Cambridge University Press. – Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality: Revised Edition. Jon Elster. Frontmatter. Ulysses and the Sirens has 24 ratings and 2 reviews. Anthony said: I was a Jon Elster (Editor) Be the first to ask a question about Ulysses and the Sirens. even more valuable than it is. II. Ulysses and the Sirens. F. H. Hahn. University of Cambridge. Jon Elster’s Ulysses and the Sirens* is an outstandingly intelligent.

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As a first step, I propose to discuss the work of a man who is possibly the living thinker with the greatest influence on my thought. He is the Norwegian philosopher, economist, political theorist, social scientists, and all-around polymath Jon Elster. He is, after all, an analytical Marxist.

He has written on such diverse topics as addiction, the emotions, Alexis de Tocqueville, constitutional design in the former communist countries of Eastern Europeeconomics, jazz, film, and the teh foundations of the social sciences. I consider discussing Elster as a natural step in the process of weaning myself from my late obsession with economics because his work has implications that sap the very foundations of economics as a rational science.

Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, In Ulysses and the Sirens: He contrasts this notion of locally maximizing rationality with what can be called globally maximizing rationality.

An example of this is the sort of Cold War nuclear strategy that Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling famously explored: So you put in place mechanisms that effectively take the decision to launch out of your hands, mechanisms that will automatically trigger a launch after a certain point has been reached, and which cannot be overridden.

The deterrent is globally maximizing or so it is postulated. There is a gain from the deterrent that can only be achieved by seemingly non-rational means. In sum, if you want people to leave you alone, act crazy.

The paradox, of course, is that it is no mean feat to go mad on purpose. On a more mundane level, “rational irrationality” occurs when you make any kind of inter-temporal threat or promise in which carrying out the threat or promise involves some cost to elsger. This is because at time 3 Alice will no longer have an incentive to carry out her threat. After all, doing so would now represent a net cost to her. Notice that the same incentive structure applies to promises: Alice promises at time 1 to do X for Bob at time 3 if Bob does Y for her at time 2.

Once Alice has got what she wants, zirens would she bother to incur the cost of giving Bob what she promised to give him? Of course, lester should note that this whole dynamic changes where there is the prospect of repeated interactions between Alice and Bob. We’re only contemplating one-off interactions here. What elsher of a society could we expect if it were impossible to make credible threats and promises?


Most market exchanges in the form of contracts with intertemporal performance which is most if not all contracts in a large and impersonal society like ours would be impossible. We have the ability to bind ourselves to actions that are not strictly rational from the narrow locally maximizing point of view.

In the example given above, it would be helpful if Alice could somehow bind her later self to carry out the intentions of her earlier self. Such self-binding can be done, broadly speaking, in two ways.

This relies heavily on the inculcation ester moral norms, and on emotional responses to those norms. This can come through upbringing or through the kind of character formation recommended in Stoic philosophy.

Either way, it is dependent on appropriate emotional response. Contrary to popular misconception, the Stoics did not advocate the extirpation of the emotions, but rather their harmonization. In the example of Alice and Bob, Alice might be motivated to carry through on her promise by wishing to avoid the emotional cost of the guilt or shame she would incur for breaking it. There is a good reason why emotions play this crucial role.

In our rationalistic culture we tend to view this as a bad thing, as a weakness in which passion overcomes our better judgment. If Alice were red-faced with anger, Bob would have a signal that she is capable of carrying out her threat despite her better judgment. There are good functional reasons why such mechanisms have been evolutionarily selected. You see, within a framework of strategic interaction, evolution selects for global maximization. And although some responses can be faked some of the time, evolution has also selected for human beings with an ability to sniff out the fakes.

In order to be able to hear the song of the Sirens, a sound which drove men mad and made them steer into the rocks, Ulysses had his crewmen put wax in their ears and bind him to the mast of his ship. The crewmen were to have their swords drawn and were to ignore any appeals Ulysses might make to be untied. Rather than draw on internal resources for resisting the call of the Sirens, and assuming that he would be weak under its influence, Ulysses relied on externally imposed constraints.

In the example of Alice and Bob, Alice might be motivated to keep her promise because of the existence of an institution like contract law that attaches heavy penalties to such breaches of trust.

Similarly, if I want to quit drinking, it might help if I give the keys to my liquor cabinet to a friend. Thus, my later self will have an incentive to stay quit.

Jon Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens. Studies in Rationality and Irrationality – PhilPapers

If I need to save money for Christmas presents, I might open a savings account that does not allow me to make withdrawals before December, in the knowledge that I am likely to be tempted to spend the money before then. If I am a nuclear-armed nation, I may have a computer system rigged up to launch missiles upon detection of a credible and impending threat, in the knowledge that my later self might have doubts or lack the guts to press the launch button.


The difference between endogenous and exogenous self-binding is that while the former depends on internal resources for binding, the latter depends on what could broadly be called “external technologies”, whether in the form of artificial incentives or determinative mechanisms.

They constitute pre -commitment because they effectively determine me on a course of action before the occasion for choice even arises. One can overemphasize the distinction between endogenous and exogenous self-binding.

I may refrain from doing elsster I am tempted to do because of moral principles that have elater internalized i. Put over simply, the idea here is that the human agent is best conceptualized not as one overarching self who has an ordering of preferences and who chooses between them, but rather as an indefinite number of intertemporal selves.

In many of the examples we have been considering, the preferences of earlier selves may be thwarted by later selves that give in to temptation.

Jon Elster

But one can also conceive of cases where the later self is in danger from the irrational choices of the earlier selves. Indeed, even with addiction, we can take a broader view in which the earlier rational self binds the later irrational self in the interest of some still-later self.

It seems to me that it is difficult to make sense of these various selves wishing to manipulate each other unless we preserve some notion of unified agency, where these various intertemporal selves somehow retain uysses with each other.

After all, by the time the occasion comes for ulydses later self to act, the earlier self will no longer elsger. There seems to be an incoherence lurking here.

Some of these ulusses are ethical, rather than merely metaphysical: If that is the case, what right does my earlier self have to limit the choices of my later selves? It is no different than my claiming the right to limit your choices? This is paternalism at best, tyranny at worst. On the other hand, we might view a person in the throes of addiction as exercising precisely such a self-tyranny: An analogous kind of tyranny occurs at the aggregate level, when a society sacrifices the interests of future generations through deep or prolonged deficit financing for current consumption.

Contents 18th-century literature 15 British moralists 4 Classics 17 Darlington’s letters 19 Ethics 8 Favourite books 13 Philosophy 41 Politics 47 Random musings 96 Republicanism 17 Shaftesbury Methinks this blog has become a little too obsessed with economics.

It was certainly never the intention of The Sires Avenger to run an economics blog, but unfortunately that is the channel in which his slender genius hath run of late. Posted by Jamie Pratt at Favourite booksPhilosophy. Newer Post Older Post Home.