The economic rationalism of religious belief?

Ken writes: I had a really interesting random train of thought while washing the dishes this evening; something blog-worthy, so I thought I’d post it up.

It started with a few thoughts on the pacifist ethic of Daoism. We have a copy of Ursula LeGuin’s rendering of the Tao Te Ching, which I recently had another look at. As a prescription for a contented and virtuous life, it seems to me that the magic formula according to daoism is a very simple unambitious and inactive one. Want very little and do very little and be content with what you have, and you will lead a virtuous life. An unkind person would say it’s a religion for losers. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons I’m having another look at it these days… Anyway, there are surely resonances with the Christian idea that the meek will inherit the earth there too (not that I really understand Christianity (or Daoism for that matter)).

A feature of both ethics that has stuck in my craw in the past has been the lack of due weight such pacifism accords to the ideal of fairness and reciprocity. If a wrong is done, my sense of justice has always demanded that something be done about it, not just that the other cheek be shown. If one suffers under a dictator, for example, the right thing to do is to overthrow the dictator, not simply make do. Now I think the Daoist line would be that one government is pretty much as bad as another and one should simply mind one’s own business (or flee, if the dictator is really intolerable). I could totally be wrong about Daoism here, but the Christian saying that comes to mind is ‘give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (or words to that effect), which I understand to counsel an attitude of acceptance to the material power relationships in society.

Well, as a young man I was not having any of it. I was a rager.

While doing the dishes I realised I could see this submissiveness in a completely different way. It could be seen as applying to life in general the economic idea that sunk costs are sunk. Economists will tell you to that it’s rational to take account of potential future costs when you’re planning what to do in the future, weighing these up against expected gains and so on, but it’s supposedly not rational to plan future action to try to make up or make good past costs. One should “cut one’s loses” and “not send good money after bad”.

Applied to the ethical case, the idea would be that if someone has done a wrong to you, which is over and done with, that’s a cost that you have already borne, and it’s not rational to seek to make that cost up by enforcing retribution or recompense. (If the wrong is still ongoing, then it is a present and future cost to you so you can rationally take it into consideration).

Now I haven’t really thought any of this through. It was simply a diverting thought while I was washing up, but perhaps others will also find the comparison suggestive. For me, it feels like I’m stumbling my way toward understanding something.

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4 thoughts on “The economic rationalism of religious belief?

  1. This reminds me of a discussion I once had with a friend – where is the line between a bad person, a good person, and a martyr?

    We decided that it was about balance. If, say, driving a friend home would cost you four dollars of gas money and half an hour of time, whereas letting them bus home would cost them four dollars in cash and and hour and a half of time, the “good” thing to do would be to drive them home, because it costs you less than it saves them. You would be a “bad” person to refuse to spend half an hour of your time in order to save a good friend an hour of their time.

    You become a martyr when you give more than the other person receives. If driving them home would cost you 10 dollars of gas money and an hour of time, and letting them bus home would cost them five dollars and an hour of time, then you are a martyr if you let them talk you into driving them home anyway (and they offer you no compensation).

    In the same vein, maybe the decision about whether or not retribution is valuable depends upon the relative costs.

    For example, if the cost of retribution (either economically, or personally) is greater than the potential cost of ignoring the attack, then it is both economically and philosophically prudent to ignore the attack. If, on the other hand, retribution would cost relatively little compared to the potential cost of allowing attacks to continue, then it makes far less sense…

  2. Chris

    Some people (i’m thinking of one philosopher in particular, but i won’t name names) think of guilt and remorse in a similar way — as an ethical version of the sunk costs fallacy, and so as irrational. That seems to me to be missing something, but its interestingly difficult to articulate what.

  3. Interesting theory Ken – I’m afraid I’m far to much of an angry soul to just take what life dishes out and get on with it but that’s just me. Most people that we would consider successful in life wouldn’t be meak either but then again they may not be happy. So perhaps there is some truth in the theory.

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