The Quantification of Food, Friends, and Finance
Final, July 21, 2014
By Chas Crandon

"A 'scientific' interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning."

- Friedrich Nietzsche1

I think we all can agree that diets are one of the most boring and tedious things to talk about. Not only is it completely uninteresting to discuss whether or not your afternoon snack has carbohydrates or processed fats or whatever in it - usually culminating in a huddle around the nutritional information, fingers flying over phones in a race to confirm whether maltodextrin is gluten-based - but it also typically makes onlookers feel just a bit worse about themselves. We've all been there. Three bites into that juicy double-cheeseburger, thousand-island dressing dripping off of your chin as you ponder your next mouthful (do you continue a full-frontal attack or swoop around to the back to take care of that precariously hanging tomato?), and from across the table you hear Karen launch into how she's watching her figure and will now only eat the color green. Seriously Karen, what the fuck. Now every bite of that delicious beef will be tainted with the taste of shame. Might as well just dump it in the trash and go get a salad.

Inevitably, the prevalence of such diet talk results in more people jumping on the pop diet bandwagon and counting their calories or their colors. Peer pressure worked for cigarettes, so why can't it work for healthy eating? It's a positive development, really, in a country where obesity remains such a prevalent issue - ignoring for the moment that pop diets, along with yoga and chai lattes, are a hallmark of the yuppie demographic, which is conveniently one of the few demographics that can actually afford to shop for wholly-organic, soy-based, gluten-free goods at Whole Foods. (Full disclosure: I am a yuppie.)

But I find pop diets to be perverse, and not just because I find myself inundated with annoying diet talk. Pop diets replace what were originally somewhat vague and intangible desires - wanting to be healthy, for example - with discrete and quantifiable goals - wanting to hit a particular calorie count. While the number of calories you ingest likely correlates with the intrinsic goods of health and wellbeing, avid dieters can end up focusing entirely on the former at the expense of the latter. So, occasionally, pop diets actually make people worse off - rather than eating double-cheeseburgers, which I love, I have to eat all this dull, expensive junk to meet some arbitrary goal that may or may not make me happier. Worse yet, pop diets often end up absolving dieters of any responsibility for the outcome of their diet - if I hit my quantifiable goals and don't feel healthier, it's the diet's fault, not mine.

Let me head off potential naysayers at the pass: I'm not saying we should all eat double-cheeseburgers all the time. We shouldn't eat any particular thing all the time. All I'm saying is that maintaining a healthy diet - and, in general, maintaining positive wellbeing - is a complex and subtle part of our day-to-day lives. It's something that requires critical thinking and evaluation of competing desires on a regular basis. It is not something that can be solved with a diet that can be summarized in a single sentence.

It's not Karen I'm concerned about. We all know Karen isn't on the diet for health - she's on the diet attention. Just like Trent, who waxes poetic about squats between sips of his daily protein shake, Karen is not actually interested in the health benefits of her behaviors. She's interested in the bragging rights. For many (yuppies), diets and exercise are more of an accessory than a health concern - something that screams "I'm fit and attractive and probably cooler than you" as loudly as that neon tank top you wear on the elliptical while going 2 MPH. Ironically, these people are doing what they do for all the right reasons - they wholeheartedly enjoy being obnoxious pricks.

No, it's Bob I'm worried about. Bob, that adorable stereotype of a jovial heavyset fellow who works in the cubicle down the hall. Every day, a flash of delight dances across his eyes as he unwraps his burrito lunch, and after 2pm you can often hear him munching on chocolate with glee.

Or, at least, that's how he used to be. Nowadays, Bob can be found sitting sullenly in the corner of the lunch room, agonizing over the calorie count on his Diet Snapple. His figure has trimmed down, to be sure, but what has disappeared from his waistline has been added to the weight on his shoulders as he sulks about the office. He is no longer concerned with his health and happiness, but rather with the perfect diet as dictated by a mobile app. Multiple mobile apps, for that matter. He has hit all of the goals; he has every virtual badge, star, and point. But he keeps switching between them because, no matter how successful they say he has been, he still feels terrible. And because he doesn't feel any better, the mobile app has failed. The diet has failed. What else can be done, then, but try another plan, set another quantifiable goal, because there has to be some metric he can maximize that will make him better off.

Bob's is quite an absurd portrait. None of us really know a "Bob" - in no case has the instrumental, quantifiable goal so completely supplanted the intrinsic, at least within the realm of dieting. But the absurdity of Bob is so striking because it takes to the extreme a more mundane absurdity we see every day. People pursue the quantified goals of pop diets because it seems the most rational course of action: calories are correlated with health, and I want to be healthier, therefore I should regulate my calorie intake. But it is common for dieters to miss the forest for the trees and end up pursuing a particular quantified goal with such steadfast conviction that its relation to health and wellbeing ceases to be apparent. It is easier, and seemingly more rational, to talk about the success of a diet in terms of discrete caloric accomplishments than subjective perceptions of health and happiness.

Since the time of Plato, rationality has been considered the essence of man. Now, rationality is a contentious term - one that often comes with a lot of normative baggage - but for our purposes I think it's best to take it to mean something fairly basic: man is rational in that he is reasonable, that is to say, he acts in accordance with reasons. The problem is that some things are much easier than others to cite as reasons for action.

Bob used to justify his chocolate and burrito habit with appeals to vague and opaque reasons like happiness and satisfaction. But Karen, sensing weakness, would frequently swoop in for the attack: "But Bob, what about your health? You must be at least thirty pounds overweight! Imagine what all of those processed fats are doing to your cholesterol. Have you even checked your blood pressure recently? Do you want to die of a heart attack?" See, Karen understands the power of quantifiable metrics: they can be used to distract us from more intangible reasons for action and leveraged to paint someone as irrational. Not to say Karen's concerns are unreasonable - they are obviously very important to consider - but they end up overshadowing other important, if qualitative, concerns. Under scrutiny, Bob's reasons tend to slip away, leaving him to question if chocolate really does make him happy. How exactly would he be able to tell if sweets improved his wellbeing? Is wellbeing even something that can be measured? Absent solid ground to stand on and fearing the precipice of irrationality, Bob backs away from his apparently spurious reasons for eating chocolate and burritos to stand on the solid ground of calorie counts and gluten freedom.

This is hardly a new trend, and hardly one that is limited to the domain of healthy eating. Quantifiable and scientific justifications have long been sought for human behavior, extending to the dawn of the Enlightenment. The focus on the scientific method has, in many cases, been a positive development. It has rooted out dogmatism and superstition, and paved the way for vast improvements in technology and standards of living. Most of us can agree that Bob is better off counting calories than sacrificing a goat to the gods of gluttony. Quantifiable evidence and scientific reasoning allow us to validate whether reasons we cite for behavior are valid and ensure that we are acting rationally, in line with the very essence of man.

Rational behavior can be understood to consist of two core components: a belief that an action will result in a particular end, and a desire for that end to occur.2 Quantification and the scientific method add substantial rigor to the first step by providing discrete tools for measuring whether or not particular actions actually do result in particular ends. As it stands, there is not a statistically significant correlation between sacrificing goats and losing weight. Reducing calorie intake is a much more reliable predictor of weight loss.

The problem is, the scientific method doesn't just touch the first half of the equation. As any good marketer knows, human desires are not immutable facts - they can be biased, cultivated, and changed. The pursuit of quantifiable metrics and scientific justifications - the desire for just those things - inevitably taints other desires. No longer does Bob desire to be "healthy," but rather to be "healthy in a quantifiable way." While some desires lend themselves to quantification well (say, being a fast runner or making a lot of money), many actually collapse under the weight of the scientific method. Providing discrete, concrete reasons, it seems, destroys the very essence of such desires.

One of the best examples of desires gone awry can be found in the growing prevalence of online dating, which I personally find to be one of the most frightening and frustrating developments of the past two decades. I'll readily admit: I've spent hours - days even - attempting to cultivate the ideal OKCupid profile. You've got to find that one perfect photo of yourself, before the glare of fluorescent lights and LCD screens permanently bleached your skin and the long nights hunched over a desk left you with bad posture and eternal crow's feet. Preferably one of you hiking, from that one time you climbed two miles to a spot in the Malibu hills where you can't actually see any buildings and one could easily confuse for some secluded trail at base of the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico. You've got to give the impression of being athletic and outdoorsy and adventurous, no matter how further from the truth those adjectives could be.

In all honesty, my problem with online dating stems from the eternal sting of rejection. It is tough being a 5'6" out-of-shape dude with a mediocre job - I'm simply not competitive with the tall, dark, and handsome guy down the street who sold his startup to Google and now spends his days training for triathlons and his nights performing his own unique breed of four-to-the-floor electronic dance music. In theory, the written profiles and "scientific" matching system on OKCupid should help display my dazzling personality, balancing out my relatively lackluster appearance. But with the advent of Tinder, even that is no more, replaced by split-second swipes based on whether you're "hot or not."

I no longer use services like OKCupid and Tinder (nor their perhaps more mature brethren, Match.com and eHarmony), though I do still feel the pang of desire whenever a friend pops open that iconic flame logo and starts flipping back and forth with idle amusement. The opportunity for immediate self-validation by way of a "Match" must rival the rush of a lottery ticket or slot machine for some folks - the perfect implementation of a variable reinforcement schedule to get those rats pushing a bar for hours on end. And therein lies the first problem with online dating: the desire for self-validation has taken center stage.

Self-validation has always been an essential component of meaningful relationships, be they with friends or lovers. The fact that someone could love me, despite all my shortcomings, never ceases to ignite a tiny little warm spot in my chest. But self-validation is just one of many vague and intangible desires bundled into the overarching drive to make a friend or fall in love, one typically accompanied by desires to spend time with the other person, enjoy their company, share in their happiness, care about their passions, empathize with their struggles, and so forth. There's much more to a deep, healthy relationship with another person than making yourself feel good.

Online dating services, and their social networking kin, don't eliminate our desires for the more meaningful aspects of relationships, but they do distract us with the reliable and readily available dopamine rush of self-validation. Why bother with the tedium of developing enduring relationships with others when, with just the swipe of a finger or the click of a mouse, you can easily assure yourself of your own self-worth.

Of course, we're not really at risk of supplanting all meaningful human relationships with mouse-clicks. Online dating services have produced many heartfelt and meaningful relationships, and social networking services enable us to maintain lively friendships even at great distances. But the power of readily-available awards does inevitably shift our desires. We come to rely on self-validation, in the form of a discrete "Like," "Follow," or "Match," as both the reason for our behavior and the desired goal of that behavior. Why am I staying up all night, endlessly tweaking my "About Me" section to make it the perfect blend of sexy and cute? Because I believe that effort will translate into more "Matches." Ironically, that effort - which essentially amounts to selling myself - is likely to be inauthentic, which may actually hurt my chances of having a meaningful, honest relationship in the future.

Worse yet, many people have become fully consumed by the concrete metrics and rewards of digital social mediation. While there may be no "Bobs" with respect to diets, we all know a few "Jennas" who prioritize social media activity over real life relationships. Jenna, who takes every opportunity to remind you of how many Twitter followers she has. You can never get a word in edgewise with her because she's always either prattling on about who said what on Facebook or demanding that you whip out your smartphone to "Like" the Instagram she just took of her latte because god dammit if Karen is going to get more "Hearts" than her today. Seriously, who else do you think is using Klout, the startup that ranks and rewards people for their online "influence" based on "Likes" and "Follows"?

But digital social mediation doesn't just degrade our evaluation of ourselves, replacing personal introspection with the remedial desire for self-validation. It also narrows the scope our evaluation of others to discrete attributes: match scores, attractiveness ratings, and resume-like self-summaries. Put my profile next to that of my EDM-spinning, triathlon-training, Google-millionaire neighbor, and I'll lose every time - I just don't have the metrics to compete.

As Jenna will tell you, finding a potential partner on a dating website is akin to interviewing for a job. With so many "applicants" to consider, the person evaluating you is going to spend about five seconds looking at your profile. Attractive photo? Check. Interesting and witty personal description? Check. Some indication of being financially secure and not on the crazy train? Check. The back-and-forth messaging then takes the form of a first-round interview, and, if you're lucky, you'll make it to the final round in person. If you have just the right personality and flair, congratulations: I'll sleep with you.

Online dating necessarily limits one's evaluation of others to criteria "on paper." Attributes that are hard to communicate in words and photos - being caring, or responsible, or honest - are inevitably given lower priority. This is not a new phenomenon; physical appearance is inevitably the first attribute one evaluates when meeting someone new, and judgmental conversations about how Maria is too good for Lenny and should find herself a nice investment banker with a BMW and a country club membership have long been the norm. But Maria might still settle for Lenny after their charmingly romantic blind date because she had the opportunity to see past those resume-like attributes, while an online dating aficionado will have a similar chance only after the large, competitive pool of potential applicants has been thoroughly pruned. This obviously makes life worse for the "Lennys" of the world who don't check all of the right boxes to qualify for a mate. But it also makes "top-tier" candidates worse off by segregating them from people who are not a "good fit" for their immediate needs and desires.

It may seem as though technology is to blame for the cultivation of these remedial, quantifiable desires: the desire to fulfill discrete diet and exercise requirements, the desire for tangible evidence of self-validation, and the desire for a mate that fits precise criteria. Bob, after all, relies on his plethora of mobile apps (and, increasingly, wearable devices) to enable his "quantified self." Jenna's obnoxious over-sharing and excessive pursuit of digital validation necessarily take place in a social media environment. Without modern technologies like high-speed wireless networks, low-cost computing infrastructure, and advanced web-based software, our quantification-obsessed would not have the tools necessary to feed their ever-increasing appetite for data.

But, as I've already mentioned, the pursuit of quantifiable reasons and scientific justifications comes from a long-standing intellectual tradition. The characterization of man as a rational being dates back to the time of Plato. The prioritization of empirical, scientific methods dates back to the Enlightenment. And the understanding of man as a "rational actor" that behaves in accordance with Rational Choice Theory has its basis in the utilitarianism and early classical economics of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and, more recently, Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.

The more recent aspects of this third intellectual trend - the rational actor bias of neoclassical economics - is perhaps the most prevalent driving force behind the pursuit of quantifiable reasons for action. After all, it is Rational Choice Theory that suggests that rational behavior consists purely of quantifying and "weighing" alternatives and pursuing the option that most efficiently maximizes utility, a quantifiable metric intended to represent the fulfillment of one's desires.3 The theory essentially suggests that a mathematical model could be used to predict (or determine) perfectly rational behavior.

While OKCupid is certainly responsible for creating an environment where meaningful relationships can be supplanted by the narcissistic pursuit of self-validation and "matches" that fulfill our fleeting desires, it was Gary Becker, in the early 1970s, who originally framed romantic relationships in a market context where each rational actor's goal is to maximize utility in the form "household-produced commodities" like love and well-cooked meals.

In his "Theory of Marriage" articles, Becker lays out what he intends to be a descriptive analysis of marriage through an economic lens. Conceptually, such an analysis should merely offer an alternative mode of understanding relationships. But implicit in his analysis are two fatal assumptions that inevitably debase meaningful relationships and fuel the drive for quantification: first, that economics can meaningfully improve our understanding of highly emotional values like love and caring, and second, that relationships have an explicit, quantifiable goal.

In applying Rational Choice Theory to marriage, Becker ignores the fact that marriage (and love) may not be conducive to such an analysis, and that other modes of inquiry (e.g., art, poetry, psychology, sociology, philosophy, or other humanistic disciplines) may offer a better avenue for understanding about such emotion-laden concepts. Becker acknowledges this issue - "most people no doubt find the concept of a market allocation of commodities to beloved mates strange and unrealistic"4 - but pushes onward without a second thought. In fact, he seems to suggest that our understanding of relationships has actually been inhibited by the lack of economic analysis:

"In recent years, economists have used economic theory more boldly to explain behavior outside the monetary market sector, and increasing numbers of noneconomists have been following their examples. As a result, racial discrimination, fertility, politics, crime, education, statistical decision making, adversary situations, labor-force participation, the uses of 'leisure' time, and other behavior are much better understood. Indeed, economic theory may well be on its way to providing a unified framework for all behavior involving scarce resources, nonmarket as well as market, nonmonetary as well as monetary, small group as well as competitive...

"In this essay, it is argued that marriage is no exception and can be successfully analyzed within the framework provided by modern economics. If correct, this is compelling additional evidence on the unifying power of economic analysis...

"I do not pretend to have developed the analysis sufficiently to explain all the similarities and differences in marital patterns across cultures or over time. But the 'economic' approach does quite well, certainly far better than any available alternative."5

In framing his analysis in this light, Becker suggests not only that our understanding of marriage is severely lacking without economic analysis, but even that economics provides special insight (presumably in the form of objectivity and quantification) into marriage that we cannot do without. Furthermore, he proposes that economics could provide a universal framework for all behavior - that we could (and should) understand all behavior in light of Rational Choice Theory.

As it is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive, Becker's analysis still falls squarely into the first half of the belief-desire equation; Becker means to better inform our beliefs about relationships without changing our desires. Unfortunately, just as mobile health apps and online dating services inadvertently redirect our desires toward quantifiable ends, so too does Becker's theory. By understanding relationships in economic terms we come to seek economic results from our relationships, which may ultimately make those relationships less worthwhile, fulfilling, and beautiful.

Furthermore, Becker's view of relationships explicitly stipulates a particular economic goal: utility maximization. Becker takes it as a fundamental assumption that "marriage occurs if, and only if, both [partners] are made better off - that is, increase their utility," and utility is taken to arise from "household-produced commodities" that include "the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status."6 By ascribing a goal to relationships, Becker essentially mandates what desires rational actors should have about relationships. Of course, any number of things could be added to his list of household-produced commodities; additional variables can always be incorporated into an economic model. But regardless of what we want to include in the utility function, it must be something that could be modeled (i.e., something discrete and quantifiable), and the requirement of maximization remains.

Granted, Becker is focused on marriage, which does involve important economic considerations. Love is not always the primary driver of marriage; in many cases, marriage may be pursued for financial, legal, and other reasons. That said, Becker's treatment of love also leaves much to be desired:

"[Previously], I ignored 'love,' that cause of marriage glorified in the American culture. At an abstract level, love and other emotional attachments, such as sexual activity or frequent close contact with a particular person, can be considered nonmarketable household commodities, and nothing much need be added to the analysis... That is, if an important set of commodities produced by households results from 'love,' the sorting of mates that maximizes total commodity output over marriages is partly determined by the sorting that maximizes the output of these commodities...

"Love and caring between two persons increase their chances of being married to each other in the optimal sorting."7

Love by any other name would fit as well in a utility model. It doesn't seem to matter what love is, what causes it, or why it is important, beyond the fact that it exists and, in theory, contributes to one's utility. Sure, this interpretation of love may better enable us to "optimally sort" potential partners, but that doesn't make it any less emotionally deficient. Keep in mind, this is not some two-bit economist teaching at a local community college and hoping to bolster his career by making waves with confrontational and bombastic analyses - Gary Becker is a well-renown Nobel laureate in economics.

So the spirit of quantification inherent in the latest dating trends has a sturdy intellectual foundation in modern economic theory. Technology is simply the enabler: it more efficiently facilitates the marriage, or love, market by scientifically matching good pairs and increasing competitive transparency to maximize, in Becker's words, "the average gain over all marriages."8 Technological advancements also strengthen Becker's theory by providing more data to feed into and validate his economic model. Technology merely serves as a catalyst for long-standing, if emotionally shortsighted, intellectual trends. It is economics, not technology, that has frozen our hearts and locked our minds into utility models.

What better a place to observe the dominance of quantification and the rational spirit of modern economics, though, than the financial services sector? Just think of your last excursion for beers and bullshit with your friend in finance, Vishnu. Meeting in a bar in the Lower East Side - because "fuck Brooklyn," in his ever adept parlance - he tells you of his tireless pursuit of perfectly rational behavior.

"Listen," he gasps after guzzling down a pint, "I have to deal with this irrational shit all the time. Occasionally, some new broker gives me a discount to 'build the relationship.' Bullshit!" he exclaims with a slam of the table. "Of course I'll buy at a discounted price, but it pisses me off! There's a right price, and he's losing money. Would I ever buy from him at a higher price just because I like him? No. That's irrational. It's just fucking stupid."

He pauses and, lowering his voice as if about to let you in on a hot tip, reveals his personal philosophy: every action you take should be to maximize your financial capital. "You see, there is always a right answer," he says, "With every choice, there's an option that will make you the most money. You have to make the right trade, sure. But you also have to work for the right firm. Choose the right college, and study the right subject. Wear the right clothes, and make the right friends. Anything less would be irrational."

It's not hard to see why this is a terrifying mode of thought. You saw it yourself, when you jokingly asked Vishnu whether your friendship was maximizing his financial opportunity. "Good question," he chuckled, but in the silence that followed you could see the gears churning behind the far-off look in his eyes. It wasn't long before he excused himself to "put out a fire at the office" - at 11pm on a Saturday, not an uncommon time to pop open Excel in a Wall Street cubicle - and you haven't seen him since. Guess you weren't so instrumental in advancing Vishnu's net worth.

We hate Vishnu. He's an asshole. He's the type of person who is obviously looking out for number one, who is only friendly if he thinks it will make him money. We also pity him, because he is incapable of having meaningful personal relationships. But mostly we just despise him.

But really, what is most worrisome is the absolute absurdity of Vishnu's intellectual position. For if your sole motivation and driving desire is money, then what is the point of money? Vishnu may go out for beers - or do lines in the back of a black car on the way to a strip club after leaving the office at 4am - but it will be net-negative on his bank account, and it won't be long before he realizes his inconsistency and irrationality. That time could be better spent making money in the office. (Or, you know, sleeping, to ensure the mental competence necessary to make money the next morning.)

Just as there are no real "Bobs," there are no real "Vishnus" that have completely forsaken social activities in favor of monetary gain. (You can take the banker out of the strip club, but you can't take the strip club out of the banker. Or is it that you can't take the banker out of the stripper?) But as a whole, the financial industry - and business in general - maintains financial maximization as its sole modus operandi. While individual analysts may occasionally take a break from the tireless pursuit of capital, businesses have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value, and bankers have to generate meaningful returns for their clients to say in business. Of course, there are exceptions: some investors prioritize ethically conscious businesses, allowing bankers and executives to occasionally forgo bottom-line considerations in favor of meaningful contributions to a community or an important philanthropic cause. But by and large, businesses today have one goal: make money.

The perversity of this goal is that it makes whatever the business actually does - be it sell consumer goods or health services or utilities - takes a back seat to the pursuit of financial gain. At an abstract level, this creates a curious circularity for investors: investing to only make money, and using money only to invest. Of course, this does not hold at an individual level - people invest to make money and use that money to make purchases - but at the organizational level it inhibits investment in things that may be valuable or worthwhile but do not generate large financial returns.

So on the business side, you have telecommunications companies - whose nominal purpose is to build networks -reducing capital investments in next-generation fiber infrastructure to grow cash flow and return money to investors. You have pharmaceutical companies - whose nominal purpose is develop medicine to improve health - focusing resources on litigating patent cases to maximize the value of aging innovations for investors. On the banking side, you have obvious and egregious ethical oversights (both those that are cruel, like coercing people who cannot afford a home into taking out a mortgage, and those that are actual felonies) driven by the demand for returns prioritized above all else.

By and large, businesses have always been in the business of generating cash for investors, as companies can provide a secure legal vehicle to raise capital and pool risk. But I would like to believe that investors, at one time, were as concerned with the project they were investing in as with the return they might receive. Investors in the Dutch East India Company may have valued the goods of a far off land as much as the wealth they might generate. Investors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have valued the vast improvements in transportation, or the incredible powers of electricity, as much as money they received in return.

But even if I must concede that investors have always sought nothing more than cold, quantifiable cash, companies have not always been to obligated to "maximize shareholder value" above all else, and executives have not always been compensated in options, pressuring them to run businesses quarter-to-quarter and manage stock prices to secure their paycheck. Those notions only came to prominence in the 1970s (and were quickly followed by exponential growth in CEO compensation).9

And what better a metric for the quantification-obsessed, money-hungry financier than a stock ticker - a real-time representation of the "value" of a company, as responsive to the actual performance of the business as the perceptions, biases, and whims of the market. With such a reductive view of business and investing, we can suddenly talk about the value of a newspaper, a utility, and a weapons manufacturer all in the same breath. Furthermore, we can "definitively" say which would be the "right" business to invest in, without regard for any of the societal, environmental, or ethical considerations involved owning such a business. Vishnu certainly doesn't care - he'll invest in whichever provides the highest return while cackling about those moronic hippies who undervalue weapons manufacturers.

The ascent of money is the prototypical example of an instrumental good supplanting an intrinsic one. In theory, money is only valuable in so far as it can be used for something; people don't want money, they want the things they can buy with money. But in practice, money comes to be the end-all, be-all desire, in part because it provides such a simple, quantifiable way of calculating value. Any belief that involves value can, in a rational way, be tested by whether if produces financial returns. Money can be used to evaluate whether I have taken the right career path, whether I made the right decision to study philosophy in college, whether I am "successful," and whether what I do on a day-to-day basis is good. Though money is perhaps not the best metric for evaluating these beliefs, it is simple, straightforward, and difficult to argue with, which makes it very easy for money to shift to the desire end of the belief-desire equation.

Though finance is perhaps the most explicit example, the growing desire for quantified results has had a degrading impact far beyond the realm of money. Just as Gary Becker predicted, economic models - built on the basis of quantifiable commodities - have become prominent across many areas of life. And while the caricatures of Bob, Jenna, and Vishnu may be occasionally infuriating, there's more at stake here than petty annoyances.

The quantification of food, friends, and finance inevitably debases our more fundamental, intrinsic desires. In many cases, this makes us worse off; instead of seeking things that truly improve our lives and the lives of those around us, we limit ourselves to those things that can be easily understood through the lens of a rational economic model. Our drive to justify actions in objective terms inevitably distracts us from, say, the gustatory pleasure of eating delicious foods. It makes us less aware of the guttural sensation of infatuation and more focused on discrete criteria a potential mate must possess to justify our love. And it dissuades us from considering our passion for the products of a company and the impact they have on society when considering an investment.

This relentless pursuit of objectivity, this cult of rationality, is not limited to the examples above. There is also an increasing drive for education to produce high test scores, rather than a well-educated citizenry. Politicians increasingly govern to polling metrics rather than relying on their values and policy expertise to guide their decisions. And environmental conservation has increasingly been reduced to the management of discrete carbon emissions rather than the maintenance of the beauty, splendor, and life of our planet. The pursuit of objective evidence of success has inadvertently made these endeavors less successful, as it is often vague, subjective, and difficult to quantify qualities that truly have intrinsic value.

Placing the utmost importance on objective rationality also reduces the responsibility we take for our own lives and how we relate to one another. Quantified results absolve us of responsibility for the less-tangible effects of our actions: we may be less compassionate, or less altruistic, or even less self-respecting, as long as it optimizes a tangible return. Additionally, there will always be differences of opinion, and the belief that there is one true "right answer," a rationally correct course of action, allows us to, first, assume we have the right answer, and second, write off everyone else as being simply irrational, inevitably inhibiting our ability to have constructive debates that critically examine our values.

A number of factors motivate this drive to quantify, rationalize, and ensure objectivity, in spite of the degrading effect it has on our desires, our wellbeing, and our sense of responsibility and duty. One is the substantial intellectual tradition supporting rationality and empirical science, intended to combat the terrific threat of mysticism and dogmatism. Another factor is the underlying "lottery mentality" of quantification: the belief that numbers will somehow reveal a shortcut to getting healthy, finding a mate, or getting rich.

But more fundamentally, the drive for objectivity and the ambivalence about its impact on our desires is founded on the intuition that we need to justify our desires in the same way we justify our beliefs; just as beliefs can be more or less valid, so too can desires be more or less correct. Essentially, this is the intuition that certain things are objectively valuable. If so, then the quantification of our desires is not at all a bad thing, as it should allow us to better test the validity of those desires, just as we test the validity of our beliefs through empirical science.

Even if this is the case - even if there are "correct" desires and things that are objectively valuable - it would be hard to argue that the oversimplification inherent in the quantified desires of the present day accurately capture what is truly valuable. (Furthermore, it's difficult to see why, of all people, economists and computer scientists would somehow have special insight into what is truly valuable.)

But the idea that there are objective values worries me. If what is right and what is good could be objectively determined, wouldn't the world be better run by a machine - a perfectly rational model - than by ourselves, as imperfect and biased as we are? Why bother with the petty value of free will when we can avoid all of the discomfort of decision-making and outsource our day-to-day lives to algorithms? Rationality may be what distinguishes man from animal, but it is emotion that distinguishes man from machine.

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. "373. 'Science' as a prejudice." The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974. 334-336. Print.
  2. This concept is based on the work of Donald Davidson. I do not mean this to be a definitive account of rational action, but rather an instructive way of thinking about the matter at hand.
  3. This understanding of Rational Choice Theory is based on the work of John Broome, specifically his books "Weighing Goods," "Weighing Lives," and "Ethics out of Economics." Note that this representation of rational behavior holds aside whether or not the fulfillment of one's desires would be good for a person.
  4. Becker, Gary. "A Theory of Marriage: Part II." The Journal of Political Economy 82.2 (1974): S14. Print.
  5. Becker, Gary. "A Theory of Marriage: Part I." The Journal of Political Economy 81.4 (1973): 813-815. Print.
  6. Ibid. 5,815-816.
  7. Ibid. 4, S12, S15.
  8. Ibid. 5, 825.
  9. Denning, Steve. "The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value." Forbes 28 Nov. 2011. Web.