In his delightful 2014 book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Russ Roberts imagines himself in conversation with the moral philosopher Smith, enjoying a peaty glass of whisky on a chilly Edinburgh evening and discussing economics, ethics, and the life we lived. In his slender new book, Wild Problems, Roberts alludes to his prior work with an offhand comment about having a drink this time with Charles Darwin, whose personal foibles suggest that the man credited with revealing life’s untold history could have learned a thing or two about life’s meaning. But the real pleasure of Wild Problems is the feeling that you are sitting down for a finger of Laphroaig with Roberts himself.
Wild Problems is a philosophical meditation disguised as a self-help book. One expects something between a TED Talk and a clickbait article about the one weird trick that helps you make big, complex decisions using nothing but the sheer power of science. But quickly we learn that this is no “life hack” how-to and that making huge decisions is no scientific endeavor. To the contrary, in fact. Roberts argues persuasively that thinking like a scientist is exactly the wrong approach. No matter how brilliant or capable, human beings like Darwin—among many other scientists, empiricists, and outright geniuses whom Roberts cites—struggled with wild problems, the choices at life’s crossroads that strike at the heart of the human experience.
Darwin’s keen eye for the logical, the observable, and the rational did him little good when trying to figure out the consummate wild problem of whether to get married. It is in this context that Roberts draws his readers to the distinction between wild and regular problems, the latter of which can be cracked with economists’ tools such as cost-benefit analysis. You can try to cost-benefit your way out of a wild problem, as Darwin did. He made lists of the good and bad things he anticipated coming from marriage. In the end, he ignored his calculation (the costs appeared to outweigh the benefits) and capitulated to intuition, concluding, “Marry–Marry–Marry Q.E.D.” This does not pass muster as a mathematical proof, to say the least, and it demonstrates how inadequate is our regular kit of problem-solving tools for navigating the major checkpoints between birth and death. One who employs simple logic while being “in the dark about how much darkness surrounded him,” as Roberts describes Darwin, will only despair and appear to posterity, as Darwin does, as something of a fool.
Exploring the limitations of economic thinking has been a long-running theme for Roberts, though it still marks a stark turn for someone of his training. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, where he studied under such titans as Gary Becker and Milton Friedman. He has taught economics at Washington University in St. Louis and Stanford. His influential and long-running podcast, EconTalk, has an estimated 80,000-plus weekly listeners. And on the strength of his training, he recently became president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.
But Wild Problems marks his complete transition from economist to philosopher. Contrary to the suggestions of trendy behavioralism, there are no tricks, no Freakonomical or Gladwellian secrets, to making big decisions. Indeed, Roberts argues, the very mindset that leads you to think that there might be will only hinder you. Those who are steeped in scientistic thinking—the mindset that all valuable things can be measured, weighed, and objectively assessed—will make the fundamental error of trying to apply the tools of rationalism to the distinct complexities of life as a sentient, aspirational, worshipful being. Roberts encourages his reader to think more humanistically: What kind of person do you wish to become?
We and our aspirations are in a continuous cycle of mutual reinforcement. In the negative, this is what Roberts refers to as the vampire problem. When you are not a vampire, the idea of doing vampiric things—sucking blood from necks, avoiding sunlight, sleeping in a coffin—seems unappealing. Yet vampires seem quite happy to be vampires. As you decide to become a vampire (here the reader can substitute any kind of person you can choose to be), your aspirations, and what you find appealing, change. Decent people try to become anti-vampires. We have meta-desires—wanting to want good things—that can shape our mundane desires in honorable ways. This system of meta-calculation defies rationalism, and opening ourselves up to it requires instead “privileging our principles,” as Roberts puts it, by which he means letting those principles guide our behaviors and turn them into habits. If this sounds a lot like the classical philosophers of antiquity, that is probably because it is a snappy, happy reiteration of their insights—a stinging rebuke of the utilitarianism and hyper-rationalism that starve our contemporary capacity for understanding human flourishing.
Though it is focused on individuals and their inward-facing dilemmas, the book also marks an implicit shift away from the individualism that has characterized American liberalism. In its place, Roberts favors a kind of liberal conservatism that does not reject individualism but does not unduly elevate it, either. The operative unit in Roberts’s view is still the individual, who makes choices and lives with the consequences, for better or worse. But Roberts rejects the idea, common in individualist circles, that living autonomously is the be-all of the human experience. Our meta-desires are shaped by exogenous forces such as family, community, and a moral code that either is or simulates religious belief. “Whom do I really want to be?” appears self-centered but is in fact a highly relational question. The answer is inevitably something like this: We want to be people who rise to the roles of good spouse, parent, team member, and congregant. We want to be defined in relation to other people. Our fulfillment depends in large part on how well we can choose the proper direction in our path toward being not just loved but lovely, to borrow one of Roberts’s favorite phrases from Adam Smith.
How refreshing it is to see a serious but optimistic take on human flourishing at a point when sound alternatives to atomism and collectivism are hard to come by. Like Roberts, many intellectuals driving America’s competing ideological fervors—critical theory, Catholic integralism, radical skepticism—have built their movements upon doubts that human beings can use their powers of reason to solve our most pressing problems. The left has embraced anti-rational cognitive egalitarianism, where everyone perceives things differently and chooses his own adventure accordingly. Some on the right have chosen the same but with a reactionary inflection. That manifests in calls to revise our laws to orient all Americans toward a narrow view of the common good.
But we need not embrace such sweeping radicalism to live better lives or build better communities. Roberts sketches out the attitude for doing better. It begins from the recognition that individual actions and our choices are not without repercussions. Here is the key insight: We are constantly in the process of becoming. To take one’s life seriously, to engage with wild problems without being struck with rationalist paralysis or despair, does not require fundamentally rethinking all epistemology or all of law, culture, and politics. It only requires replenishing the attitudinal soil from which individuals grow, eventually sprouting into families, communities, and polities. Those institutions will have a much easier time flourishing when they are equipped to reach into a wider arsenal of tools to help them deal with their challenges.
Roberts’s suggested improvement addresses our current malaise, which is rooted in an emaciated array of concepts for making our choices. He offers no silver bullet for our ongoing quiet tragedy of alienation and anomie. He does not claim to offer one. He does, however, provide a valuable reorientation toward the life well-lived that we can share with all in their spheres of influence. Given its lack of pretension, Wild Problems can be both a work of philosophy for the masses and self-improvement for intellectuals.
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