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Considering "The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy" (The New York Times' The Stone)

Mark D. White

In today's installment of The Stone in The New York Times, UCLA's John McCumber presents a very critical view of "rational choice philosophy," by which he seems to mean the narrow version promulgated by most mainstream economists. In discussing the ethical problem with rational choice theory, he writes:

Rational choice theory, being a branch of economics, does not question people’s preferences; it simply studies how they seek to maximize them. Rational choice philosophy seems to maintain this ethical neutrality (see Hans Reichenbach’s 1951 “The Rise of Scientific Philosophy,” an unwitting masterpiece of the genre); but it does not. Whatever my preferences are, I have a better chance of realizing them if I possess wealth and power. Rational choice philosophy thus promulgates a clear and compelling moral imperative: increase your wealth and power!

Of course, in its simplest form, yes; but readers of this blog know that rational choice does not imply singleminded pursuit of one's own narrow self-interest. McCumber may be correct that more elaborate and ethically rich version of choice theory are presented and promoted too rarely, but I think he is too hasty in dismissing it altogether.

He also conflates rational choice with individualism, and concludes that we need an alternative to "rational choice individualism" that is "quite a bit like Hegel in its view that individual freedom is of value only when communally guided." But flipping from one extreme to the other is not necessary, especially when one begins with a straw man.

For instance, in chapter 3 of Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, I argue that the economic agent should be considered "individual in essence, social in orientation." Kantian autonomy implies that persons are independent and individual decision-makers, but Kantian ethics demands that those decisions be made in explicitly ethical ways, based on the recognition of the autonomy and dignity of other persons. Individuals' choices don't have to be "communally guided," as McCumber says in his conclusion, because real people already incorporate ethical factors into their decision-making, whether they do so in way that would be recognized as Kantian, virtue-oriented, or utilitarian--and they do so autonomously and independently. As I wrote,

the Kantian-economic approach maintains that agents are essentially individual, but at the same time they can be—and, ethically speaking, must be—social in orientation. I hope to have reassured those with concerns about sociality or community that individualism need not be threatening. In fact, if we treat persons as individuals imbued with autonomy and dignity, social harmony takes on much more meaning because it will be the result of free, individual choices, rather than coercively enforced order. (Kantian Ethics and Economics, p. 105).

Just because rational choice and individualism have not presented well doesn't mean they should be abandoned. We simply need a better understand of them (which is one of the things we try to do on this blog).


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