EconTalk |
Michael Munger on Desires, Morality, and Self-Interest
Mar 1 2021

conscience-300x215.jpg Economist and author Michael Munger of Duke University talks about human wants and desires with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Human beings have desires about our desires. Can we change what we want? And how should economists and normal human beings think about doing the right thing, what we often call morality? Is acting morally self-interested behavior or is it possible to act selflessly?

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Chip Morris
Mar 1 2021 at 9:29am

Munger & Roberts – a brilliant duet as usual. My dilemma:

I’m at a dinner party. A guest asserts proposition A. He did not ask my opinion which happens to be vigorously contrary to A. Should I speak up or remain politely silent? And if I choose to speak up, should my approach be didactic, moralistic, or something else?

Now, consider proposition A:

Our mutual neighbor is a thief.
The minimum wage is a good policy for workers in general.
African Americans are intellectually and morally inferior and should be oppressed.

How plausible is Russ’s policy of polite restraint in these cases? Isn’t it a moral imperative to object strenuously to #3? How does one decide? An economist might reason that #2 is on the whole a more dangerous belief, inasmuch as #3 would hardly gain much traction in today’s society, but #2 might contribute to its adoption and therefore very widespread harm. And what about #1 – perhaps correcting the reputation of a neighbor might do the most immediate good?

Gregg Tavares
Mar 2 2021 at 12:23am

I agree with Chip in that I’m not sure how to approach these situations. A slightly less incendiary example. I was at dinner with a bunch of people and I don’t remember the exact words but someone said something to the effect of “astrology is false” though it a much more casual way and one of the other guest, mumbled to themselves, but I was close enough to hear it, something along the lines of “it’s not false, it just a tendency for things to go in that direction”.

I sooooooooo want to correct them and say “it’s not a tendency for things to go in that direction, it’s a tendency for you to notice when things go in that direction and ignore when they don’t, mis-leading yourself into believing there is a tendency for things to go in that direction where in reality no such tendency exists”

Of course I didn’t say it but it’s a huge pet peeve of mine that sooooo many people I happen to meet believe in stuff like this. And while I didn’t speak out, I do feel that belief in stuff like this, or rather the fact that so many people can’t see the flaw in their perception, has real word consequences. Kids dying of measles because of anti-vaxxers is a real world consequence of this kind of thinking. Of course I have no idea how to fix that. I don’t believe me trying to correct someone on the spot would do anything except ruin the mood but at the same time, the feeling of powerlessness of not being able to do anything to fix the issue bugs me tremendously

Michael Munger
Mar 2 2021 at 8:23am

Well, Gregg and Chip, as always Adam Smith has the answer. The general Victorian rule was that conversation MUST always be light and positive at a dinner party. ( )

If you accept an invitation, you are accepting this condition. If you host a dinner party, the requirement is even STRONGER, since a breach of the rules of propriety would reflect very (VERY) badly on your reputation, because in effect you broke an implicit promise.

The short answer, then, is self-command. At a dinner party, you are agreeing for yourself, and are expected by others, to exercise self-command. The insistence that you are smarter than others and that there are certain facts known by you that simply must be imposed on the lesser beings around you is unseemly. AND THE TRUTH OF THAT CLAIM IS NOT A DEFENSE.

As Adam Smith put it (At least according to Candace Smith, partner of Vernon) ) :

“A very young child has no self-command…When it is old enough to go to school, or to mix with its equals, it soon finds that they have no such indulgent partiality [as parents often do]. It naturally wishes to gain their favor, and to avoid their hatred or contempt. Regard even to its own safety teaches it to do so; and it soon finds that it can do so in no other way than by moderating, not only its anger, but also all its other passions, to the degree which its play-fellows and companions are likely to be pleased with.  It thus enters into the great school of self-command; it studies to be more and more master of itself, and begins to exercise over its own feelings a discipline which the practice of the longest life is very seldom sufficient to bring to complete perfection.” 

So, in Chips triad, I would say that if the neighbor is not there to defend him/herself it is gossip, and so I would simply not participate. If the person has been CONVICTED and that is public news, then okay.

On the minimum wage, it would be the job of the host or of someone nearby to suggest that the evidence is mixed and the consequences are distributional.

And for the racist comment the correct response is shocked silence, change the subject, and do not invite the person again. If changing the subject is not possible then sure, confront them. It is likely the job of the host to do that, since other guests are ALSO guests and have no ownership obligation.  The hard thing would be if the host says nothing, in the face of repeated racist comments. I guess then that you’d have to say something, yes. But it can’t be the FIRST response of a guest to “correct” other guests, even in the case of the most egregious offenses.

Ajit Kirpekar
Mar 4 2021 at 6:25pm

For me – Thomas Sowell’s three critiques work quite well even with batty propositions like African Americans need to be oppressed.
Even to the most closeted bigot, I would politely respond with, “Sure…let’s follow that line of thought. What hard evidence do you have? None? Ok we’re good now”

Ok more realistically, the response would be(and I have seen this first hand) , “If you think they are just like us…see statistic X, Y, Z citing evidence that they aren’t.”

“Ok I respond…that’s true. However, consider other factors like S, T, and V that are better explanations for this. What happens when you consider those? Have we not seen this same thing happen with other minorities? ” And on and on.

I find even if this doesn’t work ( and most of the time it never does), it at least avoids a blow up. Even the most flawed argument takes a pause when I ask these questions.

Jordan Hunter
Mar 2 2021 at 9:29pm

Chip and Greg,

I have often struggled with this problem and I have tried experimenting with different approaches. I don’t have a magic answer to offer, but a quote from one of Dostoyevsky’s characters has at the very least given me more pause before speaking out:

“All my life I have been lying. Even when I told the truth. For I never told the truth for its own sake, but only for my sake.”

For what its worth, I am sometimes fortunate to remember this quote from time to time, and it usually gives me pause to ask: “Am I speaking out to impress or dominate others? Am I coopting truth for my own selfish purposes?” I then find myself more interested in simply seeking to understand the other person instead of trying to persuade them, even if their proposition seems preposterous. And almost paradoxically, it seems that when people feel their perspective is understood is when they are most willing to adapt or change their perspective. So one might actually do greater persuasion and correction by not trying to do those things at all!



Richard W Fulmer
Mar 2 2021 at 5:03pm

Russ’s dinner story reminded me of something that Jordan Petersen said about children’s games: Winning is being asked to play again.  The adult version of that might be: Winning is being asked to dinner parties again.

Mar 2 2021 at 1:41pm

I feel like I am always thinking back to the Russians during econtalks these days.

At some point Russ says, “You make a rule…I always return wallets. Even when they have $10 million in them, and the owner is really far away, and he is a bad person.” This reminds me of Crime and Punishment.  Raskolnikov thinks he is justified in stealing from this old woman.  She is a bad person that takes advantage of those dealing with money problems. She is rich and Raskolnikov’s sister is practically selling her body to keep him and his mother from total destitution.  This is injustice.   Raskolnikov is smart, so smart that he can know what ends justify which means.  He has the ability of the Philosopher-King and killing this woman to take her money is a calculated net-gain for society.

Obviously the Novel critiques the utopian ideals, and the utilitarian themes that were common in Russia at the time.  But as it applies to the conversation, I think it is an apt critique of any discretionary decision.  Obviously it is a dramatic example, but  humans can rationalize their way into any number of ends.

When Mike mentions the transactions cost as a practical impediment to distributive justice (the Schmidt thought experiment), that is worth mentioning of course.  But it opens the door for the idea that if we can lower transactions cost then we will be able to build a better society; if we just put enough computational might behind this, then all the distribution issues can be solved.

I think this leads to the answer to Russ’s question.  We make rules and follow them because we don’t fully understand everything.  We get married and have children for reasons that may never be answered.  We tell our children to feel shame, and to not steal because that is how we were raised and it seems to work well enough.  And at the same time we can avoid behaviors we see as detrimental.  As Mike mentioned, his father was a good bad example. Ignorance is part and parcel of the human condition.  It is better to embrace it.

And I think this embrace of ignorance should apply to the scientific domain as well.  I was listening to Vinay Prasad’s podcast and he told an anecdote about doing rounds with interns.  He asked “why do we give X drug when the patient is showing heart arrhythmia?” and the interns invariably say, “because of this mechanism,” or “because of that process.”  And he retorts with “No, we give X because multiple RCTs have shown efficacy.  Those stories are just that, stories about how you think it works.  Do not fool yourselves.”   And that sticks out to me as an application of this principle to a seemingly disparate domain.

Anthony Gill
Mar 2 2021 at 4:54pm


The wallet scenario was interesting to me, but I was disappointed with only two options on the table.  A third option would be to leave the wallet on the sidewalk and go on your way.  This is an option even after looking in the wallet to see if there is cash and/or ID.

Assume for the moment that the wallet only had cash and the owner’s identification.  To simplify it further, assume that the ID is just a basic name, phone number, and address.  No driver’s license or other “important” ID.

If the wallet contained only $10, I don’t think I would be incentivized to go out of my way to track down the owner.  It is just $10 and maybe somebody else would be more motivated to deliver the wallet to the owner.  As the amount of cash in the wallet increased, I may be more incentivized to track down the owner because $100 (say) might be an important amount to the wallet’s owner.  As the amount of cash does climb, then I might start thinking about keeping it myself and I’m not sure where my price point would be.

The point here being that we might not be dealing with a simple, linear relationship.  Moreover, avoiding a “moral choice” becomes a moral choice unto itself.  I think I could justify leaving the wallet on the ground by saying “Meh, somebody else will pick it up.”  That sounds lazy, but at least I’m not keeping the money for myself, which would make me feel real guilty.

If we wanted to make the situation more realistic, we could start thinking about a driver’s license, SSN card, or credit cards in the wallet.  To me, this might be more important than money because if somebody picked up the wallet and stole the person’s identify that is a huge imposition into somebody’s life that is more complicated than just missing cash.  Yes, the thinly rational economist could monetize the “hassle of a stolen identity,” but I think there would be more to that.  I would tend to have more empathy about that private information being compromised than the owner just missing a few hundred dollars, in part because the stolen identity can affect a person’s reputation, cause high levels of emotional stress, etc., all of which are more “human” than “just cash.”  I think this speaks to the points you were both making.

Erik H
Apr 1 2021 at 10:21am

Yes, I was also thinking about the fact that leaving the wallet is an option.

In addition, when I found a wallet in real life, then I returned it to the nearest police station. I am uncertain if it should be seen as a distinct option or just a variant of returning the wallet. Maybe it is also a cultural thing between Sweden and USA, as in what the role of the police and the state in general is. An additional benefit is that I didn’t have to really look into the wallet for an adress, so there was less temptation to even see how much money was in it.

Anthony Gill
Mar 2 2021 at 5:06pm


I have been pushing the idea of a “thicker” view of rationality and preferences than the standard micro-economic models in my courses.  I am even running a seminar on the political economy of culture that “thickens” up the standard micro-econ story.  To that end, I loved this podcast.

But here is a pedagogical question directed at Prof. Munger:

Should this “thicker” notion of rationality be introduced right away in an entry-level economics or political economy class, or should we start first with the thin version of rationality and leave the “thickness” for later classes?

I do think that understanding the “thicker” (or “humanomics”) version of rationality requires an understanding of the thin MaxU formulation of human action.  The reason why the lost wallet scenario is effective is because it is bounced off a foundation of “well, of course the thinly rational thing to do is keep the money.”  As such, students need to understand that.

However, I always face the problem of students looking at me perplexed when I teach the thin rational version of MaxU.  That is because they are not thin MaxU’ers; they walk into the classroom with thick rationality (and even with preferences about preferences despite being 18-22 years old!).  There is a part of my pedagogy that needs to pound the hammer hard that the (thin) optimal offer in an Ultimatum Game is a 99/1 split of the cash and that the (thin) optimal response is to take the $1 offer (better than $0).  But such offers and acceptances are rare (as repeated experimentation has demonstrated).  So, then, should I start from a foundation of thicker rationality?

To wit, I do play the Ultimatum Game with students after talking about thin rationality and note that the modal response is usually some 75/25 split (not 50/50 interestingly).  We then use this to note the limitations on the thin MaxU model.  I don’t take it much farther as I need to maximize the number of individuals taking my political economy of culture course (because we have “activity-based budgeting” at our fine institution).

Mar 2 2021 at 10:10pm

Michael Munger: …What I want and what I ought to want may be different things. So, I don’t have liberty to do what I want. I have liberty to do what I ought to want. And the question of what I ought to want is something that takes contemplation.

Contemplation of what humans ought to want and how they ought to behave would be fatally impaired unless it is connected to the parallel question of the purpose and intention for humans existing at all.

If humanity is an unintended accident that is not meant to be one thing rather than another, the very idea that there is some particular way that humans ought to want and behave would be a mistake, a conceptual error.

First, in any merely evolutionary perspective, evolution always requires deviations. One cannot coherently say that evolutionary ethics implies everyone “ought” to behave according to what others want (e.g. norms, culture). Since the foundational process depends on deviations, every attempt to deviate would inherently carry its own sufficient justification, even if it didn’t survive this time. The process cannot disallow itself.

Second, even if one supposes that groups of humans can adopt accepted conventions of behavior that give them powerful advantages over other groups (e.g. cooperation), that does not exclude taking powerful advantage of those advantages. For example, an evolutionary convention perspective cannot exclude slavery or any other form of “us” exploiting “them” that brings an advantage to the exploiters. Advantageous use of power by oppressors could not be disqualified merely because it employed oppression of the oppressed. Darwin’s theory was about “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life“. I recommend contemplating the moral implications of the future portrayed in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. That too would be included.

On the other hand, if the existence of life depends on a Creator, and human life is intentional, and the intended purpose of human life is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, then oppression is contrary to how humans ought to treat each other, even if the oppression had advantages.

Russ Roberts: I find a wallet. … What do you do? … They were all convinced that economics predicts that–one of two things. Either you should keep the wallet, because that way, you’ll be able to buy stuff with it and get a higher level of utility. …

But it isn’t the purpose of humanity to “buy stuff … and get a higher level of utility”

Russ Roberts: …Or, maybe you shouldn’t, in case if you ever lose a wallet, …

Yet even if you knew for certain you would never use a wallet at all, once it is realized that we are meant to be the sort people who love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, the answer about what to do is not difficult.

Understanding the intended purpose of humanity shines a light on “ought” questions that would otherwise leave us fumbling in the dark.

Erik N
Mar 6 2021 at 7:57am

 Like, maybe I’m the kind of person who ought to be a different kind of person who–I’m the kind of person who, when one person, one dinner party, says something that I think is, say, Economics 000, instead of 101, maybe I should just suck it up and be quiet! And say, ‘They’re probably happy believing that.’

For them to be told an alternative, may not even accept it. And, even if they do, is the world really a better place for that? I mean, that’s-that’s stupid.

I found this and the response from Dr. Munger fascinating and very much relevant to our times.

I do agree that economist-splaning ad nauseum over the smallest detail is not going to be effective most of the time, but I’m not sure I agree that you should allow significant errors to drift by as if they were unnoticed.

People form an idea of what the consensus is about things they don’t understand based not on what they hear from one person, but from what they hear lots of times from lots of people.  Further, to some degree people are (consciously or not) constantly testing their conception of things they don’t understand by repeating it in the presence of others and obvserving the response.  Changing a person’s mind at a dinner conversation is extremely unlikely, but you can be a data point.

If, in the moment, you can detach yourself from the outcome and ask a question/suggest further reading/whatever in a way that is not antagonistic, and then let the conversation wander without fixating on convincing this one person in the here and now, you will be a data point suggesting to them to learn more about their position.  If you don’t, you have effectively fed their confirmation.

Mar 6 2021 at 12:21pm

Dr. Munger, I think it would help me and perhaps others to better understand what you are advocating, if you could clarify where you stand in the context of a pair of complementary propositions (P or not P).

In regard to the critical central question you raised in this episode, “the question of what I ought to want”, which of these alternatives are you proposing?

P: When both legislation and the dominant cultural norms are united in saying you should want to do X, that always defines what we ought to want to do.

Some test examples: What ought we to want when both legislation and cultural norms agree that…

a runaway slave should be captured and forcibly returned into chattel slavery.
Jews in hiding and the people hiding them should be turned over for prosecution.
fellow citizens, even if they are family members, who are overheard to be holding anti-revolutionary sentiments should be exposed and turned over to the authoritarian socialist government.

OR not P: Even if legislation and cultural norms agree about what we should do, that does not define what we ought to want to do.

If you don’t agree with the former (P) and instead agree with the latter (not P), then it seems that would necessarily imply that there must be some standard or basis or reference beyond the consensus of legislation and cultural norms that is properly in a position to identify those influences as being wrong.

If so, then no amount of consideration of influences such as legislation or cultural norms can possibly answer your critical central question, “the question of what I ought to want”.  The answer would have to come from elsewhere.

I’m very interested to understand your thinking about these alternatives.  Thanks.

Mar 11 2021 at 11:59am

Re: I don’t know what word to put in front of person–happier, better, better-off person, if I didn’t have a conscience?

Having a conscience is a double edged sword. At some scale it turns lethal. John Gray has a wonderful paragraph on it:

“Again, it will be said that this is because they have no moral sense. There are many cases of heroic devotion in which cats have risked pain and death to protect their kittens. But it is true that they cannot be taught moral emotions in the way dogs have been taught to feel shame. Cats are certainly not virtue signallers. Nor – except when it concerns their offspring – are they at all inclined to self-sacrifice. But given that cats, consequently, do not kill other cats or anything else in order to become martyrs to some absurd belief system, that may be no bad thing. There are no feline suicide-warriors.”


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: February 2nd, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is February 2nd, 2021, and my guest is economist, political theorist, and author Michael Munger of Duke University.

I want to thank Plantronics for supplying the Blackwire 5220 for today's guest.

Mike was last here on the program in July of 2020, talking about education. If I've counted correctly, this is Mike's 38th appearance on EconTalk--which is clearly a record. It will probably never be broken. Mike, welcome back to EconTalk.

Michael Munger: It is a pleasure to be the Cy Young of EconTalk.

Russ Roberts: I think it's probably the Cal Ripken. But, I think that's your line.


Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is a small, narrow one. It's economics, or maybe economists and economics, and how we as economists think about and teach our students about what makes us do what we do. How we choose, how we make decisions. The economist's view of what is rational, morality.

Now, I've touched on these questions in recent episodes and mentioned I'm writing a book related to these questions. It turns out, Mike has been thinking about these issues, too. Great minds think alike. And, he wrote an article, I'm ashamed I hadn't seen that covers some of these topics, and that article will be the rough basis for our conversation. It's called, "What Preferences Do You Want?" And it was published on the American Institute for Economic Research website, on June 4th, 2019.

So, let's start with how economists look at preferences. How would you describe that?

Michael Munger: Well, in the article I caricatured how economists look at preference. So, let me do it in two stages. First, the way economists usually look at preferences is that we say preferences are rational. Now, all rational means is complete and transitive. Transitive means that I can't really say, you can't trade things for me and then have me want something else. Complete means that I can make a choice between any different preferences. One of the things that's complicated about--

Russ Roberts: Any two choices--

Michael Munger: Yeah, any two alternatives. The apples and broccoli and carrots: I can make a choice between any of those. I don't say I don't know.

Now, one of the things that's interesting about saying that preferences are rational, is that we claim--economists claim--that that's the only thing that motivates people. Or that we can say it 'as if' that's the only thing that motivates people.

So, Christopher Hitchens, who actually was on EconTalk at least once, famously said: The most selfish person he'd ever heard of was Mother Teresa.

Wait, how can that be?

And the answer is: Mother Teresa was only motivated by her preference to help the poor. Famously, she would sometimes show up at a village. And of course, Mother Teresa was a world-class figure. They were very excited. 'Mother Teresa is coming. We're going to put her up in a room in our house, and we're going to make a nice dinner for her.' And she would get there and say, 'No, I am not staying in that room. I'm going to stay on the street with my people. And, I'm not eating this food. I'm only going to eat what the people in the village will eat.'

And, of course, this was a great disappointment to her hosts.

But, she only wanted to maximize her own goals--her own preferences.

So, when you say economists think people are selfish, that's true; but only if you think Mother Teresa was selfish because she was acting in accordance with her own preferences and goals.

So, that's the way that economists think about preferences. I caricatured this in my little article saying--this actually is something that Doug North always would do when I was in graduate school, and he was also making fun of economists. Or, making fun is wrong. He was using a reductio ad absurdum. So, the logical approach of a reductio ad absurdum. You take the logic of this, and show if you carry it to its extreme, it gives you something ridiculous.

There's no reason in principle that we could not have a theory of preference, choice and acquisition, and there's no reason if it's an economic one, it wouldn't be rational.

So, I tell the story of--I'm in the mall, and for younger people, malls used to be these big collections of stores that people would go to; I realize that they don't exist anymore.

But, once upon a time, there were these things called malls. And so, there's a number of stores there, and I see one of them, The Preference Store. Aand I think 'Oh, that's right. My wife, Donna, told me we're completely out of preferences at home, I should pick some up if I see it in the mall. Thank goodness I saw this.'

So, I walk in and in the store, there are all sorts of different preference orders. And those are really what preferences are, is I like A better than B, better than C, or I like B better than C, better than A.

So, let's suppose that two of the things that I care about are bologna and caviar. Now, which one of those should I like better?

Notice, I'm not asking which one do I like better. I'm saying which one rationally should I like better?

Clearly, I should like bologna better than I should like caviar. It's much cheaper.

Now, it could be that there are both income and price effects in acquiring preferences. If I have enough money, I can afford more expensive preferences. If the price of something goes up, I might want to cultivate a preference for something else. And of course, in the back of the room, you have to show an ID [identification] to even think about those sorts of preferences. Outside, there's a guy in the alley saying, 'You want some of these?' There's a whole different set of preferences that are completely morally or legally proscribed.

The point is that, that example is incoherent in the way economists usually think of it, because we tend not to think that people have preferences over preferences. Preferences are usually talked about in the podcast recently, with McCullough--we just think of preferences being subjectively what they are, and that's it.

And the most--the biggest restriction we're going to place on them is that they're relatively fixed, and that,as Becker and Stigler explained, it's not because we actually think preferences are fixed, but because invoking preference change as the first stage in an explanation, you could explain anything by what preferences change.

So, mostly, we're going to say preferences are fixed. We're going to use economic parameters, like price and income change, to explain changes in purchases, and that's what economics is. In a nutshell. That's the maximization paradigm that economics is, is that we use preferences that way.

My question is: For much of human history, and certainly from Aristotle onward, the idea that some preferences are better than others has been a big part of every aspect of social life--except economics.


Russ Roberts: Well, you paused there, suggesting I might say something. That's very kind of you. Let the record show, I think this is the longest period that Mike Munger has ever spoken on EconTalk without being interrupted by the host. Not a record--it's not something I'm proud of. But, I think that's true. I challenge listeners to verify that, if they feel like it.

And we also, of course, we talked about this with with Don Boudreaux in a recent episode about James Buchanan, who said, 'Man'--meaning people--'Man wants the liberty to become the man he wants to become.' Man wants freedom to become the man he wants to become.

I read that quote, not exactly right, verbatim, but that's the gist of it.

And I think I'm going to give you Ariel Rubenstein's definition of rationality, a past EconTalk guest. He says: What is feasible? What is desirable? You ask yourself those two things; what is desirable, what is feasible? And then you choose the most desirable of the feasible alternatives. That is, you maximize your wellbeing. Where, desirable, it's not judged, it is subjective, it is up to you, it is not under the purvey or purview of economists. We just take that as given. And we assume that people, whenever they do something, it must have been the thing that gave them the most well being. Vaguely defined and unspecified.

And, the idea that you might want to have preferences about your preferences--that you might decide to try to change what is desirable--is something I was never taught, never thought of. It's actually vaguely heretical, as you suggest, in our guild, our religion of economics. I mean, as you say, once you do that, we're back to square one. I mean, there's nothing more to say.

So, I do want to say, and this will be the last time I probably say it, but there's a lot to be said for the argument that we should take preferences as given--as social sciences looking at behavior of strangers out in the world.

When we look at ourselves, or our children, the idea that we should take preferences as given is absurd.

It is--now, having said that, our preferences are not fully under our choice. So, the idea that there is a preference store is a fun thought experiment.

I suspect you know--I know I know--that my attempts to change my preferences over the last 66 years have been a pretty mixed bag. There are a few things I've gotten a little bit better at; and a lot of things that haven't changed at all, because they're just the way I am. Certainly that's the way I say it to myself: When I fail, I just say, 'Well, that's the way I am.'

Kingsley Amis said it amusingly in a book called One Fat Englishman, a book that is totally unacceptable in today's world. He said, 'Inside every fat person is a fatter person waiting to get out.' The standard line is a thin person. But, of course, we can go in either direction. When we do change our preferences, they don't always move in the Aristotelian area of virtue. Want to respond to any of that?

Michael Munger: One of the things that provoked me--and I've told you this, Russ, several times--but, in my neighborhood, I'm sort of notorious because I walk my dogs, often in the late afternoon, and often it's on Monday when EconTalk comes out. And often when EconTalk comes out, I feel moved to shout at errors that I perceive in either the guest or much more rarely, but sometimes even in the host. At least once, a woman has come out of their house to bring the children inside in sort of fear, because there's this crazy person walking his dog and shouting.

And, it's happened more recently, as you have moved more towards philosophy. Because, philosophy is something that I started to work on in my own way, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, and learned that there were a lot of kind of preconditions that Adam Smith would have taken for granted. And, to be fair, you and Dan Klein, in discussing Adam Smith and others were a big part in moving me in this direction. So, I should also give you credit.

But, the idea that--James Buchanan said that we have the freedom to become the man that we want to become--that is the Aristotelian, Aquinas, Montesquieu project. And so, Montesquieu, in the Spirit of the laws really spelled this out very clearly, and he said something that I think is a challenge to what you just said: There's a lot of things within economics, if we want to know how many potatoes people buy, or how much lettuce they buy, absolutely, that's a good way of approaching it.

But, what Montesquieu said was that the very--the justification for liberty is so that human beings can do that which they ought to will.

That is: What I want and what I ought to want may be different things. So, I don't have liberty to do what I want. I have liberty to do what I ought to want. And the question of what I ought to want is something that takes contemplation.

And so there's a difference in modeling strategy that I tell students about. And they find it--it's very challenging to think about.

So, one way that we could approach this problem is to think of morality as a constraint. And I thought you and McCullough did a very nice job of discussing this, and the experiments that he's come up with about what do people do when there's absolutely no chance of being caught? Well, sometimes people still do what we might think is the right thing, even if it cost them something, even if they know there's no chance that they're going to be caught.

But, for the most part, one approach, and we might call this the Madisonian approach, is to think of morals as being a constraint, and that they're enforced by a law. Morality becomes embedded in the law, and if we violate morality, we'll be punished. And so, the reason we obey morality is that otherwise we're going to be threatened with punishment.


Russ Roberts: When you say law, do you mean legislation or law? Or both?

Michael Munger: May I insert a parenthesis?

Russ Roberts: Yes.

Michael Munger: So, I often give this example when I talk about the difference between James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek. I say: Suppose we started a new university; we call it Hayek University. And the first job that we have as the Board of Hayek University is to decide where are we going to put the sidewalks? Now, it's the first meeting, where are we going to put it? It's a trick question, we all know that we can't. We're going to wait two years and then pave the muddy paths.

And so, that is Hayek's definition of law. These things emerge from--people have many different plans and purposes. We don't know why they're walking this path and not something else, but we do know that a path is the result of many different people having different plans and purposes, all engaging in basically the same act of creating the muddy path. If you pave the muddy path, then you have what the law should be.

All right, now, where are we going to put the buildings? Same thing won't work with where are we going to put the buildings.

So, Buchanan's question is more constitutional. We need some kind of central plan. Or, what we could do is say, 'Look over there, I think it--it is! It's a group of sociologists. They appear to be massing in some sort of meeting or class.'

Well, that's not where you decide to put the sociology building. You have some kind of central plan or a set of rules. So, you have a constitution, you have an overall culture or set of received morality that comes down to us from the past, in a sort of Humean, Burkean sense: those things are the muddy paths, and we have law to do that. But, sometimes we also have to have constitutions, and we come up with a way of deciding where are we going to put the main features of this?

So, in parentheses, I mean law, not legislation.

So, where I'm trying to go with the--now, I've lost track of where--

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I completely derailed you. But, before you do, I'm going to just expand on that law/legislation thing for a minute, while you regain your train of thought, which is--for longtime listeners, we used to talk about this fairly frequently--that legislation is what legislatures do, like 55 mile an hour speed limit. But, law is what is the expectations that people have about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, which would mean that actually the speed limit is really 62, or 59, or whatever in your jurisdiction. The letter of the law is only legislated; the actual laws emerges from the behavior of the police, the behavior of drivers, and so on.

I don't really understand that distinction in your examples. For listeners who are as confused as I am, if you've regained your train of thought, I'd like you to explain in the Hayekian, Buchananian--it's like there's three things. There's constitution, legislation, and law. In the Hayekian world, law are the norms--the expectations that arise, the patterns that arise that allow us to make our plans and act accordingly. The muddy path is the law. The paved path would be the legislation. Is that okay? Am I okay there?

Michael Munger: That's absolutely okay.

Russ Roberts: Carry on.

Michael Munger: And the location of the buildings is the constitution.

Russ Roberts: Most listeners are going, 'Boy, these guys--what are they talking about? I have no idea.'

Michael Munger: Well, it's like we have our own little code--

Russ Roberts: Our private language. Sorry about that. 'But, there's 37 other episodes to go back to. You figure it out.'

Michael Munger: That are just like this.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, they don't help at all, actually, they're all the same.

Michael Munger: All they do is confirm that those are the same thing.

So, I was talking about Montesquieu, and the question of what we ought to will. And, that comes to us in a process where we have developed a set of cultural norms and beliefs about the way that we ought to act.

And so, when you asked about whether those are laws, sometimes--and this is a thing that Hayek was worried about, in his essay, "Why I Am Not a Conservative"--he had this view that we're really bad at legislation that is not a law.

On the other hand, there are some laws that have come down to us from the past--like slavery, sexism--that are terrible. Somehow, we have to have a way to tell the difference.

And, a number of people have looked at that and tried to solve that problem. Buchanan's answer was that we could change almost anything through consent, but it would take unanimous consent. The thing that I think is interesting--

Russ Roberts: That's at the constitutional level, not about my own personal thoughts or preferences. Not my preferences.

Michael Munger: But, remember, Montesquieu said that liberty enables us to do what we ought to will. And, he thinks that there is some objective, shared, collective truth about what we ought to will, that he would call culture. And so, there is--this is a common theme on this show--habits. One of the--Alfred North Whitehead has that famous quote that Hayek also cited: that civilization actually was essentially the replacement of settings where we had to give things thought.

Now, is this right or wrong? With having a habit of doing the right thing? Well, that's exactly Aristotle's notion of character.

And so, let me summarize for a minute: Aristotle's notion of character, because I think it gets us a long way in the direction of explaining why preferences might be relatively fixed.

So, if I start out and I have to think about everything anew, I might apply certain principles to decide how to act. But, over time, I come to situations that are relatively the same, and I develop the habit of saying, 'Oh, I recognize this. This is analogical[?].' And, since I know what to do in this situation, I don't have to think about it anymore.

Our character is the collection of virtues and vices that have become habits.

So, if you always eat too much at a party, you always drink too much if you go to a bar. If you have something to eat and it makes you want a cigarette. I have friends who have not smoked for years that still are subject or are oppressed by--they want a cigarette after they have a drink. These habits are really hard to break.

So, we might cultivate habits of acting in a way that is virtuous. But, in any case, we're going to cultivate habits of acting in ways that are vicious.

So, you cannot avoid developing a character. Aristotle's point is--sometimes this is mischaracterized that the unexamined life is not worth living. The reason that's true is that your character is going to be vicious--that is, characterized by vice--rather than virtuous, characterized by virtue.

So, it is your job to make of your life a project, to develop good habits.

Now, Adam Smith was really optimistic about this, because he thought there was an outside force acting to aid us. And it was propriety. Propriety is the received wisdom that the culture has accumulated over time. So, things are getting better for Smith. And the reason is that propriety helps us to develop a character that is more virtuous than vicious.

Now, people who live outside of good society, yes, propriety is not much of a constraint for them. But it is precisely those people who care about propriety who are most likely to rise in society, and it's partly for that reason.

So, society itself provides us with a mechanism for making this something more than just a constraint.

So, I said there were two modeling strategies. And one is to treat morality as a constraint; and I think most economists are tempted to do that: 'We will do anything we want to do, except that morality and the law,' by which I mean the law, not legislation, 'act as a constraint.'

Now, in addition, legislation might act as a constraint. We might be forced to do things that are wrong.

So, in a repressive society, I might be forced to do things that are wrong against my will, even though I know that they're wrong.

Now, that would mean that maybe I would cultivate a character of viciousness. Some societies can be bad that way. On the other hand, Rousseau and a number of people who followed him, and I would put--Montesquieu was actually before Rousseau. But, this is a more Aristotelian notion.

Instead of making it part of a constraint, you could make morality part of the objective function.

So, the reason that I act well is not that I will be punished otherwise, but because it feels good to act well. And if you cultivate the habit of giving yourself plaudits and rewards for acting well, you can actually greatly increase your ability to do that.

And you actually gave a very interesting example about visiting the sick. I don't want to go to a hospital and visit someone who may be dying. It's really sad and depressing, and I might catch something. Hospitals are scary places. I don't want to do that.

Except that if you do it, and you start to realize that it makes a difference, maybe more than most of the other things that we do as professionals, it becomes part of the objective function.

Rousseau had a really great way of saying this. He said, the correct way to solve the problem was to 'inscribe the law on men's hearts.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Nice line.

Michael Munger: So, if you inscribe the law on your heart, it's not that I say, 'Okay, I'm going to do this; I better check. No, it's illegal, I can't, I'm sorry.' You know what to do, because it's been inscribed on your heart.

Now, under those circumstances, though, it really needs to be the right thing. We need to have inscribed the right things on people's hearts.

And so, this has led us to a situation--Patrick Deneen and others have said about liberalism: 'Liberalism says you can do whatever you want.'

Well, I'm not sure that's exactly what liberalism says. But, there certainly is a version of liberalism, that's not too much of a caricature, that has that view, compared to Montesquieu's much more conservative vision, that liberty is just there so that we can do what we ought to will.

And there's two kinds of injustice. One is we're forced to do what we ought not to will, but the other is, we will things we ought not.

And so, the second is the problem of the individual. The first is the problem of the state. And bringing those things in harmony, the constitution, the legislation, and the law, is a really hard, collective problem.


Russ Roberts: For listeners, that was also maybe your longest or second-longest oration. You're on such a roll today, I'm leaving you alone.

But, I want to help listeners who might be a little bit lost with a practical example. Before we do that--which will be the wallet--before we do that, I do want to just make a couple of comments. There's a great line from Burke that I think I got from Scott Newstok's book even though we didn't talk about the episode, which was that our passions forge our fetters. Meaning: We think we're free, but if we're not careful, we'll be enchained--those fetters or chains--we'll be enchained and restrained by our--and be slaves to our passions, our innate wants, not the things that we ought to want.

I think that's very powerful. The hospital story you referred to, I think was from the McCullough episode that was released this morning, if listeners want to listen to more about that.

But, I want to talk about the wallet, because I think the wallet gives us a way of thinking about this issue of the constraints and putting the objective function--for people who aren't academic economists who might be a little bit confused.

So, it's weird, because I thought of this example, at least I think I did, in a conversation with high school students. I think I mentioned it recently, and you used the exact same example in your 2019 article, slightly embarrassing. I read it and not remember that I'd read it? or did I steal it, and then pretend that I hadn't read it? I think it's neither. I think I hadn't read it, and we thought of it independently. It's kind of a classic example. But, I'm slightly embarrassed to say that. But, anyway--yeah?

Michael Munger: Where I published it was extremely obscure in terms of academic publications, and I got the example from Doug North.

Russ Roberts: Okay. He's an honest man. Doug thought of it himself. No, I'm sure Doug read it from Aristotle, or somewhere. Anyway, here's the problem. The problem is I'm walking down the street. I find a wallet. And no one's around. I hate these hypotheticals usually, because there's really no such thing as no one's around. There's really no such thing as no one will ever know. It's always some lingering uncertainty about that, that makes it difficult even in an experiment. You'd have to really know a lot about, say, technology, the experiment to really feel confident that it was anonymous.

But let's pretend, because I think it's useful in this case, that no one is around, no one sees you.

And, you find the wallet. You open it up. It's filled with $20s and $10s, and $100s--has a lot of cash. And, there's an ID card at the front with a phone number and address that's nearby; it's really not a big cost to return it. The big cost is not getting to keep the money.

So: What do you do?

And, I'd asked these high school students, 'What do you find--what's rational? What does economics predict?' They were all convinced that economics predicts that--one of two things. Either you should keep the wallet, because that way, you'll be able to buy stuff with it and get a higher level of utility. Or, maybe you shouldn't, in case if you ever lose a wallet, somebody would return it for you, which of course, not something you want to rely on, and is not related, in fact, at all to this case--except as a moral, Kantian, consideration, which we'll put to the side is already too complicated.

But, my question is this: What I said to the students was: What if you feel guilty keeping the wallet? Doesn't that mean that it would be rational to return the wallet?

And that's your example of putting morality into the objective function, into the preferences. I want you to talk in a second about the constraints. But, the question I want to raise, which I think brings us back to this whole question of Montesquieu, and the question of virtue-ethics, the question that Aristotle raised of character, and what should be your natural response?

So, for me, just for example, I'd like to think, or maybe I'm fooling myself, that's actually not a decision I make about whether to keep the money and throw the wallet in the bushes and move on. It's just something I don't think about. I just want to return the wallet, and it's just a question of how hard it's going to be to return it. You could argue, I've gone somewhere down the Aristotelian path.

The question I want to raise is this: What preferences do I want to have? That is-- which is our first question--which is in this case, would I be a--I don't know what word to put in front of person--happier, better, better-off person, if I didn't have a conscience?

Do I want to raise my children to not feel guilty? Because I didn't do it that way. I raised my kids to feel guilty when they lied, when they stole. And when my son tried to get my other son to make a really bad baseball card swap that it was to the disadvantage of the younger one because he didn't know anything about who Adam Wainwright was or was going to be; and I knew that was wrong. It was just wrong. And I told him as a commissioner I'd veto that trade. I haven't talked about that for ages on here. But, a long time ago I did.

And, so, do I tell my kids: 'Consciences are for suckers?' 'You don't want to have a conscience, because if you do, you're not going to enjoy that wallet. You want to live in a world where you can just take the wallet and keep it.'

But, most people would feel uneasy about that, I think.

The man I want to become is the man who returns the wallet. The man who is welcomed in civilized society. Because that person is honorable and can be trusted to do the moral thing when people aren't looking.

Now, that just complicates everything for what we've been talking about. For me, that helps us--maybe you have a framework for talking about it. So, explain to me how that fits into your example. This is your example too, Doug North, and whether as I raise my kids or myself, because that's the whole project, is: I'm growing up. I'm becoming the person I want to become through my habits. Do I want to be a person who returns wallets or keeps them? Does economics have anything to say about that?

Michael Munger: The interesting part about Doug's example, and again, you can say this is reductio ad absurdum, but it is almost a Beckerian--that is, after Gary Becker--application of economic reasoning to a setting where it's not normally done.

What North said was that this is probably subject to both price and income considerations. And you actually laid it out in your example. It's nearby; it doesn't cost me much to return it.

Suppose that's not true. Suppose it actually is really expensive or difficult for me to find a person. What on the margin that'll make it less likely because demand curve slope down. Now, I don't know what the level is, but at the margin, it'll make it less likely.

Now, suppose that I really and probably cannot get caught and there's $10 in it. Then I'm probably going to return it. Suppose there's $1000? Suppose there's $10 million in it? The question is--and this was North's question--suppose you could do experiments, and you actually could enforce the conditions pretty well. Is there a price where anyone, literally anyone would not return the wallet? It's just that they differ about what price that is? Is there a different level at which all of us would say: This is so much money, I'm keeping it.


Russ Roberts: So, that whole idea--this is a G-rated program, so I'll give the G-rated version. You know--Mike would you--

Michael Munger: Winston Churchill.

Russ Roberts: I heard it from George Bernard Shaw. Which is--would you--Mike's not interested in having dinner with me tonight. But, I say, 'Okay, Mike, how about for $100? If I paid you $100, would you have dinner with me tonight?' And you say, No. 'How about $1000?' 'No, I don't like having dinner with you.' And then I say, 'How about a million?' Like, 'What kind of person do you think that I am?' And then the answer is: we've already established that, we're just talking price.

But, in the economists view, the Beckerian, Gary Becker review, the way I was trained, the way I taught my students for decades in the classroom is that, yeah: Demand slopes downward. I used to say this with such smug glee and pride in my insight as an economist, that there's some amount of money that everyone would do something immoral. Or, it might be to save the life of a child, like Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread. You know, it's: We all have our price.

And, that view of humanity, we were taught as economists, is, "realistic," because that is the way people pretty much behave.

And yet, when you tell that to people who aren't economists, they find it deeply offensive. And the reason they find it offensive--it's taken me a long time to appreciate it--but the reason they find it offensive is that it treats them as if they are merely a robot. A machine. A utility machine. And I just have to pick the right setting to get you to do what I want.

And we know in human history, it's literally not true. We know there are people who stand up to the incentives and say, 'I know I have an incentive to do X, but X is wrong.'

And in economics, we have a term for this: lexicographic preferences. It means I have certain things I take care of regardless of price. So, we found a way to squeeze that into the model. But, it's not really in the model. The way the model works is that people respond to incentives--and they do. So, therefore, everybody has their price to do anything.

And, the way the world works is that there are different prices at which different people will do different things, and so on.

And so, the idea that I would want to change my price, that I would want to change at what price I would do what is dishonorable is outside the model. It's not in the model. It is not the way economists think about it.

And I think it's a terrible shortcoming.

And, in fact, you know, if I said to you, 'After going to graduate school in economics, what have you learned about the life well lived?' I don't know what your answer would be.

But I have come to believe that the life well lived is learning how not to do what you were incentivized to do, either by money--and I'm not going to give any examples, but I have turned down money because of things I thought were reprehensible that it would take to acquire it--and to do much more smaller, and more important decisions about enduring sacrifices, because I thought that was the right thing to do.

And, so, I want you to respond to that. Then I want you to tell me about whether I'm a sucker? What the heck? Why didn't I enjoy my older age by becoming a less moral person, where I could get to a higher point on the hill of happiness? Why would I burden myself with these constraints of morality? Which I think is what exactly--that's the constraint model you were talking about--why should I do that? Isn't that, isn't that--it's irrational.

Michael Munger: Let me take a little detour and come back because I think it connects. So, E.O. Wilson, the famous entomologist says that we should understand--

Russ Roberts: It's a bug person--

Michael Munger: We should understand biology, at least, evolutionary biology as a contest between two forces.

First, any selfish individual will always dominate any altruistic individual. So, you could call it altruism. You could call it morality. It's a big drawback for the individual. And in fact, if we only were individuals, then the selfish individuals might very well out-compete the altruistic individuals and they wouldn't exist.

Second, groups of altruistic individuals will always dominate groups of selfish individuals, because we care about each other. And it's not just that we are militarily better. We are better in society; we're happier; we reproduce more; we're more economically active; we're able to trust each other; contracting costs are less.

And so, any society has this tension between individual and group domination.

Now, E. O. Wilson, because he's a bug man, he can talk about group selection. Friedrich Hayek was often criticized for talking about group selection, because evolutionary biology is supposed to work at the level of the mean. Well, one of the questions that you asked again about McCullough--and this was at the point when I was shouting at the dogs--but, when you raised the question for McCullough--

Russ Roberts: Honey, bring in those kids. That man's out there yelling at himself again--

Michael Munger: You said, how would genes do this? How would genes actually operate at the way--how would genes know? Well, genes wouldn't have to know. What genes would do is evolve in a setting where we live in small clan groups, no larger than 150 or so because of the Dunbar number--that's the level where we can organize things just by keeping track of reputations. And if you act badly in that setting, you'll get put outside the wall and eaten by wolves.

So, we pretty quickly select. We have big brains--we're good at detecting dissembling, and we remember when you said you would do something you didn't. There's a lot of selection at that level. Getting put outside the wall is really bad. It's not a joke. This is not a night in prison: this is your leg getting bitten off. But, at some point, when we get into larger groups, then it may be more difficult for us to detect dissembling. We may have to have other rules for deciding whether we're going to detect dissembling, and things that were evolved at the other level may not work as well.

So, there's the famous--the Westermarck effect. The Westermarck effect was named after Edvard Westermarck, who claimed that the source of the taboo against incest was the fact that young people raised together assumed genetically that they were related. So, unrelated people who were raised together never had any attraction for each other. And so there were a number of experiments in kibbutzim in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s that showed that people that had been raised together were much, much less likely, even though they were unrelated--so, your genes don't know you're unrelated. Your gene says, if you're raised with someone--

Russ Roberts: Familiarity--

Michael Munger: that means that your genes think you're related, and so there's no attraction. You actually couldn't violate the taboo even if you wanted, because it's written on your heart. It's not, 'Oh, man, my sister's really hot, but there's a law against it, so never mind.' It's literally written on your heart, but it's because of genetics.

Now, culture is the inheritance you get from the people who raise you. Genetics are the inheritance you get from the people who gave birth to you. But, culture is the inheritance you get from the people who raised you. So, if you're raised with a group of people, you could have people separated at birth, they're raised in different religions. There's the story of Shibboleth from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, what I call the Old Testament--

Russ Roberts: We call it the Hebrew Bible. Go ahead. That's fine. Shame on you, Mike. I'm horrified, but no big deal.

Michael Munger: The people who were--if you had twins that were raised in separate cultures, one would be able to pronounce Shibboleth and the other would not be able to pronounce Shibboleth. But that's cultural: there's nothing genetic that would prevent me from being able to say it.

The way that genes do this--and I realize this is a complicated story, but this is the way I have come to think of it--human beings are evolved to have what may be an atavistic or that is a sort of throwback tendency to accept morality and to think morality is really important.

But, the content of what that morality is, is socially constructed. So, if I am raised in a different culture [crosstalk 00:40:09] genetic person, I would have different views about what is right and wrong, but I have an ability to think that those things are important.

So, I think this is a story I've told on the show before, but let me do it quickly. Once I was in Washington, D.C., and I was waiting in line for a movie--this was back when you couldn't buy stuff online: it was in the 1980s, so, you had to wait in line for 30 or 40 minutes before the movie started.

Russ Roberts: And you waited in line because the price was too low and there weren't enough seats. So, only the people who were lined up could get in. It's not just to get the good seats.

Michael Munger: I think the price was too low, because I'm rich. The poor people thought the price was just right, because they had more of the resource that this was testing for. Spoken like a typical wealthy person, that everything should be the one resource you have a lot of.

Russ Roberts: No, it's the neoclassical economist who sometimes forgets that positive and normative are not the same thing. I apologize. Carry on.

Michael Munger: In line, I'm standing in line. And, if you're standing in line for a long time, you know the people around you. I'm talking to the guy behind me, and I turn around and there is a small, five foot two, slender woman who was not there before. And, I say, 'You can't cut in line like that.' And, she immediately looked up at me and said, 'If you say another word, I'm going to call the police and say you assaulted me.'

Now, I was completely undone. I remember it so vividly, and I also remember--I don't remember anything about the movie, I was so upset. I could not sleep that night, I was so upset at this transgression of the rules. Now, what did she cost me? What would the economist say she cost me? 20 seconds?

Russ Roberts: Kind of. I mean, you didn't even have to pay attention to her. But, your brain took it in. You're saying, what did it cost you to hear her complaint? or for cutting in line?

Michael Munger: Objectively, what did cutting in line did--

Russ Roberts: Is she in front of you or behind you?

Michael Munger: In front.

Russ Roberts: Oh, I like behind because it's even better, because then--

Michael Munger: I don't think it would have made a difference. I think I would have been just as upset.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, of course. But, cutting in front of you made no difference as long as she didn't prevent you from seeing the movie, and she didn't.

Michael Munger: Save for probably 20 seconds extra where she paid for a ticket and went inside.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael Munger: I was so upset that I didn't sleep that night, and I still remember the incident.

So, the point is, we are evolved to provide the public good of norm-enforcement--against our will. It's irrational. I should not, if you're an economist, I should not have provided this public good of norm-enforcement. However, if I live in a society where all of us do provide the public good of norm-enforcement, there is an emotion called shame, which is: I know that I did it and there's an emotion--forgive me, called guilt--meaning that I know that I did it; and there's one called shame where I'm upset when other people point to me and said, 'He did it.'

Those two things mean that much of the problem of policing bad action is taken away. The society actually solves the problem itself.

So, there is a group rationality argument--and this is something that Hayek talks about quite a bit--there's a group rationality argument for having an adapted, moral sense. So, morality is not a disadvantage, except that an individual sociopath, like that woman, might be able to invade this society as a mutant because there's not 150 of us anymore. There's a million people that live in Washington, D.C. I'll never see her again. She paid no cost. So, long as she has no sense of guilt, she paid no cost for cutting in line.

If there are more people like that--well, the point is that they're more able to survive in societies that don't have small clannish groups.

And so, will this adaptive feature of human brain architecture disappear? Are we throwbacks that have this old feature that, in the future, societies are going to have to--you're not going to be able to say--and this actually is what Patrick Deneen is worried about--what a number of people that are worried about liberalism are worried about, is that we need small groups where we get up in each other's face when we act badly. Not, 'Oh, it's okay. You can do whatever you want.'


Russ Roberts: That was really amazing, and I'm not sure what to take away from that. Let me try to summarize the amazing part, and then I want to apply it to something really personal and embarrassing that it's worse than your story of sleeping badly that night, I think.

So, here's what I understand that you just said. You said that: our desire for meaning--excuse me, I was going to use 'meaning'--our desire for morality--for justice, doing the right thing--is not a rational choice. It is actually somewhat hardwired in us from the past.

And so, it is something of a constraint, but it's a funny kind of constraint because what its content is, is unspecified at any particular point in human history and in society.

Michael Munger: Well, it's a constraint like hunger is a constraint. But, satisfying hunger actually feels good, and so, it's part of my objective function. If I don't eat, I'll die. If I don't act morally, I'll feel bad about myself. But, I think those are part of the objective function. It's something we like.

Russ Roberts: But, you didn't answer my question--sorry. Which is: there are psychopaths like that horrible person who cut in front of you--wicked woman, shameless.

Michael Munger: Literally.

Russ Roberts: Worse than shameless because she was eager to accuse you of something that you hadn't--

Michael Munger: She was looking for a big stupid guy, because it wouldn't have worked, another woman might have fought her.

Russ Roberts: You were a victim. Not only were you a victim of her cutting in line, you were a victim of her plan. Are you saying that most of us didn't--we have a different genetic makeup so that that doesn't work for us? We can't just cut in line gleefully because we'll feel bad about it? Yet, there are people who keep the wallet, and a lot of people actually. I think some economists would believe that is the modal action, is that people keep the found wallet.

I'm agnostic on it, and I'm tempted to do the Northean, 'Well I've spent so much money,' then it depends how hard it is to turn it back. That's a good place to predict as a total stranger. But, when you ask me what the right thing to do is, it's returned the wallet. And I'd like to become that person.

Are you saying I only have that urge in me--that's similar to my hunger urge, that that's a hardwired thing? Because I don't know if that--basically, you're telling me that all my self-righteous goodness, I have to throw it out; I shouldn't feel self-righteous about it; it's no different than my hunger?

Michael Munger: No, I'm not saying that. Now, remember that the hunger analogy is Adam Smith's. Adam Smith said we have a desire to be liked and admired, much like we get hungry--

Russ Roberts: Right. And he says it's hardwired. Fair enough.

Michael Munger: But, the--

Russ Roberts: But, no, no, no! Timeout. That's to be liked. That's when people know that I've returned the wallet. I can post an Instagram of me returning the wallet or talk about it on EconTalk, like I did about visiting the hospital and that ruins the whole thing, because it takes something that was noble and Godly and turns it into something tawdry and self-interested, right?

Michael Munger: I hear you, and that was what McCullough showed: Most people will keep the wallet, if it's really true that you're not going to be caught.

Russ Roberts: But, that's not what's interesting. What's interesting is that there are some people who won't.

Michael Munger: Yes. And I'm going to try to explain that. And, here's the thing. Remember, I made a claim there were two things going on. One is an underlying genetic, evolutionarily-selected capacity to care about morality. That's something that we connect with.

But, then there's also the individual project of construction of a character, where I have a certain set of habits: 'I am the sort of person who does this.' That is a mythology, unless I, in fact, when presented with that setting act in that way. And I know that all of my carefully cultivated story to myself that I am the sort of person who returns wallets. If I don't return a wallet once, I can tell a story why that's true; but I know it's not true. I'm my own worst critic there.

So, this--I want to argue and I think the philosophers that are listening at this point, if they're still listening--they're probably not--but if they are, their heads are going to explode.

Russ Roberts: No, no one's listening. Go ahead. You and I are talking. Enjoy it.

Michael Munger: We're just doing this.

This is an example of Rule Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism would say that most of the time we're in a society, we don't have a chance to sit down and negotiate, or, what are we going to do here? What we have is a set of rules and habits.

So, if we're in a big city, it could be true that I really need to get somewhere, and if I could tell people they would all let me go. But, instead, we have stoplights; and stoplights are better than all of us negotiating at every intersection who should have priority.

So, Rule Utilitarianism says there's actually just a few little sets of rules that we can choose among. If you choose the one that's the best on average, sure, sometimes you end up paying costs, but you actually become invested in the rule that you've selected.

And so: I'm the sort of person who returns wallets, and I have cultivated that over time, to the point where not only do I believe that it's actually true, and then I have this chance to return a wallet and I do it because I know that I am the sort of person who returns wallets.

Now, you might be able to create a set of conditions where I would break that habit. But, for some people, it's hard one, the fact that I'm the sort of person who does that, that's a hard one thing to be able to do, and that's actually what Aristotle meant by character--it was a kind of rule utilitarianism, where you're choosing habits that, if you were always to do this thing, you would be a better person, and you'd be happier.

Now, that might mean that sometimes you end up, in effect, sitting at a stoplight when it's red, and there's no traffic coming the other way. It would be better in that instance, to break it, but you're not going to do it, because this is a habit that I've cultivated.


Russ Roberts: So, it's so deep, and of course, we talked about this in the Dan Klein episode about honest income, this idea that you want to habituate yourself to certain kinds of behavior. What's fascinating to me, and I had really never thought about this, is the parallel between this in individual choice and the parallel in public policy that sometimes gets summarized as 'rules versus discretion.'

Michael Munger: Right. Absolutely.

Russ Roberts: So, let me just lay that out quickly: the idea that, 'You don't want a rule, because sometimes rules--'

Michael Munger: It's a terrible idea. You can do better.

Russ Roberts: 'rules are made to be broken. We can do better, almost every time.'

Yet, once you open the Pandora's box of discretion, you find yourself erring, making mistakes, doing what's self-interested, harming your reputation, doing things you're ashamed of.

So, you have a rule. 'I don't eat the first potato chip,' 'I don't have any drink. I don't just drink in moderation, I don't drink.' Etc., etc., and 'I always return wallets, even when they have $10 million in them and the owner is really far away and he's a bad person, by the way, on top of it.'

That idea of self-constraint, of tying yourself to the mast, an Odysseus-like method of giving up freedom, of giving up the discretion in this any one case--I have a feeling Buchanan would really like this--I mean, the whole idea there is this magnificent idea that you recognize your humanity. You recognize the imperfection of reason, and you understand that if you go to an all-discretion rule--bad choice of words--a world of all discretion, you open up the opportunity for you to be wicked.

And so, you sacrifice some well-being, on average, because you know that the alternative is actually much worse, even though it looks like on paper that you could do a superior job by picking and choosing.

Michael Munger: May I read an example--this comes from David Schmidtz's wonderful book 2006, David Schmidtz is a philosopher at University of Arizona--

Russ Roberts: Past EconTalk guest.

Michael Munger: The book is The Elements of Justice. It's long, but I'll go over it quickly. So, you come into a new town, and you're on the main street; and you notice the cars are stopped on the side roads, and you just keep going; but there's no stoplights or stop signs, but you're on the main road; you keep going. A cop comes up behind you, and pulls you over. 'Do you know what you did wrong?' 'Look, I'm sorry, there was no stop sign or stoplight. The cars on the cross street were stopped. So, I kept going.'

The cop shook his head. "In this town, sir, we distribute according to desert--that is, who deserves it. When motorists meet at an intersection, they stop to compare destinations and to ascertain which of them is more worthy of having the right of way. If you attend our high school track meet tomorrow night, you'll see it's the same thing. Instead of awarding gold medals for running the fastest, we award them for having the greatest effort. Anyway, that's why the other cars honked, because you didn't stop to compare destinations."

The cop stared at me angrily. [Original: "The cop paused, stared, silently"--Econlib ed.] After a pause,

"I'm sorry, Officer," I said at last. "I know you have to be joking, but I'm afraid I don't get it."

The officer says,

"Justice isn't a joke, sir. I was going to let you off with a warning. Until you said that."

Well, there's no towns like that. But, the point is that even if your concern is to maximize justice, you would have stoplights and stop signs, because stopping to argue about it, even if you eventually came to the right conclusion, it would take up so much time that it would mean that the society would not be able to function very well.

So, there's really two considerations. One, I think is your very apt distinction between rules and discretion. Having discretion means that you're going to get a bunch of rent-seeking contests where people know that the better argument they come up with, they're going to be able to win, when it's unlikely that the weak are going to win those contests. It's going to be unjust anyway.

And the second is that it's just a giant waste of time. You're actually better on average doing the thing that seems not as good.

When you put those things together, it's all in Aristotle. Aristotle talks about cultivating a character in exactly those terms. He actually understood it in a way that I think is eerie. But, I didn't realize that until I had thought enough about this to be able to read Aristotle. So, I wonder if we shouldn't teach Aristotle to people when they're 50, not 15.

Russ Roberts: Well, we don't teach it much when they're 15 anymore.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm still confused about my fundamental question.

Michael Munger: And you didn't tell us your embarrassing example, either.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'll get to that in a second. Then I have a final thing I want to talk about, that's really--maybe it'll be a good illustration of all this.

But, wouldn't it be better just to let the good times roll? Les bon temps rouler? Don't I want to just party and have a good time? What's this virtue, ethics, character nonsense? Those are all just additional constraints. How would you convince me--I'm my younger me, okay? Or your younger you. Why don't you make it personal for yourself, since it's awkward lecturing me? Not that you're not experienced and good at it.

But, take your younger you; and I'll take my younger me; and I'll say to myself, 'You know, you've acquired some--you're going to acquire, if you're not careful'--I'm talking to my younger me--'if you're not careful, you're going to acquire some guilt and shame and constraints on your behavior that's going to really handicap you from having a good time.' And, my older me would say--actually, I kind of like the older me. We come back to the Vampire Problem of L.A. Paul--

Michael Munger: Absolutely--

Russ Roberts: When I'm younger, what looks like fun is not the same as when I'm older, and I've given up some of it in return for something else. It comes back. We also haven't invoked Agnes Callard, who talks about aspiration, which is similar to what we've been talking about today--

Michael Munger: Absolutely, yes--

Russ Roberts: what I want to become, what kind of person do I want to be?

So, I could say to my 18-year-old self--I wouldn't; and this is the puzzle of life--'Hey, don't be a sucker. Don't be like me, acquiring all these restraints-- marriage, becoming religious in my case. Just talk about the moral sanctions you put on yourself. You'd be a lot happier. You could just be free to act and do what feels good.' What do you say to that, Mr. Aristotle? How would you convince that 18-year-old? Why should the 18-year-old embark on that project of becoming the man that you think he ought to become?

Michael Munger: Because right now, the 18-year-old can do things that are really fun. They are actually pretty darn fun. They feel good. 'I can eat and drink things that are bad for me, but boy, do they ever taste good.'

So, I've had this argument a little bit and mostly tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely, with my good friend Jeffrey Brennan, who lives in Australia. A famous oenophile, he has thousands and thousands--

Russ Roberts: That's wine. That's somebody who likes wine--

Michael Munger: No, not somebody that just likes, somebody who really understands wine at a fundamental level.

Russ Roberts: Sorry. But, -phile/-phile.

Michael Munger: In Australia, they also sell wine in something they call a goon box, which I think is pretty self-explanatory. It is a box of really cheap wine. I honestly--

Russ Roberts: A big box, I suspect.

Michael Munger: It's a fair-sized box. I cannot tell the difference between a goon box wine and one of Jeffrey's really lovely wines. And my question to Jeffrey is: 'Why in the world would I cultivate a taste to make it so I have to spend $50 to get a level of enjoyment I get now from a $12 goon box?' And, by the way, a $12 goon box is three bottles. So, we're really talking about $4.

Now, I don't really believe that, and in fact, I can tell the difference. The other wine is better. Working on cultivating a preference and understanding, whether it be in a relationship or about something you're consuming, I think people just have to learn through experience is more satisfying. Because just doing the same thing that feels good over and over again, I suppose you can become a connoisseur of those things and become really good at them. But, it isn't the same as cultivating a deep understanding.

I don't know how you explain that, except to model it ourselves.

And so, the difficulty that I think--it happened that the house that I was raised in, my father didn't graduate from high school; he was deeply unhappy. He was frankly an abusive drunk, and I never got the feeling that his life was good. That was not really modeled to me.

Now, I have since discovered that there really is something to cultivating--it might be--I don't mean to blame my dad. He was living the best life he knew how to live.

Russ Roberts: He had some challenges, I'm sure.

Michael Munger: But, if your parents or if older people you admire and know, model that, and again, this is a character question, it's really important because you can't tell young people, you'll be happier if you do it this way. But, you can show them, 'Look, I'm doing it this way. It seems to be some extra work, but it's really cool to be me. And, if you can grow up and achieve this sort of level of understanding of yourself, you'll be happy at a level that now you cannot understand.' I don't know how we communicate that, but that's what we have to do.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm trying to do that in my book that I'm working on, with respect to marriage. Marriage, I call it the any one day problem. Any one day, you might wish you weren't married. Any one day, you might wish you didn't have those rules that you've adopted: 'I want to be the kind of person who [fill in the blank--Econlib Ed.]. It's not just the tawdry part of it, but just even just day-to-day, sometimes marriage is not easy. Living with another person is challenging. But, it's glorious.

And, conveying what's glorious about it does not come easily, I think, to words. So, I've come to think about it, the kind of thing you're talking about is--to pick a really inappropriate example--it's like smokey, single malt Scotch. So, my brother, who is a fine person, when I offer him a single malt Scotch, a smoky one, like Lagavulin or Laphroaig, he does not like it. Of course, I didn't like it the first time, either. When I tell him--

Michael Munger: You had to cultivate it.

Russ Roberts: It's an acquired taste. That phrase--I heard that phrase as a child, to refer to things like anchovies, and it turns out single malt Scotch. But, it's actually quite a deep summary of what we've been talking about. It says: There are certain tastes you might want to acquire, not just about scotch, but about how you behave and what you do.

And, I hope I get to use this in the book: but the first time you drink Laphroaig, people say it's like licking an ashtray. That sounds horrible. But, Laphroaig had a contest to describe what it's like to drink Laphroaig and the winner was: It's like kissing a mermaid who just ate barbecue.

And that is one of the most divine descriptions of a physical pleasure that I can think of. It's just perfect. That person deserves more than a prize: they deserve honor and glory.

But, I want to close with this embarrassing personal story--whatever you want to [?] Laphroaig's thing [?] benefit. This is a little bit risky, but we do this all the time, like you and me, because we're friends, and this is off the beaten track of what we're talking about, in a way, but it's not at all.

So, I'm reading Persuasion--which is a website, not the Jane Austen novel--and there's a column that Kat Rosenfield writes, and this from October 25th, 2020. And the second question that she answers is the following: Should I contest my friend's stupid ideas or just shut up?

That question--I have cultivated a habit that I used to think was a good habit of challenging my friend's stupid ideas. I'm an educator. So when people say something stupid, I explain to them why they're wrong.

It's deeply ingrained to me; and I've never thought about it: it's actually this genetic desire for justice, perhaps, or some other cultural thing I've got of justice that, 'Well, when someone says something wrong'--and by the way, by 'it's stupid' I don't mean just things like thinking that Marseille is the capital of France. I mean thinking, like: the minimum wage is a good idea. That's the kind of thing I want to fight at a dinner party, and I've talked about in the program many times: there's a number of dinner parties I've been at where I said something--it wasn't taken well. I didn't mean it badly, I meant to just educate, and correct, correct, correct.

And, you know, my wife doesn't think it's the best habit. So, I've worked to quell it over time. And I've gotten better at it. I get thrown out of fewer dinner parties or am forced to leave embarrassedly, or accurately I don't feel as much shame when I do leave--because I've created a scene. Not because I disagree, but I did it in a way that was not nice.

But, she makes this great point. She says, 'Well, your friend didn't ask you to be corrected.' I found this to be--I haven't really fully absorbed it yet, but it's a way of flipping the dinner party dilemma on its head. Instead of saying, 'Well, that's obviously wrong. I must speak up here. It's my moral duty, because they're obviously wrong, and they want to be corrected.' They've looked--

Michael Munger: Or, 'They should want to be corrected. They may not know it, but they're the sort of person that will be embarrassed to say something wrong. So, I'm doing them a favor.'

Russ Roberts: Exactly. Now, it's like, why is it almost my whole life, I've thought I have a moral imperative to explain something to someone?

So, this column, and you can read 50 things like this sometimes in your life, and they don't go in. Probably not the first thing I've ever read about whether you should disagree with a stranger at a dinner party. But, this kind of made me think a little bit. Like, maybe I'm the kind of person who ought to be a different kind of person who--I'm the kind of person who, when one person, one dinner party, says something that I think is, say, Economics 000, instead of 101, maybe I should just suck it up and be quiet! And say, 'They're probably happy believing that.'

For them to be told an alternative, may not even accept it. And, even if they do, is the world really a better place for that? I mean, that's-that's stupid. So, I've had kind of an earth-shaking--I haven't fully absorbed it yet, but I just wanted to share that. Because it's not unlike your lying[?] experience. It's like, what I would call moral smugness. Moral self-righteousness. That, not just 'I know what's right,' but I have an obligation to share what's right.

Now, of course, here, I'm the host of a program a lot of people are listening to. I think some of you are listening, maybe because you want to learn something. So, I do have this urge to educate, and to teach.

But, maybe it's not maybe the same appropriate urge in all settings, hypothetically.

Michael Munger: I hate to be fair to you. But, I feel like I have to be fair to you. I have listened to every one of the podcasts, not just the 37 in the past that I was on, but to all of the EconTalk podcasts--

Russ Roberts: All 770 episodes?

Michael Munger: I have. And some of them, I've listened to three or four times. You do not take the same approach now that you did in 2006 to confronting error.

Russ Roberts: It's true.

Michael Munger: And in fact, there are a number of occasions--and one of the ones that really sticks out in my mind is you have cultivated a habit of getting better at this.

One that sticks out in my mind is the one with Peter Singer. You did not respond to Peter Singer saying, 'That's the dumbest damn thing I've ever heard.' What you said was, 'Well, now how did you come to that conclusion? What's the basis for the reasoning?' And when he explained it, it was, 'Huh. That's actually pretty interesting. He probably has a point.'

So, in particular, and I think it may have made a difference for you--it's made a difference for me--his view, his sort of nuanced view of vegetarianism and the fact that there are many things that we could do to make industrial farming of animals less horrific for the animals--that may be something that in fact, we have an obligation to do. Peter Singer has a point.

So: If your reaction to error is to ask questions--which is what you do now, you clearly have cultivated a habit of doing that--to find out what is the basis of that person's belief, rather than just thinking 'What they really wanted, although they didn't know it, what they really wanted,' was a five-minute disquisition from me saying, 'Well, here's what proper people think, and you're improper, you should be embarrassed.'

So that, in fact, a response--and one can cultivate this. And, I have to admit, the reason I have this reaction is I'm a libertarian at Duke University, and so many of my colleagues on the Left take exactly this view. Their response is 'Now, can you tell us why you think that?' A lot of times, they'll say, 'Well, that's actually interesting. I hadn't thought of that. I'm not sure I agree, but I've actually learned something. So, thanks.'

So, I am the person who was sitting beside you at the dinner party if you had been a very strong Leftist, and my colleagues have not said, 'Well, that is just wrong, and here's why.' They said, 'Well, why do you think that?'

So, being able to cultivate that--having a dinner party is a place where you have liberty. And, the liberty to do what you ought to will is to ask questions that advance the conversation, not end the conversation with people looking at their watches, timing saying, 'Here he goes again, 17 minutes.' If you see people surreptitiously timing your speeches at a dinner party, that's a bad sign.


Russ Roberts: I'm worried that your dog thinks that [dog barking in background--Econlib Ed.] you're listening to an EconTalk episode, you're about to start yelling. I really appreciate that, seriously, every bit of it, what you just said. But I have to say something honest in response to it. And we'll play it as a game for our guests and then we'll take this conversation home with--there's going to be a visual treat for viewers: Listeners will only hear a description of it. But, don't worry, Mike's going to keep it short, I hope.

Michael Munger: He said, 'treat,' so--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. In the Peter Singer episode when you said, 'Oh, you said, huh, that's interesting and you thought maybe I'd learned something,' I was thinking of a different part of the episode when I said that, and that isn't what I was actually thinking. I was actually trying to be polite. There may have been a moment in the vegetarian part where I was actually, being, conceding that there was an interesting point there. That episode was very hard for me.

Michael Munger: I know.

Russ Roberts: Perhaps you and I will--I've been thinking a lot about the drowning-child-in-the pond example that he uses, and why I find it so troubling. So, I hope he will either revisit that with me or you and I will talk about it, because it's an area I'm sure you're interested in.

But, let's close with the visual thing. Mike's just going to pause here for a second. Oh, he's going to just turn his camera a little bit. You don't have to get up, just tilt your--or did you move it too far? There it is. Oh, you can kind of see it. I'm getting the tail end there. He's going to move.

For those of you following on audio only, Mike has the head of a unicorn in his office. It's a beautiful office with a lot of books scattered about and books that he's been abusing--obviously, they look like they've had a long day at the office.

Michael Munger: And, a number of ties, but there's my unicorn.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, why do you have a unicorn head on a tripod? As opposed to, say--what's the word? A pike. In the old days, they would put the bad people's heads on pikes. This is a unicorn's head on a tripod. [More to come, 1:11:51]

Michael Munger: Usually I have a sweatshirt over the tripod so that it looks like the unicorn is a unicorn-ish scarecrow. The unicorn is my spirit animal, as many of my readers and watchers of the video would know, and I will send to Russ, the link for the unicorn video. It involves strawberries, that's all I'm going to say.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's colorful. But, Mike has talked about this before on the program, for those longtime Munger fans. The idea of certain political solutions being more fantasy than reality, I think will be the hint that captures that.

Anything you want to say closing anything we've talked about today, Mike?

Michael Munger: No, I think that since I did the second interview with you on EconTalk in 2006, the direction that you have taken have reflected some--maybe it's personal growth, maybe it's some directions that a lot of people have dissatisfaction with the discipline of economics. I think a lot of people are sort of moving in this direction. So, I want to encourage people to continue to think about this problem of cultivating what sort of person I should be, and what sort of person one should be. That project, in addition to getting in better shape, becoming better-looking, can result in a knowledge of yourself that makes you not just happier, but a much more fun person to be around. So, it also can be a lot more self-interested.

Not that I think for a moment that Russ ever really acted badly at a dinner party.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Mike Munger. Mike, as always, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Michael Munger: It was a pleasure.

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