Justifying moral principles by analogy with Russian roulette

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. Taleb is an entertaining practical philosopher: he has a handful of principles that he has considered deeply, he measures the world against them, and he coaches the reader in how to do likewise, all in an idiosyncratic and readable style. (As a Lebanese-American Orthodox Christian, self-made multi-millionaire, and lover of the Western canon, he’s an interesting guy.) Anyway, he makes a distinction between time probability and ensemble probability, roughly as follows:

Say one hundred people each play Russian roulette one time, with a billion dollar prize for survivors; you get about 83 billionaires and 17 deaths. This is ensemble probability. Some people might choose to play.

Now say one person plays the same game a hundred times. They are 99.99999879% likely to end up dead. This is time probability. Sounds a bit worse. They may have billions of dollars when they die; in a quick few thousand simulations in Excel, average person got $5B or so before dying, and there were at least a couple people who made it into the $40Bs. But then they end up ruined, out of the game.

Assume you are an eternal being, because you are, so you get to live indefinitely with your decisions. Repentance and lasting positive change are possible, but lasting negative change is also out there. There are some deep holes, with sides that are as slippery on the way back up as they are on the way down. Since you are repeating choices many times, you need to think in terms of time probability, not ensemble probability.

In this environment you should be extremely wary of any choice that brings with it a chance of ruin. Put your spiritual pennies in the Vanguard index fund,[1] rather than playing the game of Russian roulette, even if the odds of ruin are one in a thousand instead of one in six. Steady accumulation works better the longer you have—it is positively great over eternity. But if you play Russian roulette occasionally, over the long run of eternity, you will eventually find ruin. And Taleb would probably observe that the long run is shorter than you think, you don’t really know the odds, and they will often be worse than supposed.

There are lot of ways to spin the cylinder. Many vices will not be disastrous for many people much of the time, but any activity that is addictive to a substantial portion of the population and can lead to bad spiritual outcomes[2] ought to be suspect. Some people seem to get away with a lot of questionable choices (e.g. regarding friends, interactions with the opposite sex, entertainment, substance abuse) without obvious immediate consequences. Most people can drink without becoming alcoholics, or gamble without creating problems for their families. But taking the first step down any of these roads makes you fragile.

On the other hand, the strait and narrow way calls for you to accumulate experiences and attributes that will inevitably pay off in the long run. Building a family that will last forever requires some slow, grinding work at times, but you won’t regret it. Missionary and other service to others, such as will tend to your own spiritual development, also tends to be slow, quiet, and rewarding in the end. I’m reminded of Isaiah’s line that “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

So rather than evaluating a single decision, you can ask “would a long series of decisions like this create a possibility of ruin?” Because if there is a possibility, and you play with it for eternity, it is going to be realized.

If you strive to avoid all possibility of spiritual ruin, you sort of arrive in reverse gear at a complete commitment to Christ, because anything else could (and therefore eventually will) lead you astray. Thus “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

My personal conclusion from all this is that I ought to beware of careerism and videogames, each of which has ruined people and has a certain appeal to me. (I distinguish careerism from work—work consistent with supporting a family is praiseworthy; work in pursuit of self-validation and career advancement is where people can go off the rails.) I also want to approach parenting with a duly precautionary mindset.

Finally, if you have made it this far, welcome to the blog. We shall see what happens with it.


1. Taleb would not really recommend the spiritual Vanguard S&P 500 index fund; if I recall his Black Swan book, his recommendation would be more along the lines of 85% spiritual T-bills and 15% exotic spiritual derivatives designed to generate fixed downside but open-ended (and undervalued) upside. And perhaps this does have its spiritual analogy. Missionary work is like Taleb’s derivatives in that it translates fixed-ish costs (hours of effort) into uncertain but potentially gigantic returns: “And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (Doctrine and Covenants 18:15.) But I digress.

2. Chocolate is addictive to part of the population, as anyone ought to be able to see by browsing the cereal aisle, but fortunately it seems to be spiritually benign. (And I can stop anytime that I want.)

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