The Underground Man as Richard Thaler’s nightmare

From Britannica’s entry on Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

The views and actions of Dostoyevsky’s underground man demonstrate that in asserting free will humans often act against self-interest… When he turns to reason for salvation, it fails him, and he concludes that not reason but caprice ultimately prevails in human nature.

Gary Saul Morson remarked in a recent interview:

The central concept of Notes from Underground is “spite” – action done just so, harming oneself just because supposedly no one ever does – and so to render the word as “wickedness,” as one version does, is to obscure the book’s whole point.

Reason fails. Caprice prevail. Or spite, perhaps. Obviously, Dostoevsky was not writing about defying the lockdown and the mask mandates. In Notes from the Underground, the narrator – a nasty piece of work – speculated about the human condition under an ideal social order envisaged by utilitarian thinkers.

Specifically, literary scholars believe that Notes from the Underground came into being as a response to What is to Be Done? by Nikolay G. Chernyshevsky. More narrowly, a response to theories espoused by some of its characters, such as the so-called rational egoism. The rational egoism principle sounds simple: always acting in one’s best interest is also the best for society. The hard part is deducing, calmly and impartially, what is truly in one’s best interest, rather than acting on a whim or impulse.

Although Chernyshevsky was considered a political radical and a pre-Marxian socialist, he was a studious reader of J. S. Mill, H. T. Buckle, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. His views on personal ethics were largely influenced by those enlightened liberals. His rational egoist is not an Ayn Randian adolescent but a sensible, well-meaning, generous and unjealous grownup, whose decision-making is not marred by obsessive passions or visceral hatreds.

In other words, Chernyshevsky’s ideal rational egoist is much like Richard Thaler‘s and Cass Sunstein’s ideal social actor: his personal preferences lead him to freely make choices desired by the policy maker. Of course Dostoevsky couldn’t help mocking this cutout character, and of course he went farther than mere mockery. The Underground Man would question all rock-solid truths, even two by two being four.

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