Revealed Preferences

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I have always enjoyed thought experiments and other mind games that breakthrough habits of thinking or offer unusual insights. It is just plain fun to play with ideas, to arrange them like legos or blocks you can topple.

People often lose this sense of fun because they are obsessed with whether an idea is right or wrong, moral or immoral, acceptable or laughable. These are considerations when you present ideas publicly, but there is real value in allowing ideas to flow in the privacy of your own mind even, if you have doubts about their validity.

Consider a mind game that became a favorite of mine for a while. In his book “The Religion of Nature Delineated,” the English philosopher William Wollaston (1659–1724) wrote, “I lay down this as a fundamental maxim, That whoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare, that they are so, or not so; as plainly as he could by words, and with more reality.” He argued that actions have “significancy,” by which he meant that the actions themselves could be true or false. For example, theft is a denial of the truth about who owns the item stolen. Conversely, returning property to someone who has lost it is an acknowledgment of the truth of ownership.

In short, Wollaston argues that actions make truth claims and can even “imply propositions.” For the latter, he uses the example of one group of soldiers who fire upon another; the act of shooting, he claims, is a statement that “the other group is the enemy.” He then argues that moral evil is the denial of truth through your acts, and

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