Deception as a Means to Manage Evaluative Diversity

Someone more practical than me realized that there are many potential ways to manage evaluative diversity, some of which involve deception.

Photo of Jonathan G. Meath portraying Santa Claus.When I was very young, I ate peas because my Dad told me that they would “put hair on my chest,” and I was extra-well-behaved each December because I was reminded that St. Nicholas was watching. Children do need to be controlled, and any parent who doesn’t consider using deception to control their children is impractical.

To manage evaluative diversity essentially means to prevent one particular evaluative type from counter-productively overwhelming the others. Since the typical person has an evaluative bias, this typically requires moving decision-making from the individual-level to the group-level. Can that be accomplished through deception?

Churches, governments, and markets are three examples in which we move decision-making from the individual-level to the group-level, thus enabling management of evaluative diversity. However, all three institutions existed long-before any one was able to effectively articulate an argument about evaluative biases, so I submit that the only way they could have manage evaluative diversity is through deception: promising to do something else.

Markets, Governments and Churches

Markets have been criticized of late for failing to direct our aggregate power in socially productive directions. At the center of the criticism is a dispute over the purpose of markets: Do they exist to serve society or do they exist to make individual investors rich? Economists point at decade-long trends towards share buybacks and away from productive investments (like R&D and entrepreneurship) as evidence that the purpose of markets has shifted to the latter.

Yet, when we transfer our money (and thus our decision-making power) into market investments (e.g. retirement funds), the promise made to us is not “The market will find more socially-responsible ways to spend your money than you would on your own.” Rather, the promise which convinces us to submit is “The market will make you rich (or at least protect what wealth you have).” If markets exist to benefit society rather than to make the rich richer, then they do so by deception, and that deception may be wearing thin.

Governments have evolved as well. Early governments were dictatorial, citizens had no choice but obey, and governors claimed to apply greater wisdom to advance a greater good. As governments shifted towards democracy, people obeyed less because they considered their governments wiser than themselves, and more because they believed that they themselves controlled their governments. Accordingly, the responsibility assigned to politicians shifted from advancing the greater good to representing the interests of their constituents (against politicians elected by other constituents).

The major criticism levied against modern democracy is that it has become so polarized that politicians are driven less by wisdom than by a commitment to oppose each other (party against party, country against country). If the primary responsibility of a politician is to fight for the interests of their constituents, then this makes sense. If voters have enough individual wisdom to vote, then it also makes sense that voters would elect representatives who obey their constituents. However, wisdom is objective, so individually wise voters would not vote in opposing directions (which, as it turns out, voter do). Apparently, we are deceived about our individual wisdom, and that deception is wearing thin as well.

The promises offered by religions may look different from the promises offered by markets (i.e. to get rich) or government (i.e. to gain control). The ancient doctrines of religions teach that we are not wise as individuals. They teach that it is wise to relinquish some of our decision-making power to religious authorities or communities. As Maya Angelou put it,

While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.

Yet, if religious practitioners believe this teaching—if they doubt their own decision-making instincts because religions promise greater wisdom than individuals can muster individually—then why do religious practitioners shop-around to find a church or develop their own personal religion (perhaps combining the religions of their parents)? Clearly, there must be some other promise (i.e. other than the promise of wisdom) which draws modern religious practitioners to religious communities.

I submit that making a career path out of clerical service has turned religions into businesses, and religious organizations accordingly adapt to the demands of their markets. Thus, they promise affirmation, entertainment, friendship, charity, even political advocacy—whatever their unwise practitioners want. The story might have played-out differently if one religion refined its doctrine (or public understanding of its doctrine) so much that it was clearly superior to all conflicting doctrines. However, the statistics tell us that has not happened. Religious scholars failed to reveal the truth in any religion, so, in practice, religion relies on deception as much as government and markets do.

History shows changes in all three kinds of institutions, changes in the direction of trying to fulfill the deceptions which are used to control people. In becoming increasingly accountable to these deceptions, markets, governments and churches became increasingly trapped in them, distracted from accomplishing social good. It becomes less and less practical to come-clean and demand, “Ask not what your economy/government/church can do for you…”

The Alternative to Deception

“Deception” is a word with evil connotations, but deception can be very kind. I do not regret being controlled by my parents through deception. I needed to be controlled, and I doubt that other forms of control would have been kinder. Likewise, the deceptions of churches, governments and markets shifted us correctly from individual-level decision-making to group-level decision-making. Why not use deception to get there?

The problem with deception is its instability. The problem is not just that people who are being deceived eventually see through the deception, but that other people leverage the deception to twist the institution. At the extreme, we have Wall Street bankers who exploit regulatory loopholes faster than regulators can plug them, lobbyists who influence policy through earmarks and political blackmail, and evangelists who build flashy mega-churches where only a minority even attend regularly much less practice their religion the rest of the week. The people at the extremes get wealthy, so the extremes will not go away, and extremes are just the tip of the iceberg.

Many people who see problems with churches, governments or markets hope to reform them by building more sophisticated deceptions: new promises that no one yet knows how to exploit. Maybe that’s a good idea. Then again, the pattern seems to suggest that any deception, no matter how sophisticated, will eventually fail.

The alternative is to face the truth, to develop genuine social self-awareness, a realization that each of us is a mere part of something larger. We do not speak of the welfare of a muscle cell terms of its happiness, its freedom, its status relative to its neighbors, or even its personal salvation. We speak of the welfare of a muscle cell in terms of its ability to serve its function in the body. Similarly, when we achieve social self-awareness, our concerns will become, “What is my personal role?” and “Am I fulfilling it?”

We determine the functions of each part of the body through science, and that’s how we must determine the functions different kinds of individuals play in society. Your function may be to dream dreams, but dreaming is not the way to discern your purpose. To promise people the ability to choose their own function would, again, be a deception. Yet, many people currently cannot tell the difference between discovering true assignments through science vs. being manipulated with false science, so science must be made transparent, incorruptible, and accessible to all.

Social self-awareness is not an alternative to capitalism, democracy or religion—rather, it provides stable motive to engage in capitalism, democracy and religion. When each of us aims to serve our own function and we let objective science (rather than subjective whims) divide our labor, then markets, governments and churches will no longer rely on deception to motivate cooperation.

This is the critical battle of our age. A battle of education. A battle of making education transparent and egalitarian. A battle of raising education to the level of achieving social self-awareness. Markets, governments and churches can all have a hand in this battle. They should advance social self-awareness—but they probably won’t. The champions of this battle are more likely to be outcasts who see no other way forward than to tell the truth. In the end, truth will prevail.