• Billy Backhouse

Image: Uwe Conrad (license)

Games of ‘would you rather?’ were an ever-present feature of my teens. What better to do in a late evening than design diabolical imponderables, forcing your friends to decide whether to have their nose replaced with a finger or their fingers substituted for noses? There is something very alluring about this kind of question - a fascinating exercise in brinkmanship that asks ‘how far would you go to avoid this happening to you?’, or ‘how much would I have to pay you to embarrass yourself in that way?’. The first ever episode of Black Mirror asks the question in a uniquely horrifying way: would you, the Prime Minister, disgrace yourself forever on national television in order to spare the life of a captured royal?

In the brinkmanship of the game, you can always push someone over the edge eventually. It takes a devious imagination to ask ‘would you rather’ questions well - but you can usually persuade people to violate even their own deepest held principle or taboo, with enough patience and cunning.

Economics is a discipline that is concerned with how choices are made over mutually exclusive options. If I’m only hungry enough for one dessert, do I go for the sticky toffee pudding or the chocolate cake? More seriously, how much of what a nation’s populace produces should be appropriated in taxes, and how should this proportion be spent? Questions of this kind demand a model that allows us to answer them consistently, and in a way which allows the answer to be scrutinised and criticised until a scientifically satisfactory answer is reached. 

The standard apparatus for answering these questions is cost-benefit analysis. It is only intuitive that, if a proposed action has benefits that exceed its costs, then it is in some sense a ‘good’ allocation of resources. With many such competing actions, we can represent the ‘cost’ of choosing a specific action with the convenient concept of ‘opportunity cost’. Since resources are expendable, they cannot usually be used multiple times, unless they have special properties that allow them to reproduce. Time, money, patience, attention span, headspace, and so on, are all finite - even if, for some of these, stretching them to their limit can allow us to use more of them as time goes by. 

If I use an hour to watch Tiger King, I cannot then use the same hour to work on my diss (as I have discovered repeatedly in the last few weeks). Thus, one of the costs of using up scarce resources is what we forgo by using them for a specific purpose. This cost is what is referred to as opportunity cost, and it seems an attractively tractable way in which costs can be assessed, because so many things that we do use up resources we cannot easily convert into monetary values, even if we can compare them intuitively to plausible alternatives.

Even if the costs and benefits are invisible (like in the case of patience), there is an intuitive sense in which we can rank activities and lifestyles by how much patience they would require of us. When we say “I don’t have the patience for that”, or “I’m not in the right headspace right now”, we are implicitly suggesting that we know that we can judge how much of our resources would be required in particular situations, and can see when the requirement exceeds what we have in reserve. 

In principle, we can subject all of our decisions to some kind of cost-benefit analysis with these things in mind. (We might not want to do that - either because we are mischievously tolerant of our own inconsistencies or because cost-benefit analysis itself takes time and mental effort. But in principle at least, we could.) Perhaps we might more precisely say that if we are to be rational, our decisions must follow some kind of framework of this kind. This hints at what economists call ‘revealed preference’ - our choices reveal what we prefer, in the sense that no immediate alternative yields us as much benefit. By ordering the sticky toffee pudding, I reveal that it would be somehow more preferred to me than the chocolate cake. This seems at best tautological and at worst inaccurate (perhaps it’s both!) - but it’s enormously tractable and the whole discipline of microeconomics is built on it.

What about religious behaviour? Should that conform to this model of revealed preference? Economists of religion generally think so. In a classic paper which argues that religious behaviour exemplifies the same ‘club’ behaviour that characterises human interaction with a range of institutions, Larry Iannaccone boasts that this approach ‘[does] not assume any special motive for religious behaviour’. But is he right to make this sweeping assumption? In other words, are religious people religious in the same strict sense that sticky-toffee-pudding-ordering people order sticky toffee pudding? This seems like quite a strong assumption, but it’s one that many ‘economists of religion’ make. 

Religious behaviour, in this view, expresses preferences in the same way that all behaviour expresses preferences. In a Christian context we could phrase this loosely as ‘the good that Christians believe is theirs because they are Christian exceeds the costs involved with being a Christian.’ (This is almost an expression of Pascal’s Wager.) But it imposes what is to me quite an unattractive assumption - that we can test whether Christianity is ‘worthwhile’ on the basis of whether its benefits exceed its costs.

An implication of viewing Christianity in terms of ‘opportunity costs’ is that religious people can ‘trade-off’ between religious goods and worldly ones. If I can model the split of time between Netflix binging and studious revision, can I not also apply the same model to the way Christians split their time between praying, worshipping, etc, and doing secular things in the world? (Perhaps this dichotomy is itself an interesting and questionable setup - the ‘secular’ or ‘profane’ category includes countless aspects of normal life through which Christians seek to express worship and thankfulness.) 

I think that this exercise rather misses the point. When Jesus asks ‘what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’ (Mark 8:36, NIV), I don’t read him as meaning that the magnitude of a bribe needed to buy a Christian out of their faith is impractically high. Yet this has to be the conclusion of an economics of religion which starts with the premise that there is no special motivation for religious behaviour. If this is the case, then offering people some package of secular goods that is mutually exclusive with Christian integrity (and therefore involves forfeiting the soul) can always result in the Christian preferring that secular bundle, provided that the bundle is big enough. Tenacious religious faith can look in economic models like a faith big enough to require more than the whole world to buy it out. 

Is there a convincing alternative? We could instead treat some religious doctrines as transcendent. What I mean by this is simply that the question ‘would you give up being in heaven if I gave you X?’ makes no sense because heaven and X belong in totally different categories.

Consider the legend of Doctor Faustus. In this classic tale, a brilliant theologian is enticed into giving away his soul - his immortal consciousness - to the devil. Faustus receives in exchange a wealth of magical powers and an abundance of years in which to practise them. In Christopher Marlowe’s dramatisation, Faustus’ life ends with a climactic, visceral expression of regret: ‘Come not, Lucifer! I’ll burn my books!’ But did it have to end this way? Could you design a life for Faustus that would make him die without regret? Was Faustus’ error that he lived the remainder of his earthly life in trifling pranks rather than enduring pleasure? Or was it not rather that he traded his only transcendent commodity (his soul) for things which had no utility to him on the salient level?

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:3-6, NIV)

The special things about the Christian hope of resurrection, and the ‘inheritance’ of life in heaven that awaits us, are not only issues of magnitude (even though they are huge). They are also presented by Peter here as being totally different from earthly pleasures - what thing on earth ‘can never perish, spoil or fade’? What other pleasure was secured in such a drastic and painful way by God? And how else could an early church leader encourage a fledgling church suffering monstrous persecution than by reminding them of the transcendent hope that they have? This does not read like a reminder that Christian hope is just bigger than things the world has to offer. Peter goes on to write that Christians are filled with ‘an inexpressible and glorious joy’ - inexpressible, perhaps, because it totally transcends worldly categories with which we are more familiar.

Hope that defies economics

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