One of my favorite writers was John D. MacDonald, who wrote a series of novels in the 1960s whose chief protagonist was Travis McGee, a six-foot-four blue-eyed beach bum who lived on a boat called The Busted Flush anchored in Fort Lauderdale. McGee was a latter-day Robin Hood, a combination detective and soldier-of-fortune who would support himself by taking cases often involving the recovery of stolen property. Unlike many such novels, there wasn’t a large cast of supporting characters. The only one that I remember was Meyer, a retired economist also living on a boat anchored in Fort Lauderdale, but his was called the John Maynard Keynes.
Meyer – the reader is never sure whether this is his first or last name – was the author of one of the most profound decision principles I have ever encountered. This principle was enunciated in what McGee referred to as Meyer’s Law – whenever you are confronted with an emotionally difficult decision, the alternative that is the most difficult to do is the alternative that is the right thing to do.
I recently encountered a classic application of Meyer’s Law. A friend’s mother was dying, probably with only a week or so to live. The relation between the mother and the son was not great, and so the son asked me whether I felt he should visit her before she died. You may think this is an absolute slam-dunk, but many people will find reasons not to make the effort until death makes the decision for them. At any rate, it is a slam-dunk from the standpoint of Meyer’s Law – the most difficult thing to do is for my friend to go visit his dying mother, and so it is the right thing to do.
Fortunately for the human race, there are very few out-and-out sociopaths; most people have at least a rudimentary sense of right and wrong. Meyer’s Law is an application of a principle from decision theory known as Bayes’ Criterion, which governs recurring decisions: make the decision which gives you the greatest average payoff. What my friend didn’t realize, but what Meyer’s Law does, is that he is not simply confronting the decision whether to visit his dying mother in the week or so before his death: if he fails to do this, and because he is not a sociopath, his conscience will bring this matter up in the future. To maximize the long-term payoffs, it’s better to bite the short-term bullet now.
Meyer’s Law is one of the most profound practical truths involving behavior I have ever encountered. It is the voice of the standards of a civilized society giving us guidelines that will not only make us happier (albeit in the long term) but our society better.