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Dostoevsky on why rational choice theory may not be a good model for human decisions

March 8, 2014

From Notes from Underground, as translated by Andrew MacAndrew:

But then, one might do anything out of boredom. Golden pins are stuck into people out of boredom. But that’s nothing. What’s really bad (this is me speaking again) is that the golden pins will be welcomed then. The trouble with man is that he’s stupid. Phenomenally stupid. That is, even if he’s not really stupid, he’s so ungrateful that another creature as ungrateful cannot be found. I, for one, wouldn’t be the least surprised if, in that future age of reason, there suddenly appeared a gentleman with an ungrateful, or shall we say, retrogressive smirk, who, arms akimbo, would say:

‘What do you say, folks, let’s send all this reason to hell, just to get all these logarithm tables out from under our feet and go back to our own stupid ways.’

That isn’t so annoying in itself; what’s bad is that this gentleman would be sure to find followers. That’s the way man is made.

And the explanation for it is so simple that there hardly seems to be any need for it – namely, that a man, always and everywhere, prefers to act in the way he feels like acting and not in the way his reason and interest tell him, for it is very possible for a man to feel like acting against his interests and, in some instances, I say that he positively wants to act that way – but that’s my personal opinion.

So one’s own free, unrestrained choice, one’s own whim, be it the wildest, one’s own fancy, sometimes worked up to a frenzy – that is the most advantageous advantage that cannot be fitted into any table or scale and that causes every system and every theory to crumble into dust on contact. And where did these sages pick up the notion that man must have something that they feel is a normal and virtuous set of wishes; what makes them think that man’s will must be reasonable and in accordance with his own interests? All man actually needs is independent will, at all costs and whatever the consequences.


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