Binary Choices: Petruchio or Romeo? Sartre or Camus?

Well, it’s January 3rd 2019 and so I’d better try and keep my New Year’s Resolution going for another day. I’m aiming to publish a blog post every day of this year…

My first blog post of the year about Taleb’s book Skin in the Game got me thinking about some of the clear choices I have made between this or that thinker, writer or fictional character.

From what I’ve heard and read so far, Taleb, rather like Machiavelli, seems to delight in seeking clarity in strong either-or positions.

In Machiavelli’s case it typically takes the form of maxims drawn from historical examples. As a compulsive storyteller, Machiavelli would revel in the discovery of cases that served to highlight an apparently either-or choice, often invoking “necessity,” that gave him an occasion to deliver a spirited and inescapable judgement in the form of a pithy epigram in favour of the more shocking side of the question.

Let us consider, for example, the choice between: mercy and cruelty.

Cesare Borgia

Which is better?

Reader: Mercy.

Machiavelli: Mercy.

So far so good.

Let us beware, however that we do not misuse this quality of mercy for here’s the thing. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel, yet it was by means of that very cruelty that the benefits of (1) order (2) peace (3) unity and (4) fealty – the public oath of loyalty to one’s lord – were delivered.

So it turns out that Cesare Borgia’s cruelty was more merciful than the mercy of, for example, the Florentines, who, when an uprising broke out in Pistoia in 1499, not wishing to be considered cruel, sat on their hands and rather than apprehend and execute the ringleaders of sedition, “let Pistoia be destroyed.”

QED Cesere Borgia’s cruelty is more merciful than the Florentines’ … well, if not “mercy” then lack of peremptory and precisely targeted cruelty.

(This is not, of course an argumentum pro interventionistariam [LOL!] as Pistoia was a Florentine dependency.)

So from this we can create some “binary options” and bid “Yes” or “No” on them:

Mercy Cruelty
Cesare Borgia The Florentines in 1499

Taleb’s book Skin in the Game is sub-titled “Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.” The picture on the cover is of an asymmetrically weighted barbell. So we can infer that the premise of the book is that there are binary situations which crop up in daily life, or rather that the course of events can develop in such a way as to throw up binary patterns. Having “skin in the game” implies that one will have to choose – or rather commit to, or accept – one of those two polarities; having skin in the game suggests that one may not always have a choice because the commitment of “skin” often preceeds the emergence of the polarities.

It would be interesting, in another blog post, to hold up Taleb’s skin to the light of Machiavelli’s virtue.

For now though, a Talebian example of “binary options” can be found nested in a section that he invites us to skip at “first reading” due to its “technical” nature, Causal Opacity and Preferences Revealed. Perhaps here Taleb is testing our resolve by misdirecting our attention, presenting us with a nice binary choice:

A: Do not read this as it is technical and can be skipped on first reading.

B: Read this passage as it is gives you the key to the whole work.

For, as Taleb comments in the middle of the same passage we are invited to skip,

“The exact argument is flushed out in this author’s technical works.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game, p. 40

Readers who skip technical passages at first reading are never to likely read them at all. But they might read this blog post. (Yeah, right.)

Here are some of the binary choices we are offered:

YES (Skin in the Game) NO (No Skin in the Game)
The real world Appearances
Win by doing Win an argument by understanding
Plumbers Political “scientists”
A diamond (engagement ring) A verbal promise
Speculation (in deeds) Forecasting

Amusingly, at the end of this catalogue Taleb informs us, in another ironically binary exemplum that,

“Outcomes in real life are not as in a baseball game, reduced to a binary win-or-lose outcome.”

ibid, p. 40

For example, rain is, er, good (YES) but floods are bad (NO). Presumably the point is that there is a continuum which starts with a shower of rain and ends with Noah floating his boat while the rest of us drown in the deluge.

Taleb is having some fun here, and so am I. His mock non-binary example of real-life outcomes is all about rain and floods. He then informs us, as quoted above, that his technical works “flush out” his exact argument.

But let’s face it, reducing complexity to “binary options” in order to clarify one’s preferences or perhaps one’s choices under duress, or to offer a persuasive case for or against something or other is both a useful and an entertaining exercise, as we can experience when reading the energetic and witty prose of Taleb or Machiavelli.

And so we come to the point. Reading Taleb in this way caused me to recall some of my own “binary options” and preferences or “default settings”. For example:

Philosophical Idealism Materialism
Political Realism Political Idealism
Stoicism Utopianism
Petruchio Romeo
Helena (All’s Well That Ends Well) Isabella (Measure For Measure)
Camus Sartre