The most thought-provoking scene in John Boorman’s 1981 lavish epic fantasy film, Excalibur, is one of its most understated. It’s a conversation about love. King Arthur stares enchanted by the Lady Guinevere as she dances across the great hall. After confessing his love for her, he asks the wizard Merlin if he can make her love him. Merlin dismisses the request but offers a cryptic prophecy of love and betrayal that the King is unwilling or unable to hear as he continues to stare as if in a trance at Guinevere. The Lady approaches from across the room and offers the King cakes made especially for him. As Arthur holds a cake before his mouth, Merlin playfully remarks, “Looking at the cake is like looking at the future, until you’ve tasted it, what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late.” The King takes a bite, and an exasperated Merlin declares, “Too late.”
King Arthur’s deliberations over love and marriage are what the economist Russ Roberts, president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and host of the brilliant podcast EconTalk: Conversations for the Curious, would call a wild problem. Such problems are the subject of his latest book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us. Problems of love, marriage, career, and whether to have a child are examples of wild problems that present “a fork in the road of life where knowing which path is the right one isn’t obvious, where the pleasure and pain from choosing one path over another are ultimately hidden from us, where the path we choose defines who we are and who we might become.”
These problems Roberts contrasts with tame problems, for which “the relentless application of science, engineering, and rational thought leads to steady progress.” A tame problem is working out a recipe for a cake; a wild problem is what to do when an enchanting lady offers you one.
That we all face problems of varying levels of importance and complexity is a reality readers will be familiar with. That different sorts of problems may require different methods to arrive at satisfactory solutions may seem obvious. And yet, Roberts’ training as an economist at the University of Chicago led him to conceive of problems in a rigorous and single-minded manner:
We were taught the importance of trade-offs and what is called opportunity cost—what we give up when we choose one thing over another. We were taught that everything has a price—everything involves giving up something to have something else. Nothing is of infinite value. I have come to believe that when it comes to the big decisions of life, those principles can lead us astray.
Wild problems stubbornly resist measurement, seated in subjecting and shifting preferences, “untamed, undomesticated, spontaneous, organic, and complex.” Roberts brilliantly illustrates this problem by examining a list the eminent biologist Charles Darwin made to decide whether to marry. The tidy list of pros and cons is reproduced including, on the pro side, “Children–(if it Please God),” and on the con side, “Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.” But how exactly does one compare the prospect of children with the potential to turn into a country bumpkin?
Roberts reminds us that Ben Franklin suggested assigning “weights” to such items in an attempt at “Moral or Prudential Algebra” and points to recent work by Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who Roberts notes employed such scalers to problems, adding, “A matrix is messy. Its lessons are opaque. A scalar is clean and precise. … Formulas are simple. That’s a feature, but also a bug. Life is complicated.”
The single greatest way that life is complicated, which Roberts returns to again and again in the book, is the transformative nature of the many potential solutions to wild problems. Roberts refers to this as the “vampire problem,” employing the metaphor of philosopher L.A. Paul from her book Transformative Experience. Roberts explains: “Before you become a vampire, you can’t really imagine what it will be like … once you become a vampire, what you like and what you dislike change.” This is analogous to wild problems like marriage, children, and conversion to a new religious faith. “Many decisions involve burning bridges, crossing into a new experience that will change you in ways you can’t imagine, including what you care about and what brings you joy and sorrow.”
Given the inherent problems of measurement and the transformative nature of human experience, what kind of decision framework does Roberts suggest to guide people through wild problems? Early in the book, Roberts explains that through most of human history, authority, tradition, and religion provided guideposts for approaching wild problems, but that because of the developments of modernity, “What was once destiny is now a decision. That’s glorious, but it’s also challenging and often disquieting.”
The first step for Roberts is to reframe the discussion of wild problems away from our discrete experience of pleasure and pain and toward “flourishing,” which “is something organic and alive. Something flourishes by becoming something beautiful and worthy of admiration. We human beings flourish by taking our circumstances and making the most of them in fulfilling our human potential.” Flourishing demands integrity, virtue, purpose, and meaning—that which is not a fleeting outward thing or an inward sensation but an enduring aspect of one’s self.
At this point, one might anticipate a return to nature and natural law accounts of the human good and institutions, but no such program is offered. Roberts’ conception of flourishing is highly pluralistic, if not individualistic, as people who prioritize flourishing are described as “focus[ing] on how they see themselves, what they consider purposive or meaningful in their lives, what they think of as right or virtuous.” Those who seek a return to premodern understandings of the self or a robust philosophical or religious conception may be frustrated by this account of human flourishing, but such frustrations are unwarranted if we keep the purpose and nature of the book in mind.
Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us is not a textbook on decision theory, although the reader will learn much about it in this volume. It is also not a self-help book, a philosophical treatise, or a religious manual, but you will find food for thought along many of those lines. Roberts says he wants to “give you advice on how to travel through life,” and the form in which that advice is delivered in this book is conversational in the best sense. As a master of conversation, Roberts advises us: “Don’t go into the conversation with an itinerary. It’s better to discover what you want to say through the process of conversation and not a planned script.”
What Roberts offers readers of Wild Problems is not a new grand theory or a series of concrete recommendations to make better decisions, but instead an invitation to enter into a conversation about life’s most momentous turns in terms of opportunities for growth and transformation. Channeling Frank Herbert, Roberts reminds us that “these questions don’t have answers. They’re not problems to be solved but mysteries to be experienced, tasted, and savored.”