Frenemies Forever

Novelist John Lanchester ponders whether economists and humanists can ever be friends?

[Hanson and Simler’s…] emphasis on signalling and unconscious motives suggests that the most important part of our actions is the motives themselves, rather than the things we achieve, such as writing symphonies, curing diseases, building cathedrals, searching into the deepest mysteries of time and space, and so on. The last sentence of the book makes the point that “we may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.” With that one observation, acknowledging that the consequences of our actions are more important than our motives, the argument of the book implodes.

The issue here is one of overreach: taking an argument that has worthwhile applications and extending it further than it usefully goes. Our motives are often not what they seem: true. This explains everything: not true. After all, it’s not as if the idea that we send signals about ourselves were news; you could argue that there is an entire social science, sociology, dedicated to the subject.

Apparently not.1

  1. Politicians and economists, on the other hand. Friendships of convenience all over the place…