Who Was Wise? Decision
Theory in “Lady with a Fan”
STEPHEN G. DILLINGHAM
In the Grateful Dead’s “Lady with a Fan,” a storyteller tells of a beautiful woman who throws her fan into a lion’s den. She asks a sailor and a soldier, “Which of you to gain me, tell, will risk uncertain pains of hell? I will not forgive you if you will not take the chance.” The soldier, being “much too wise,” declines the challenge, but the sailor is willing to try. He retrieves the fan from the lion’s den and wins the affections of the lady. Given the outcome, the storyteller says, “You decide if he [the sailor] was wise.”
A casual listener might be tempted to interpret this question as being merely rhetorical—of course the sailor was wise because he won the lady’s affections. We hear this “all’s well that ends well” type of reasoning every day from politicians, the news media, and others. But do we really expect it to be the allegorical point in a song by the Grateful Dead? This essay will take the storyteller’s admonition to us at face value—we will investigate whether the sailor was indeed wise, and whether the soldier was wise to refuse the lady’s challenge. We will use a philosophical approach called decision theory as our framework, and we will see that the answer may not be so simple.
Decision theory is based upon probability, a field pioneered by Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat in the mid-seventeenth century when they took an interest in trying to predict the outcomes of gambling games. The axioms and theorems of probability—