[extropy-chat] Hatfields and McCoys: When Rational, when Irrational?

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Fri Dec 8 14:37:24 UTC 2006

Keith writes

> Lee wrote
>> If your value system values your own life much less than it does
>> The Cause, it is perfectly rational to accordingly.
> You might note that 20 years ago I coined the word to describe such people 
> and have written extensively on how this trait evolved.

Could you be more explicit?  You coined (or co-opted) precisely what word to 
describe precisely what?

>> > At least experiments like the Ultimatum game and finding the actual brain
>> > structures active when people refuse an offer they should (if rational)
>> > take is starting to inform economics with a bit of evolutionary psychology.
>> Again, I disagree.  "Declining" in the Ultimatum Game is a form of
>> altruistic punishment.  I'm sure you're familiar with the concept,
> Very familiar.  Also that people play the game differently (more of the way 
> a economist would say is "rational") when part of their brain is disrupted 
> with transcranial magnetic stimulation or if they think they are playing 
> against a computer.

Well, it may be simply a terminological war that you're losing?  E.g. the wikipedia
article.  But still---here---I am interested in *finding* not only the truth, but the
most appropriate terms to describe it.  And if you are right, I *want* to be
persuaded (as I think are Rafal, Jef, and Al and many others here I could

>> Again, it may be that in my private value system, really sticking it to the
>> cheap sonavabitch is worth more to me than money.
> An economist is likely to say this behavior is not rational.  (You can also 
> bet that he, being human, would play the game the same way everyone
> else does.)

Well, economists are rethinking a lot of their views about the so-called
"rational man".  And:

Actually, economists *don't* play The Ultimatum Game the same as
everyone else. [Dixit & Nalebuff, "Strategic Thinking", 1993, for just
one source.]    Here you are quite right:  Either through self-selection or
(more likely) training, they're always trying to optimize financial
exchanges, even in their make-believe game playing roles.

Now mind you, any act of kindness is very likely to be deemed 
"irrational" by those who interpret the MRI studies aggressively.
We can all tell when it's happening---whether engaging in a dig
at a coworker at the office who you just can't stand, or suddenly
overcome by charitable feelings at Christmas time---one is not
using the same "cold-blooded" parts of the brain that one is
using while doing his income taxes.  Do you agree?

The case of suicide bombers is great for the clarity it's able to
help bring to this subject.  First:  we must distinguish on one
hand between an entirely selfishly-calculating bomber who wants
to help his family (e.g., from Saddam's treasury before someone
deposed the bastard) or who wants a quick trip to Paradise and
on the other hand, the suicide bomber who's just fed up to here
with those blue-helmeted Israeli bullies.

We should focus on the latter---not the former.  If it's a self-interested
calculation where "self-interest" is defined narrowly and does not 
embrace wide goals, then we would all agree that it is "rational".

Where we disagree are in those cases resembling anger or altruistic
punishment, right?

And here is one breakdown:  let's say that X commits an act through
anger that he almost immediately regrets, and one that under careful
interrogation he admits is not in either his own self interest nor in the
interest of his goals.  I will agree that such anger is an example,
just as is impulsive compassion, of irrationality.

Where I disagree is if the behavior is very calmly and very carefully
considered:  even though it's at huge personal risk and won't help
him or his family, Jeb Hatfield will go find a McCoy and kill him.
He simply wants to do this very badly, and in total alignment with
his values, and no matter how carefully or how long you interview
him, he'll never admit to it being anything but what he really and
sincerely wants to do.

How can you find it appropriate to call his desire "irrational", or the
dangerous mission he embarks upon to realize it?


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