The first time I consciously questioned a personal occurence of moral disgust was after watching A Beautiful Mind with male science colleagues. The movie tells the story of John Nash, a brillant scientist who made fundamental contributions to game theory. In a scene, young Nash is at a bar with friends as they lust after a beautiful woman. Nash makes the argument that if they each try their luck for her, at most one of them will succeed. On the other hand, if they decide that no one goes for the most beautiful woman but each goes for one of her friends, several are likely to succeed, and the group outcome will be better. My colleagues loved the concept, while I felt that such a manipulation of social interactions was horrific: here they were, talking to women only in term of their chances of getting what they want (sex).
I today know that many men use outcome-based interactions with women, unceremoniously discarding the ones who won’t provide what they want. Yet, I had a strong disgust reaction to game theory, and thought that I would stay away from it, and remain in the domain of morally good ideas, where I would find plenty enough to do.
I believe I was wrong on three accounts. First, I refused to explore the full range of available possibilities before making an informed and strategic decision, thereby limiting myself. Second, I weakened myself by cutting myself off from a powerful tool that men and industries use. Three, however wrong game theory is, it describes parts of society and for that reason alone, shouldn’t be ignored: if I want to make an impact, I do not have enough spare power to afford my ignorance of such an important field of knowledge.
I no longer feel a gut reaction towards game theory. I can now see when someone uses it, and observe the power struggle taking place, as well as the eventual overpowering that someone with knowledge can have on someone without. For that reason, I think we should critically question our gut reactions: if they are indeed correct, we should find ethical arguments to support them, and a broad high-quality world of ideas discussing it, not only the words of supporters.
Image: P. Bibler (detail)