Rationaly Choice Thoery?-Reply

kevin quinn kquinn at falcon.bgsu.edu
Wed Apr 5 10:29:31 MDT 1995


Thanks for your response, Justin. I seem to have misplaced it, so I can't
include it. This is also in response to your response to Fellini on this
issue.

I do take this self-constitution issue seriously. While it's true that
the average person-on-the-street doesn't know the axioms of rational
choice theory, nevertheless his or her self-understanding has been
significantly influenced by the the notion, promoted by political economy
and utiitarianism, that we needn't *reason* about ends and that
rationality involves nothing more than choosing the most efficient means
to ends themselves in no need of justification apart from the fact they
are his or her ends. Think for instance of how foreign the notion of
politics as an arena for deliberation about the common good is to people
today, how easily people can *justify* their voting one way or another
unabashedly as voting their self-interest. (People choose this
interpretation even in rare cases--such as the 60's civil rights
legislation and environmental legislation--where it is not a good
interpretation of what they are doing). This pluralistic view of politics
has certainly been reinforced by rational choice theory.

Second, I think RCT has helped establish and extend the sway of an
unthinking subjectivism about values, again, even when our behavior is in
conflict with this doctrine. The "default" is to ask for no further
justification for "this is good" than "I like this, this comports with
my preferences." (Incidentally, since Russell came up in another context,
one of the most eloquent attacks on subjectivism, Wayne Booth's *MOdern
Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent*, singles out Russell as the most
eloquent proponent of subjectivism and lets him have it. I agree with
Justin, though, that Russell is a wonderfully lucid writer.)

Third and last, I think RCT is partly responsible for the widespread
tendency to believe that choice in our practical lives is a matter of
quantitative calculation, a denial of genuine qualitative conflicts
between our goals, a zeal for commensurating the incommensurable.

In all of these ways, RCT ends up describing a practical reason it has in
part helped to create, and promotes a self-understanding which distorts
what we actually do in our practical lives.

I completely agree with Justin that an explanation that runs in terms of
"interests" is very different from a rational choice explanation. This is a
direction that Sen has taken in economics, and has the potential for
shaking things up.

Finally, I'm not as sanguine as Justin is about game theory. He says game
theory offers a lever for critiquing RCT, but game theory shares with RCT
the methodological individualism that Fellini rightly singles out as at
the heart of the mischief done by RCT. (I will look for the Pathologies
book you recommend, though, Justin) It seems to me that the research
program in GT recently is completely wrong-headed inasmuch as it is
trying to derive cooperative behavior from competitive behavior--this
really would be the long-sought-after "philosopher's stone" for the
methodological individualists, but I don't think it has been done, nor do
I see the point in doing it--it seems to me to epitomise a degenerate
research program in the Lakatosian sense.


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