesting aspect of their worldview and their actions when in power.
Ariely has written a pop-psychology book whose conceptual inventiveness touches on an aspect of the critique of libertarianism. This is the political philosophy of pure individualism that I've cast as my central target in Part Three of what will eventually be my Utopias manuscript.
Ariely’s book isn’t about altruism. It’s about the most banal kinds of immorality, and the process through which we rationalize it. But it’s in these commonplace banal moments of, for example, under-reporting your odometer reading to get a lower car insurance rate, where we find the threshold of our altruism. It’s the limit of our altruism at its weakest power.
The threshold of our altruism reveals the minimal conditions of the harmonious society. Sounds like part of the strategy to understand Utopia.