Dueling: Deadly, Perhaps, But Hardly Irrational

April 9, 2010

Dueling may seem to be the ultimate irrational act, whether pistols at 20 paces or a swashbuckling sword fight at much closer quarters. But an AmherstCollege professor believes that duels were dangerous games that participants played for very rational reasons having to do with creditworthiness, honor and maintaining one’s social standing.

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In the paper “The Deadliest of Games: The Institution of Dueling” (Southern Economic Journal, forthcoming), Amherst economics professor Christopher Kingston and financial historian Robert E. Wright of Augustana College in South Dakota maintain that “dueling thrived when and where credit markets were opaque and highly personal in nature, as in early modern Europe, colonial America, the antebellum South, late 19th century Mexico, and rural Paraguay today.”

“Where credit markets are more impersonal and formal,” they continue, “like the antebellum North, Nazi Germany, and much of the globe today, ‘honor’ loses its strength as a credit signal and dueling fades.”

Kingston, whose expertise is in game theory, believes that for dueling to work as a way of enforcing honorable behavior, two preconditions need to exist: a duel has to be costly enough that people will act honestly to try to avoid having to duel, but not so costly that dueling to retain or recover one’s honor is not a viable course of action.

The paper has been attracting attention, and was covered by the New York Times Freakonomics blog. Kingston recently discussed the rationality of dueling with Peter Rooney, the director of Public Affairs at Amherst.

What is it about dueling that interests an economist?

One thing that interests economists is trying to understand the hidden rationale behind things that don’t have an immediate explanation.

If you think about why people would engage in this extremely dangerous and apparently unproductive practice, it seems like something simply irrational. But if the institution survived for centuries in so many different parts of the world, there needs to be some sort of explanation for that. So we wanted to explore how it might make sense for people caught up in this institution to put their lives on the line in defense of their honor. Since people did it repeatedly and consistently, it seemed that there had to be a rational explanation for that.

Are you maintaining in this paper that dueling is a purely rational exercise?

It’s rational from the point of view of the individual who lives in a world that values honor. Engaging in a duel might have been the rational thing to do, given the extreme costs of not dueling. From the point of view of the society overall, you can argue that dueling might have been irrational, where everybody is caught up in a bad equilibrium where you are expected to duel, so you have to duel. But that does not mean that dueling is irrational for the individual. On the other hand, even from society’s point of view, the alternative mechanisms of enforcing credit contract are also costly. You have to pay a judiciary, police, investigators and lawyers to have a system of bankruptcy law, for example. In some settings this might be prohibitively costly, and thus dueling is better than nothing as a way of enforcing contracts.

You write in the paper that most duels were fought to maintain one’s honor. Why was maintaining one’s honor a cause worth fighting for, from an economic perspective?

We focus, in the paper, on examples of credit transactions. So in a world where people don’t really care about honor or think about honor, honor is relatively valueless and you wouldn’t bother to defend it at the cost of your life. But in a world where honor is regarded as paramount in maintaining access to credit markets or to various other kinds of socioeconomic interactions, it was really worth defending, even if there was a chance that by defending your honor you would lose your life. Sometimes taking that chance was worth it. So, in the example of a credit transaction, if you were accused of being untrustworthy or not creditworthy, that could be disastrous.

You devote quite a lot of space in your paper to modeling borrowing and lending and then connecting it to dueling, using some fairly sophisticated mathematics. What’s the upshot of this effort?

A model is always a simplification – an abstraction away from reality in order to get at the core essence of what is going on. In this case, we wanted to focus on how dueling might function in a particular type of transaction, namely a credit transaction, where only the people involved can really tell what is happening. Dueling can function as a credible way, for somebody who has their honor called into question, to recover their honor. So, in the model, an individual might take a loan and they may not be able to repay it. There are two possible reasons: one possibility is that they deliberately choose not to repay, and the other is that, for example, their venture fails, so they are unlucky and are not able to repay. Nobody else but that person can tell. Dueling gives that unlucky person a credible way to demonstrate their good faith, by fighting a duel they can show that they had meant to repay the loan and retain access to future credit. But at the same time, the prospect of having to fight a duel also gives people an incentive to try to repay their loans if they can.

Are you claiming that people engage in this detailed analysis when they choose to engage in a duel?

In economic models, we generally assume people are acting completely rationally. But of course we know this is not true. What they typically do is follow rules of thumb, or copy the behavior of other people who are successful. But people do occasionally try something different; they experiment. Over time, if something is irrational – if there is a better alternative – you expect that people will find it. In a dueling world, if one person decided not to duel, then other people would observe how that individual did. Because dueling persisted over a long period of time, on the whole those individuals must not have been very successful. That would indicate that it was more rational to duel.  

Would you consider the findings of your paper to be counterintuitive or surprising?

I think that it’s not immediately obvious how this institution of dueling could have been an equilibrium that everybody involved in it would have gone along with. There have been plenty of people who have simply looked at dueling and said that it was irrational, just driven by passions, even though duels were usually fought in the cold light of day, at dawn. There was a period of time when the duel had to be arranged. And also the rationality of the whole institution itself is a costly yet effective way to constrain behavior.  All institutions — including judicial systems, communities, families, firms — are all trying to constrain and direct people’s behavior in various ways. The institution of dueling is no different in that respect.