Monday, March 29, 2010

Locke's Wager

In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Book II, Chapter XXI, Section 72), Locke gives a variation of Pascal's Wager in arguing that morality is in our self-interest (emphasis added):

But whatever false notions, or shameful neglect of what is in their power, may put men out of their way to happiness, and distract them, as we see, into so different courses of life, this yet is certain, that morality, established upon its true foundations, cannot but determine the choice in any one that will but consider: and he that will not be so far a rational creature as to reflect seriously upon infinite happiness and misery, must needs condemn himself as not making that use of his understanding he should. The rewards and punishments of another life, which the Almighty has established, as the enforcements of his law, are of weight enough to determine the choice, against whatever pleasure or pain this life can show, when the eternal state is considered but in its bare possibility, which nobody can make any doubt of. He that will allow exquisite and endless happiness to be but the possible consequence of a good life here, and the contrary state the possible reward of a bad one, must own himself to judge very much amiss if he does not conclude,- That a virtuous life, with the certain expectation of everlasting bliss, which may come, is to be preferred to a vicious one, with the fear of that dreadful state of misery, which it is very possible may overtake the guilty; or, at best, the terrible uncertain hope of annihilation. This is evidently so, though the virtuous life here had nothing but pain, and the vicious continual pleasure: which yet is, for the most part, quite otherwise, and wicked men have not much the odds to brag of, even in their present possession; nay, all things rightly considered, have, I think, even the worse part here. But when infinite happiness is put into one scale, against infinite misery in the other; if the worst that comes to the pious man, if he mistakes, be the best that the wicked can attain to, if he be in the right, who can without madness run the venture? Who in his wits would choose to come within a possibility of infinite misery; which if he miss, there is yet nothing to be got by that hazard? Whereas, on the other side, the sober man ventures nothing against infinite happiness to be got, if his expectation comes not to pass. If the good man be in the right, he is eternally happy; if he mistakes, he's not miserable, he feels nothing. On the other side, if the wicked man be in the right, he is not happy; if he mistakes, he is infinitely miserable. Must it not be a most manifest wrong judgment that does not presently see to which side, in this case, the preference is to be given?

Locke's version of the Wager is almost certainly derived from Pascal but not directly. One clue to its origin lies in the fact that it has a 'mutation'. Pascal's own argument does not address the question of infinite misery; contrary to common assumptions, Pascal's Wager does not add hell into the balance, but only loss and gain of heaven. Wagers that include hell derive not directly from Pascal but from Pascal's fellow Jansenists Arnauld and Nicole, in the Port-Royal Logic, which had been translated into English a few years before the first appearance of a Wager argument by Locke. The Port-Royal version appears in Part IV, Chapter xvi, which concerns the logic of decision-making (judgment about future events) and is thus filled to the brim with wager-reasoning:

It belongs to infinite things alone, as eternity and salvation, that they cannot be equalled by any temporal advantage ; and thus we ought never to place them in the balance with any of the things of the world. This is why the smallest degree of facility for the attainment of salvation is of higher value than all the blessings of the world put together ; and why the slightest peril of being lost is more serious than all temporal evils, considered simply as evils.

This is enough to lead all reasonable persons to come to this conclusion, with which we will finish this Logic : That the greatest of all follies is to employ our time and our life in anything else but that which will enable us to acquire one which will never end, since all the blessings and evils of this life are nothing in comparison with those of another; and since the danger of falling into these evils, as well as the difficulty of acquiring these blessings, is very great.

The Port-Royal Logic, despite showing the influence of Pascal, was published well before Pascal's Pensées; it was read earlier and more widely read, so most understandings of the Wager derive from it, rather than from Pascal himself.

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