Liars and Outliers and Moral Theology

Full disclosure: Bruce has been a dear friend of mine for thirty years, and I was an early reader of several drafts of this book.

This is not a theology book—although it is in the top ten books on business ethics at Amazon. It’s a book about trust and society, as seen through an evolutionary paradigm, strongly informed by concepts from game theory. But there’s a lot in it that is useful and applicable to moral theology.

Unlike many books that take an evolutionary or game-theory approach to decision-making, Bruce does not reduce the concept of “self-interest” to meaninglessness by defining it strictly based on “what people do”, and then circularly insisting that people are motivated entirely by self interest. Instead, he acknowledges that people can have multiple, competing interests: some of which are purely self-interested, some of which arise from membership in one or more groups, and some of which can be purely disinterested.

His approach, as a security guy, is to investigate how the group persuades its members to comply with a group norm that supports the group interest (that is, to cooperate with the group), rather than to act in accordance with some competing interest (that is, to defect from the group).

Cooperating and defecting are morally neutral terms here, as they are defined strictly with respect to a particular norm of a particular group: a burglar defects from the societal norm “don’t steal”, and a police informer defects from the gang norm “don’t snitch”. The terms are taken from game theory, which is introduced and explained in Part 1 of the book, along with other aspects of the science of trust.

Part 2 identifies four societal pressures that can be applied to induce cooperation: two that we evolved with (morals and reputation), and two that we have invented (institutional systems and security systems) in order to either extend the scope of morals and reputation past the village-sized domain in which they work best, or compensate for the fact that they don’t work so well in the vastly larger societies in which we now live. Security systems here include not only widgets like burglar alarms, but social systems like neighborhood watch societies. Part 3 applies this model of trust to various real-world situations.

What’s interesting about this from a moral theology viewpoint is that his analysis is entirely morally agnostic. Any group, any group norm, any competing interests can be plugged into this framework.

Which makes it a potentially useful tool for moral analysis, for moral theology, and for the church.

Discerning the “right” thing to do in any given situation is often complicated, and following through on it is often difficult. The exercise of identifying all one’s competing interests, and all the societal pressures that are attempting to influence one’s decision, can provide a framework that facilitates the awareness and honesty required for those who aspire to take moral decision-making seriously. It’s a kind of examen that can apply both before and after one’s actions. In particular, it has the potential to combat the natural tendency towards self-deception that all too often conflates “the right thing to do” with “what benefits me”.

Moral theology might benefit from the investigation into how these societal pressures emerged and how they function: especially for work in the tradition of natural law, which takes the observation of human nature and human systems seriously as a source of knowledge for moral reasoning.

Finally, the church might do very well to attend to the societal pressures that influence people and how they work. This is relevant to the basic task of Christian formation, in an age when the security system of teaching that YOU WILL BURN IN HELL FOREVER for eating a hot dog on Friday during Lent, or missing Mass on Sunday, is seen as a ludicrous and even comical holdover from the bad old days.* The church as a school for saints should pay attention to the mechanisms of the challenges to living out the gospel, and what mechanisms might effectively counter those challenges; and that’s what this book can help explore.

And naturally, this has implications for practical ecclesiology as well. The sex abuse scandal is one of the examples used in the book to show how competing interests can induce a person to act to uphold the interests of one group (the institutional church) rather than another (the persons in their spiritual care: which, let us not forget, includes not only the children who were abused, but the priests who deserved help from their bishops to keep from sinning again). Not only is it fair to acknowledge the competing pressures that affected the bishops who made egregiously bad decisions in these cases: it is essential to do so, if we as a church are to take effective action to reduce the likelihood that this or something like it will happen again. Only once these pressures are fully accepted can we construct ecclesiastical and canonical safeguards against them. Or, in the language the book uses, we need to have accurate information about the motivations and pressures of the potential defector in order to design an effective security system against this particular defection.

I’ve talked about the book’s relevance to the church because that’s my thing, but let me emphasize again that this is not a theology book: it’s a book about human nature and society that is both informative and entertaining. In this video, you can hear what the book is about in the author’s own words.

*This example taken directly from a sermon I heard at Mass this Lent, and the congregation’s chuckles in response.

Categories: Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.