18 December 2010
Yesterday in Risk Management: A Personal View I asked the question, in relation to John Rawls’ thought experiment involving choosing a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, “How would Aristotle’s Great Souled Man judge a society from behind a veil of ignorance?” Here is Rawls’ original formulation of his thought experiment:
“…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”
And here is Aristotle’s description of the Great Souled Man:
“Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. And it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another; for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, he to whom nothing is great? If we consider him point by point we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Nor, again, would he be worthy of honour if he were bad; for honour is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered. Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the proud man is concerned; and at honours that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately Pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honour that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him; but honour from casual people and on trifling grounds he will utterly despise, since it is not this that he deserves, and dishonour too, since in his case it cannot be just. In the first place, then, as has been said, the proud man is concerned with honours; yet he will also bear himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune, whatever may befall him, and will be neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil. For not even towards honour does he bear himself as if it were a very great thing. Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour (at least those who have them wish to get honour by means of them); and for him to whom even honour is a little thing the others must be so too. Hence proud men are thought to be disdainful.”
This translation of Aristotle uses “pride” in place of “great souled” or “great minded,” but whatever the language, the idea comes through. Aristotle did not present the great souled man as a thought experiment, but he is an ideal of Aristotelian ethics, and we can treat him as a thought experiment in exemplification of Aristotelian virtue.
What struck me later after I wrote that post about Aristotle’s Great Souled Man in relation to risk is that I had combined two distinct thought experiments into one. This in turn suggests further thought experiments. One of my favorite sections of Plato’s Republic is the description of the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man in Book II:
“Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skillful pilot or physician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honored and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honors and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.”
I find this passage almost frightening in its unflinching portrayal of corruption masquerading as virtue, and virtue mistaken for vice, but while few of us would qualify as perfectly just or perfectly unjust, I think most people will have had experiences in their life that reflect Plato’s point and give it the ring of truth. In any case, we can take Plato’s perfectly just man and his perfectly unjust man and make another thought experiment by asking how a perfectly just man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, and how a perfectly unjust man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance.
We can go beyond this and ask how Nietzsche’s Übermensch would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, or how Machiavelli’s Prince would so choose, or how homo economicus might so choose.
We might also take these various philosophical characters and substitute them in other thought experiments, like that of Buridan’s Ass: a jackass is positioned equidistant from two piles of hay, and in the classic version of the thought experiment, the ass starves to death, unable to choose between identical options. We might similarly present the perfectly just man, the perfectly unjust man, the great souled man, Machiavelli’s Prince, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or homo economicus with a similar dilemma and ask how each would fare.
By the time we come to inserting one philosophical thought experiment inside another, we have reached a pitch of abstraction that may prevent us from thinking coherently. Of what value is such an exercise? What I have suggested might seem a little ridiculous, if not outright silly, but it suggests an increase in the order of magnitude of the difficulty of our thought experiments. This might be a profitable exercise if it helps us to pick out intrinsic weaknesses in thought experiments, and allows us to go back to the original thought experiments with a clearer idea of what exactly is involved in them.
If we could submit our thought experiments to controlled conditions, we might pursue them more profitably. This is precisely what logic seeks to do. With the appropriate formalized language, all our philosophical thought experiments could be formulated in a rigorous language, and we could be pretty clear about the consequences. However, in this case we have simply displaced the problem from the intuitive difficulty of working through the problem on its own problematic merits into the difficulty of finding or formulating the appropriate formalism.
If we are honest with ourselves, nothing can spare us from the difficulty of thinking clearly about things that are themselves not clear. Thought experiments are the Zen Koans of Western thought, and their contemplation yields for us the Western equivalent of enlightenment. To put one thought experiment inside another is to raise the stakes, making an already difficult exercise all the more difficult. But this is good for us. As Spinoza wrote at the end of his Ethics, “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”
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17 December 2010
I have never thought of myself as a person who takes risks. On the contrary, I view my actions as cautious and calculated, since I am not likely to engage in some activity until I judge it to be a sure thing. But others see things otherwise. Some years ago I was talking to a financial adviser and I was taken up short when he characterized me as a risk taker. I think this was primarily because of my attitude to insurance. I have a personal distaste for insurance, probably from a mixture of instinct and experience. This may sound odd, but it is accurate.
As I see it, the attempt to manage risk is illusory. I act upon this view by minimizing my insurance coverage. (This is what struck my financial adviser as risky.) About the only regrets I have in life are when I paid for an insurance policy when I didn’t strictly have to do so under legal compulsion. It felt a lot like flushing money down a toilet, and this latter exercise would probably be more fun than sending a check to an insurance company. Buying insurance does not give me peace of mind, it only makes me angry.
One of the reasons I view the attempt to manage risk as illusory is because of my personal experiences with insurance policies that do not pay when you most need them. There are countless stories in the news, some of them tragic, about people who thought they were covered for some eventuality but found out in their hour of need that they were not. Whether it is someone who lost their home to a flood and later found a waiver in the homeowner’s policy for flood damage, or someone who cannot convince their HMO to pay for some particular medical procedure and who is dying as a result, there is almost always something in the fine print that makes it possible for an insurance company to deny coverage. These episodes are not accidental. Insurance companies have many lawyers who write up policies precisely to minimize the losses of the insurance companies for whom they work, and insurance adjusters can be even more creative in their interpretation of events.
The state of Oregon requires that Oregon residents maintain insurance on their motor vehicles. I always buy the legal minimum, which means that I get liability insurance, but no collision or comprehensive coverage. I have no life insurance policy, but I have no wife or children so the only beneficiaries could be my sisters or parents or a charity. Also, life insurance feels like blood money to me. I wouldn’t want to receive a payoff, and I wouldn’t want someone to profit from my demise. I think it is a good policy to be worth more alive than dead; it gives others an incentive to keep you around. The moorage where I live requires residents to have fire insurance, and this seems reasonable to me as a fire could easily spread, so again I get the minimum coverage required, which is to say that I have the structure covered but not the contents. How could one replace the contents of one’s home? If you have picked up irreplaceable items throughout your life, and received gifts from family and friends, your possessions are more than widgets that can be replaced. Being paid for their loss would, to me, feel like getting blood money for objects.
I also have no health insurance. That’s right, I’m one of those people who make up the statistic of 47 million Americans without health insurance. And I am fully prepared to accept the consequences of my actions (and inaction). I have emergency instructions in my mobile phone that state that I have no health insurance and that no special measures are to be taken to preserve my life, because I can’t afford them. I suppose if I were taken to an emergency room contrary to my wishes, and I died despite any efforts made to save my life, that a diligent collector for the hospital might come after my assets to pay the bill, so they might eventually get their pound of flesh.
What would I do if I were diagnosed with a serious condition that required major surgery or some expensive treatment like chemotherapy? One thing I can tell you is what I would not do, and what I would definitely not do is to seek treatment in the US. Policies and litigation have so distorted the market for health care that no ordinary working class person in the US can afford to be sick, but this is not the case everywhere in the world. Since I know people all over the world, if I required major medical treatment, I would send out e-mails to friends in other countries and ask them to find a doctor who speaks English and to get an estimate for the procedure needed. I would without hesitation seek treatment in Korea or Peru, Indonesia or Argentina, before I would seek treatment in the US.
Perhaps you think this is odd, and perhaps even odd enough to be pathological. I have had many disagreements with others over insurance. None of the arguments that have been advanced to try to convince me of the folly of my position have changed my mind; they certainly have not changed how I feel about insurance. Then could we at least, at the very minimum, agree that it is rational to minimize risk, and to not take any unnecessary risks? Alas, we cannot even agree on the rational minimization of risk. As I see it, risk (like pain) is a good thing that forces us to think through our course of action carefully, so that the minimization of risk by way of insurance is a moral hazard that lures people unnecessarily into braving risks they would otherwise avoid.
Allow me to relate a little story about the philosophical dimensions of risk. Contemporary legal and political philosophy is dominated (utterly dominated) by the work of John Rawls. Rawls’ claim to fame is a thought experiment. According to Rawls, a just society is a society that would be chosen behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is to say, if we would choose a social system not knowing what place we would be born into it, then that is a just social system (by our lights). The assumption here is that, if you don’t know the position in which you will be born into in a society, you will choose a thoroughly egalitarian system so that the birth lottery does not relegate you to a irremediably marginal role. It has been observed that this thought experiment and its presumed outcome assumes that the individual choosing a society from behind a veil of ignorance is risk averse. Of course, not everyone is risk averse, and there may be individuals — perhaps many of them — who might prefer inequitable social arrangements and be willing to take the risk that they will either end up in a privileged position or that they can manipulate the social system in question sufficiently to their benefit that the initial inequity will not be a liability that they cannot overcome.
I don’t take the Rawlsian thought experiment too seriously, partly because almost no one believes in their own impoverishment and immiserization before they have hit rock bottom, and partly because the Rawlsian emphasis upon fairness seems so vulgar that it might have been explicitly conceived in contradistinction to the Aristotelian conception of areté. How would Aristotle’s Great Souled Man judge a society from behind a veil of ignorance? He would value most highly that society in which the highest virtues would attain their highest development. This would not necessarily be an egalitarian society, and it would not be a society without risk.
Great accomplishments, great deeds, and great undertakings are all won in the face of adversity and risk. To eliminate risk from the world would be to eliminate the possibility of greatness and excellence (areté); to minimize risk would be to minimize the possibility of greatness and excellence (areté). There is a sense, then — an Aristotelian sense — in which virtue is predicated upon risk. Even the great works of art, literature, poetry, science, mathematics, and philosophy all enjoin risk and entail risk. It is a risk to entertain a radical new idea or to present a radically new vision to the world. One risks one’s career, one’s reputation, one’s ability to make a living, one’s friends — in a word, one risks everything in attempting any authentic innovation. And yet almost everything of value in the world comes from such efforts, and from such willingness to court risk, all in the pursuit of being true to oneself.
This is perhaps a somewhat grandiose if not histrionic characterization of risk, but even if we reduce our scope and scale to the most intimate and personal perspective, risk cannot be eradicated from life. To be alive is to be at risk of dying. Whether we choose to think in terms of our legacy we leave in the world or our immediate personal circumstances, in remains true that we cannot control the world, we cannot control our circumstances, we cannot control what others say, think, do, or feel, and sometimes we cannot even control ourselves. The world is an unpredictable place, and, as I have argued many times in several posts, we ought to expect to be blindsided by history. And if we are blindsided by history to our misfortune, we ought also expect that our insurance policy is not going to cover the loss or make us whole again.
I hope that this personal view of risk management has managed to convince you of one thing. I do not expect to have convinced you that the attempt to manage risk is illusory, but I may have been able to successfully make the point that an individual’s attitude to risk management is deeply embedded in the way that a given individual sees the world. A conception of risk management is predicated upon a particular Weltanschauung. Two individuals with distinct outlooks on life are also likely to have distinct ideas on how to best manage risk — or, as the case may be, to live with risk and not attempt to wish it away. The point is that there is not a single rational and pragmatic way to manage risk, but that the management of risk will be relative to the criteria of reasonableness and pragmatism that follows from a given Weltanschauung.
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Note added 03 March 2011: There was a great article in Financial Times by John Kay, Don’t blame luck when your models misfire, which includes the following:
“Like practitioners of alchemy and quack medicine, these modellers thrive on our desire to believe impossible things. But the search for objective means of controlling risks that can reliably be monitored externally is as fruitless as the quest to turn base metal into gold. Like the alchemists and the quacks, the risk modellers have created an industry whose intense technical debates with each other lead gullible outsiders to believe that this is a profession with genuine expertise.”
What can I say other than that I agree? This isn’t quite as blunt as my contention that, “the attempt to manage risk is illusory,” but it is not far from it. If the technical debates of risk modellers constitute a profession without genuine expertise, as implied by Kay, it is high time that we declared our independence from technocrats who would presume to control us all for our own good.
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