I was reading a postgraduate dissertation on decision theory today (a field where I’m very far from expert) and it suddenly occurred to me that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic has exactly the structure of a Newcomb problem.
Consider: in the classic Newcomb problem a being, which always guesses right, offers you a choice involving either taking a box (A) containing $1,000,000 or nothing OR taking that box plus another one (B) which certainly contains $1000. The being guesses what you will do and, if you are disposed to take both boxes (A+B) always puts nothing in A, but if you are disposed to leave B alone and just open A, puts the million dollars in A. But by the time you make the choice, the money is there or it is not.
One apparently compelling argument says you should open both boxes (since A+B > A), another persuasive argument says that you want to be in a state of the world such that the being has put the million in box A. A sign that you are in that state of the world is that you are disposed to open just the one box, so this is what you should in fact do. You thereby maximize the expected payoff. Now place yourself in the position of Max Weber’s Calvinist. An omniscient being (God) has already placed you among the elect or has consigned you to damnation, and there is nothing you can do about that. But you believe that there is a correlation between living a hard-working and thrifty life and being among the elect, notwithstanding that the decision is already made. Though partying and having a good time is fun, certainly more fun than living a life of hard work and self-denial, doing so would be evidence that you are in a state of the world such that you are damned. So you work hard and save.
To review: you prefer being saved to being damned. This decision has already been take and you don’t know what it is. You prefer partying to hard work. Given that partying is better, whatever state of the world you are in, there appears to be a compelling argument for partying. (After all partying+heaven is better than working+heaven and partying+hell is sure better than working+hell.) But you work hard and reinvest, despite the dominance of partying, because you really really want to be in that state of the world such that you get to heaven.
I’d love to claim originality for noticing this parallel, but it seems that a Lithuanian scholar, Zenonas Norkas, got there already, and has published it in Max Weber Studies.