Episode 61 – “The Silence”

We place bets on events that are probable, not on events that are either certain or impossible, and what we are willing to wager depends on our judgments of the degree of probability that the outcome will obtain, and on the utility or value of the outcome obtaining or not obtaining.

In “The Silence” a wager is proposed from one member of an exclusive men’s club to another: If the young and very talkative Mr. Tennyson will be silent for a full year, the older and annoyed Archie Taylor will pay Tennyson a half a million dollars. If Tennyson speaks even a word before the year is up, the bet is off. The conditions of the bet include Tennyson living out the year in a glass-enclosed room that will record any utterance issuing from him.

Is it rational for Taylor to issue the bet? He believes that Tennyson will not last a year, or even a few weeks, in silence. If he’s right about that, his costs amount only to supplying the room and board in the club for the period Tennyson remains silent. If Tennyson is silent for the year, it will cost Taylor half a million dollars. But Taylor thinks that this outcome is extremely unlikely, given Tennyson’s proclivity for conversation. Tennyson aside, it’s an interesting empirical question whether a typical human agent, given a large enough payout, could be induced to refrain not only from speech, but from normal proximate interaction for such a prolonged period. There is no institutional review board that would grant permission to run such an experiment, of course, and although the informal setting of the club lacks such ethical oversight, the issue of the moral standing of Taylor’s proposal is at least raised by other members of the club.

Gambling can only take against a background of trust. Bets are made when both parties are confident that they will be paid off if they win the bet.  In “The Silence” the context is a men’s club, an establishment of wealthy men who believe of themselves and the other members of the club that they are honorable and forthright.  Tennyson requires that Taylor place a certified check in escrow, to be handed over to him should he win the bet. Taylor rejects that condition, citing the club’s traditions, and more generally, the traditions of class and privilege, as the appropriate trust mechanism. There are several philosophical take-aways about practical reasoning in this strange episode, not the least of which has to do with appreciating the grounds of trust. A men’s club in the 1960s may very well be the last refuge of a scoundrel.

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