The Stone: Subjectivity and the Pitfalls of ‘Rational Choice Philosophy’

Ever since I picked up Alexander Schuessler’s A Logic of Expressive Choice, I have been a rabid opponent of rational choice theory in favor of this alternative method — which for one reason or another, has yet to seriously pick up steam but has about a half dozen fascinating applications — most notable of which was the Obama ’08 campaign.

So to read this regarding the Hegelian view of rational choice, I could not help but be  just a tiny bit pleased:

Rational choice theory came under fire after the economic crisis of 2008, but remains central to economic analysis. Rational choice philosophy, by contrast, was always implausible. Hegel, for one, had denied all three of its central claims in his “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences” over a century before. In that work, as elsewhere in his writings, nature is not neatly causal, but shot through with randomness. Because of this chaos, we cannot know the significance of what we have done until our community tells us; and ethical life correspondingly consists, not in pursuing wealth and power, but in integrating ourselves into the right kinds of community.

Critical views soon arrived in postwar America as well. By 1953, W. V. O. Quine was exposing the flaws in rational choice epistemology. John Rawls, somewhat later, took on its sham ethical neutrality, arguing that rationality in choice includes moral constraints. The neat causality of rational choice ontology, always at odds with quantum physics, was further jumbled by the environmental crisis, exposed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “The Silent Spring,” which revealed that the causal effects of human actions were much more complex, and so less predicable, than previously thought.

These efforts, however, have not so far confronted rational choice individualism as Hegel did: on its home ground, in philosophy itself. Quine’s “ontological relativity” means that at a sufficient level of generality, more than one theory fits the facts; we choose among the alternatives. Rawls’ social philosophy relies on a free choice among possible social structures. Even Richard Rorty, the most iconoclastic of recent American philosophers, phrased his proposals, as Robert Scharff has written, in the “self-confident, post-traditional language of choice.”

The inherent flaw — I believe — in rational choice theory isn’t in its attempt to rationalize decision making based on formula.  One’s decision to eat either an apple or an orange — or to steal or not steal — is not a fascinating concept.  What is fascinating is the human reaction to such a question.  “Why only an apple or an orange?” we ask, and in doing so, we begin to look for other answers to the choice presented… a lot of other answers.

Consider the all encompassing question “How should one live?” — a question that has puzzled mankind for thousands of years.  Austerely or luxuriously?  What is austere?  What is luxury?  Drive by a million homes, apartments, mansions, townhomes, and so forth and you’ll see that there is no clear answer to this question, though social planners and government bureaucrats would love to impose such definitions based on their particular, subjective ideal.  Once the question is raised, Pandora’s Box is open, and every possibility comes rushing forth.

Thus the problem with rational choice theory.  Given an infinite set (or a perceived infinite set) the human mind not only puts all sorts of hybrids and alternatives together, but the idea of rationality goes out the window.  Subjectivity in deciding the choice leads to subjectivity in what is considered “rational” by the actor — whether the decision is between an apple or an orange, or it is a variation of lifeboat ethics.

For philosophers, ethicists, policy makers, and others engaged in the public square, this is not an easy question to answer.  The best answers have simply released themselves of the responsibility of answering them — the free market, Burkean and Kirkean conservatism, and classical liberalism — while arranging the gullies and conduits in a general sense.

Still, these do not entirely satisfy… mankind constantly strives to make sense of his world.  We garden, build, plant, study, write, and organize to create that semblance of order.  Rational choice fails in the sense that it tries to rationalize all choice.  One cannot do this.  In the end, one finds themselves in a rearguard action, not explaining the rational but restricting choice — which finds instant rebellion in the hearts of many free will actors.

What we can do, however, is rationalize the ends and define the movement towards this end.  It is why political religions (i.e. ideologies) have sprung up and dominated the post-1789 landscape in the West.  This is not a rational decision by those actors participating in these movements, but one based in identity and emotion.

The trick is embracing the idea that one cannot know the outcome while directing events towards an end.

Allowing free actors to get there — or have a new leader establish a new end — is ultimately a function of the marketplace of ideas and the public square.  Rational choice theory simply does not suffice as either rational or a choice, but rather must be about limiting choices to fit into a subjective rationality not necessarily one’s own — and is therefore utterly insufficient.

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