What is the role of character in action?


I’ve been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor of the volume, and she did an excellent job in selecting topics and authors. She also wrote an introduction to the volume and introductions to all five parts of the collection. It would be possible to look at Fileva’s introductions collectively as a very short book on character by themselves.

So what is “character”? To start, it is a concept of the actor that draws our attention to enduring characteristics of moral and practical propensities, rather than focusing on the moment of choice and the criteria recommended by the ethicist on the basis of which to make choices. Second, it is an idea largely associated with the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle. The other large traditions in the history of ethics — utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, or consequentialist and deontological theories — have relatively little to say about character, focusing instead on action, rules, and moral reasoning. And third, it is distinguished from other moral ideas by its close affinity to psychology as well as philosophy. It has to do with the explanation of the behavior of ordinary people, not just philosophical ideas about how people ought to behave.

This is a fundamentally important question for anyone interested in formulating a theory of the actor. To hold that human beings sometimes have “character” is to say that they have enduring features of agency that sometimes drive their actions in ways that override the immediate calculation of costs and benefits, or the immediate satisfaction of preferences. For example, a person might have the virtues of honesty, courage, or fidelity — leading him or her to tell the truth, resist adversity, or keep commitments and promises, even when there is an advantage to be gained by doing the contrary. Or conceivably a person might have vices — dishonesty, cruelty, egotism — that lead him or her to act accordingly — sometimes against personal advantage.

Questions of Character is organized into five major sets of topics: ethical considerations, moral psychology, empirical psychology, social and historical considerations, and art and taste. Fileva has done an excellent job of soliciting provocative essays and situating them within a broader context. Part I includes innovative discussions of how the concept of character plays out in Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Part II considers different aspects of the problem of self-control and autonomy. Part III examines the experimental literature on behavior in challenging situations (for example, the Milgram experiment), and whether these results demonstrate that human actors are not guided by enduring virtues. Part IV examines the intersection between character and large social settings, including history, the market, and the justice system. And Part V considers the role of character in literature and the arts, including the interesting notion that characters in novels become emblems of the character traits they display.

The most fundamental question raised in this volume is this: what is the role of character in human action? How, if at all, do embodied traits, virtues and vices, or personal commitments influence the actions that we take in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances? And the most intriguing challenge raised here is one that casts doubt on the very notion of character: “there are no enduring behavioral dispositions inside a person that warrant the label ‘character’.” Instead, all action is opportunistic and in the moment. Action is “situational” (John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior; Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation). On this approach, what we call “character” and “virtue” is epiphenomenal; action is guided by factors more fundamental than these.

My own contribution focuses on the ways in which character may be shaped by historical circumstances. Fundamentally I argue that growing up during the Great Depression, the Jim Crow South, or the Chinese Revolution potentially cultivates fairly specific features of mentality in the people who had these formative experiences. The cohort itself has a common (though not universal) character that differs from that of people in other historical periods. As a consequence people in those cohorts commonly behave differently from people in other cohorts when confronted with roughly similar action situations. So character is both historically shaped and historically important. Much of my argument was worked out in a series of posts here in Understanding Society.

This project is successful in its own terms; the contributors have created a body of very interesting discussion and commentary on an important element of human conduct. The volume is distinctly different from other collections in moral psychology or the field of morality and action. But the project is successful in another way as well. Fileva and her colleagues succeeded in drawing together a novel intellectual configuration of scholars from numerous disciplines to engage in a genuinely trans-disciplinary research collaboration. Through several academic conferences (one of which I participated in), through excellent curatorial and editorial work by Fileva herself, and through the openness of all the collaborators to listen with understanding to the perspectives of researchers in other disciplines, the project succeeded in demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in shedding light on an important topic. I believe we understand better the intriguing complexities of actors and action as a result of the work presented in Questions of Character.

(Here is a series of posts on the topic of character; link.)

Coleman on the classification of social action

Early in his theoretical treatise of rational-choice sociology Foundations of Social Theory, James Coleman introduces a diagram of different kinds of social action (34). This diagram is valuable because it provides a finely granulated classification of kinds of social action, differentiated by the relationships that each kind stipulates among individuals within the interaction.

Here is how Coleman describes the classification system provided here:

Differing kinds of structures of action are found in society, depending on the kinds of resources involved in actions, the kinds of actions taken, and the contexts within which the actions are taken. (34)

Here is the legend for the diagram:

1. Private actions
2. Exchange relations
3. Market
4. Disjoint authority relations
5. Conjoint authority relations
6. Relations of trust
7. Disjoint authority systems
8. Conjoint authority systems
9. Systems of trust, collective behavior
10. Norm-generating structures
11. Collective-decision structures

The regions of the diagram are organized into a number of higher-order groups:

A. Purposive action
B. Transfer of rights or resources
C. Unilateral transfer
D. Rights to control action
E. System of relations
F. Events with consequences for many

For example, social events falling in zone 8 have these distinguishing characteristics: they involve a transfer of rights to control action, shifting through unilateral transfer within an existing system of relations. An example might include a party to divorce who surrenders his or her right to control whether the child is moved to another state. This would be a unilateral transfer of control from one party to the other party. Events in zone 7 differ from those in zone 8 only in that they do not reflect unilateral transfer. The same example can be adjusted to a zone 7 case by stipulating that both parties must agree to the transfer of control of the child’s residence.

It is interesting to observe that the whole diagram takes place within the domain of purposive action (A). This illustrates Coleman’s fundamental presupposition about the social world: that social outcomes result from purposive, intentional actions by individuals. If we imagined that religious rituals were purely performative, serving as expressions of inner spiritual experience — we would find that these “social events” have no place in this diagram. Likewise, if we thought that there is an important role for emotion, solidarity, hatred, or love in the social world — we would find that actions and phenomena involving these factors would have no place in the diagram.

It would be interesting to attempt to populate a more complex diagram with an initial structure something like this:

Would this modified scheme give a different orientation to the “sociological imaginary”? Might we imagine that the theories of important intersectional figures like Bourdieu, Tilly, or Foucault might fall in the intersection of all three circles? Would episodes of contentious politics involve actions that are purposive, emotive, and performative? Is there any reason (parsimony, perhaps) to attempt to reduce emotion and performance to a different kind of purpose? Or it is better to honestly recognize the diversity of kinds of action and motivation? My inclination is to think that Coleman’s choice here reflects “rational choice fundamentalism” — the idea that ultimately all human actions are driven by a calculation of consequences. And this assumption seems unjustified.

Complementarity of thick and thin theories of the actor

There is a range of approaches to the social sciences that fall under the umbrella of “actor-centered” theories (link). The chief fissure among these theories is that between “thin” and “thick” theories of the actor — theories which provide less or more detail about the mental frameworks and beliefs of the actors being described. The extremes of the two types of theories range from pure rational choice theory to social psychology and ethnography. The two types of theories have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Thin theories, including especially rational choice theory and game theory, make use of a particularly sparse theory of the actor’s decision framework. This approach provides a basis for representing the motives and decisions of actors that can be readily incorporated into powerful techniques of simulation and calculation. Thick theories, including pragmatist and ethnomethodological theories, offer a basis for investigating particular social settings of action in detail, and they provide an in-depth basis for explaining and understanding the choices, judgments, and behavior of the individuals they study. But thick theories are not so readily incorporated into simulation models, precisely because they do not provide abstract, general characterizations of the individual’s action framework.

These comments make the contrast sound like a familiar set of oppositions: nomothetic explanation versus idiographic interpretation; causal explanation versus hermeneutic interpretation. And this in turn suggests that rational choice theory will be good at arriving at generalizations, whereas pragmatist and ethnographic theories will be good at providing satisfying interpretations of the actions of individuals in concrete social and historical circumstances, but not particularly good at providing a basis for general explanations.

The situation is not quite so binary as this suggests, however. A central tool for actor-centered research is set of simulation techniques falling under the rubric of agent-based models. To date ABMs have tended to use thin theories of the actor to represent the players in the simulation. However, it is entirely possible for agent-based models to incorporate substantially greater levels of specificity and granularity about the action frameworks of the individuals in specific circumstances. An ABM can introduce different kinds of agents into a simulation, each of which embodies a specific set of beliefs and modes of reasoning. And it can be argued that this increase in granularity provides a basis for a better simulation of complex social processes involving heterogeneous kinds of actors.

For example, a simulation of the political appeal of a nationalistic politician like Donald Trump may benefit by segmenting the electorate into different categories of voters: white nationalists, aging blue-collar workers, anti-globalization young people, …. And the model should represent the fact that actors in these various segments have substantially different ways of making political judgments and actions. So ABM simulations can indeed benefit from greater “thickness” of assumptions about agents. (This was illustrated in the discussion of the Epstein rebellion model earlier; link.)

On the other hand, it is possible to use RCT and DBO theories to illuminate historically particular instances of action — for example, the analysis of historically situated collective action along the lines of Margaret Levi’s review in “Reconsiderations of Rational Choice in Comparative and Political Analysis” (link). These theories can be applied to specific social circumstances and can provide convincing and satisfying interpretations of the reasoning and actions of the agents who are involved. So narrative explanations of social outcomes can be constructed using both thick and thin assumptions about the actors.

Moreover, the explanatory strength of thick theories is not limited to the degree to which they can be incorporated into formal simulations — what can be referred to as “aggregation dynamics”. It is clear that real explanations of important phenomena emerge from research by sociologists like Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (link), Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link), and Erving Goffman in Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). We understand better the dynamics of the French professional classes, inner city neighborhoods, and asylums when we read the detailed and rigorous treatments that micro-sociologists provide of these social settings.

What this suggests is that analytical sociology would be well advised to embrace pluralism when it comes to theories of the actor and methods of application of actor-based research. Thick and thin are not logical contraries, but rather complementary ways of analyzing and explaining the social worlds we inhabit.

Bourdieu on post-modern biography

Here is a very interesting short piece by Pierre Bourdieu on the topic of biography, “L’Illusion biographique,” that is very relevant to the prior post. (Thanks, Denis!) Here Bourdieu takes issue with common sense on the subjects of the self and the nature of biography. Here is the commonsense understanding that he rejects: the idea of a life as a coherent and sequential story, with a beginning and end and a logical set of steps intervening. This idea underlies the group of metaphors commonly used by biographers representing life as a journey. Bourdieu argues that this reflects an uncritical and traditional understanding of history. This treatment rests upon important presuppositions — most fundamentally, that a life constitutes a coherent whole that can be understood as the expression of a unified intentional agent. This assumption accounts for the words connoting logical process that are so common in biographies: “thus”, “hence”, “so”, “therefore”, and “always” (consistency). The assumption is that a life is intelligible. Here is a nice passage summarizing this thought:

On est sans doute en droit de supposer que le récit autobiographique s’inspire toujours, au moins pour une part, du souci de donner sens, de rendre raison, de dégager une logique à la fois rétrospective et prospective, une consistance et une constance, en établissant des relations intelligibles, comme celle de l’effet à la cause efficiente ou finale, entre les états successifs, ainsi constitués en étapes d’un développement nécessaire.

[One is undoubtedly justified in thinking that the recital of an autobiography is inspired, at least in part, out of a concern to give meaning, to uncover a logic at the moment, both retrospective and prospective, a consistency and constancy, establishing intelligible relations such as cause and effect, between successive states, this establishing an account of a necessary sequence of development.]

Bourdieu thinks this understanding is untenable. He proposes a deconstruction of the self that draws upon a parallel with the form of the modern novel — Faulkner or Robbe-Grillet — in which logical sequence is deliberately challenged. Rather than coherence and logical development, we have discontinuity, irrationality, and chaotic sets of experiences. 

Produire une histoire de vie, traiter la vie comme une histoire, c’est-à-dire comme le récit cohérent d’une séquence signifiante et orientée d’événements, c’est peut-être sacrifier à une illusion rhétorique, à une représentation commune de l’existence, que toute une tradition littéraire n’a cessé et ne cesse de renforcer. 

[To produce a history of a life, to treat a life like a history, that is to say, like a coherent recital of a meaningful sequence of events, is perhaps to submit to a rhetorical illusion, a common representation of existence, that our literary tradition has not ceased to reinforce.]

Bourdieu wants to understand these issues in analogy with twentieth-century doubts about the unity of the self. According to this post-modern critique, the self itself is a fiction of coherence, a rhetorical overlay on top of chaotic experience and actions. Kant’s unity of apperception is an illusion imposed by the narrator of the self. 
Instead Bourdieu wants to understand the unity of the self sociologically in terms of the functioning of a proper name within specific fields of social interaction. (He refers here to Kripke and Ziff’s ideas of rigid designators.) The proper name serves as tag linking the biological individual across social spaces. 

En tant qu’institution, le nom propre est arraché au temps et à l’espace, et aux variations selon les lieux et les moments : par là, il assure aux individus désignés, par delà tous les changements et toutes les fluctuations biologiques et sociales, la constance nominale, l’identité au sens d’identité à soi-même, de constantia sibi, que demande l’ordre social.

[As an institution, a proper name is situated in time and space, and changes according to place and time: accordingly it assures the designated individuals, beyond all biological and social changes and fluctuations, the nominal constancy, identity in the sense of identity to oneself, faithful to itself, that demand social ordering.]

What is the upshot for Bourdieu here? It seems to be that we should discard biography as a fundamentally flawed intellectual undertaking, and we should instead look at “non-biography” as a non-chronological map of social positions occupied by the biological individual designated by the proper name. On this account there is the biological individual and there is the social individual, but there is no personal intentional actor mediating between these. The proper name, a cypher with no content, replaces the self. 

Ainsi s’explique que le nom propre ne puisse pas décrire des propriétés et qu’il ne véhicule aucune information sur ce qu’il nomme :  du fait que ce qu’il désigne n’est jamais qu’une rhapsodie composite et disparate de propriétés biologiques et sociales en changement constant, toutes les descriptions seraient valables seulement dans les limites d’un stade ou d’un espace. Autrement dit, il ne peut attester l’identité de la personnalité, comme individualité socialement constituée, qu’au prix d’une formidable abstraction. 

[Thus it is that a proper names cannot describe properties and conveys no information about the individual named: in fact, the designated item is nothing more than a composite and disparate rhapsody of biological and social properties in constant change, all descriptions are valid only in the limits of a field of space. In other words, it is not possible to attest to the identity of the personality, as a socially constituted individual, except at the process of formidable abstraction.]

The individual is simply the sum of a network graph of positions in social spaces, with nothing interior.  And therefore biography needs replacing by a linked set of spatial locations within the social fields within which her or she competes. 
Is this sufficient? Not at all. It conveys an anti-mentalistic stance about people that is as flawed as was radical behaviorism. No matter how valid the critique of native unitarianism concerning the self, it remains true that people are actors, they make choices, they operate on the basis of mental frames, and they construct itineraries. They act intentionally and self consciously. We cannot dispense with a conception of the self. And therefore biography remained a valid exercise.

What is needed instead is a conception of the self and of a biography that avoids both the primordialism of the traditional view and the actor-less collage associated with the post-modern literary view. We need a conception of the self that emphasizes contingency and continuous development and change, that denies essentialism in either the self or a complete life, and that highlights as well the role that extraneous events play in the development of a person and a life; while still allowing for the reality of the human person who undergoes and guides his or her own path. 

It is interesting to recall the structure of Neil Gross’s “sociological” biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (link). Gross’s account conforms to a part of Bourdieu’s picture here, in that he takes great care to trace Rorty’s movements through his various fields — philosophy, Yale, Princeton, marriage. But he also gives attention to the interior man — the person named Richard who makes these various choices. Biography and personhood do not disappear after all. 

Values, directions, and action


Several earlier posts have raised the question of rational life planning. What is involved in orchestrating one’s goals and activities in such a way as to rationally create a good life in the fullness of time?

We have seen that there is something wildly unlikely about the idea of a developed, calculated life plan. Here is a different way of thinking about this question, framed about directionality and values rather than goals and outcomes. We might think of life planning in these terms:

  • The actor frames a high-level life conception — how he/she wants to live, what to achieve, what activities are most valued, what kind of person he/she wants to be. It is a work in progress.
  • The actor confronts the normal developmental issues of life through limited moments in time: choice of education, choice of spouse, choice of career, strategies within the career space, involvement with family, level of involvement in civic and religious institutions, time and activities spent with friends, … These are week-to-week and year-to-year choices, some more deliberate than others.
  • The actor reviews, assesses, and updates the life conception. Some goals are reformulated; some are adjusted in terms of priority; others are abandoned.

This picture looks quite a bit different from more architectural schemes for creating and implementing a life plan considered in earlier posts, including the view that Rawls offers for conceiving of a rational plan of life. Instead of modeling life planning after a vacation trip assisted by an AAA TripTik (turn-by-turn instructions for how to reach your goal), this scheme looks more like the preparation and planning that might have guided a great voyage of exploration in the sixteenth century. There were no maps, the destination was unknown, the hazards along the way could only be imagined. But there were a few guiding principles of navigation — “Keep making your way west,” “Sail around the biggest storms,” “Strive to keep reserves for unanticipated disasters,” “Maintain humane relations with the crew.” And, with a modicum of good fortune, these maxims might be enough to lead to discovery.

This scheme is organized around directionality and regular course correction, rather than a blueprint for arriving at a specific destination. And it appears to be all around a more genuine understanding of what is involved in making reflective life choices. Fundamentally this conception involves having in the present a vision of the dimensions of an extended life that is specifically one’s own — a philosophy, a scheme of values, a direction-setting self understanding, and the basics needed for making near-term decisions chosen for their compatibility with the guiding life philosophy. And it incorporates the idea of continual correction and emendation of the plan, as life experience brings new values and directions into prominence.

The advantage of this conception of rational life planning is that it is not heroic in its assumptions about the scope of planning and anticipation. It is a scheme that makes sense of the situation of the person in the limited circumstances of a particular point in time. It doesn’t require that the individual have a comprehensive grasp of the whole — the many contingencies that will arise, the balancing of goods that need to be adjusted in thought over the whole of the journey, the tradeoffs that are demanded across multiple activities and outcomes, and the specifics of the destination. And yet it permits the person to travel through life by making choices that conform in important ways to the high-level conception that guides him or her. And somehow, it brings to mind the philosophy of life offered by those great philosophers of life, Montaigne and Lucretius.

Meanings and mechanisms

image: photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the University of Michigan, 1962

There are two large categories of factors that are fundamental to understanding social processes — meanings and mechanisms. I’ve given a preponderance of attention to the importance of social causal mechanisms within historical and social explanation (link). We explain a social outcome when we identify the social mechanisms that brought it about.

It is crucial to bear in mind always, however, that there is a complementary dimension to social life and social process — the pervasive fact that people act within frames of meanings and interpretations that they bring to their social relationships and their social worlds. Human action is meaningful action, and we can’t make sense of action without attributing meanings, intentions, and frameworks of understanding and desire to the individuals who constitute a social encounter. 
This is not a new insight, of course; it was fundamental to the hermeneutic approach to social life, including the influential thinking of Wilhelm Dilthey (Introduction to the Human Sciences). But the classical hermeneutic approach tended to under-value the importance of causation and mechanisms in the social world; whereas it is clear today that both mechanisms and meanings are inseparably embedded within the social world.
It is in fact misleading to portray mechanisms and meanings as complementary “dimensions” of social change. Rather, we might say that mechanisms depend upon meanings, for the simple reason that mechanisms depend upon actions, and actions presuppose meanings. This is the thrust of my emphasis on “actor-centered” approaches to sociology (link). The actor-centered perspective takes seriously the meanings, values, cognitive and practical frameworks that individuals bring to their interactions in the social world, and it urges social scientists and historians to improve upon their current theories of the actor.

Institutions and organizations are often invoked as causal factors or mechanisms in the production of important social outcomes. But institutions always work by influencing the behavior of the individual actors whom they touch; so either explicitly or implicitly we need to have a theory of the actor’s mental frameworks if we are to understand the causal power of institutions to influence outcomes. 

If we want to know why there is grade inflation in universities, we need to refer to some of the institutional mechanisms that influence grading practices (causal influences!), but we also need to refer to the goals and meanings that participants bring to the interaction between students, professors, and appeals committees. Sometimes those mental frameworks are trivial and manifest — students want higher grades for reasons of career success as well as personal validation, faculty want to function in accordance with their responsibilities as neutral assessors of academic performance while at the same time demonstrating empathy for the needs of their students. These interlocking intentions and desires lead to a dynamic movement of average grades over time — sometimes higher, once in a while lower. But sometimes the underlying mental frameworks that drive important social outcomes are more obscure — for example, the disaffection and doubt that leads inner city minority students to despise high school. 

Think for a moment about how meanings and intentional actions give rise to a common social mechanism, hate-based nationalist mobilization. A few strident leaders formulate a message of hate against a group — currently, MENA immigrants in various European countries; they find means of gaining access to national media (through provocative demonstrations); and they extend their influence from the tiny percentage of racist extremists ex ante to a sizable percentage of the more moderate population. How does this work? Why do ordinary non-racist citizens fall prey to the hateful messages of the extreme right? Presumably a convincing answer will depend on the specifics of the communications strategies and messages conveyed by the nationalist party, interlocking with an astute reading of the fears and suppressed prejudices of the majority population. In other words, the mechanism of racist mobilization depends on a substratum of political emotion and belief that can be adroitly manipulated by the racist group and its leaders.

Philosophers sometimes distinguish meanings and causes as subjective and objective.(This is implied in Georg Henrik von Wright’s classic book Explanation and Understanding.) But this is not a useful way of thinking about the two categories. Meanings are often fully objective — in the sense that we can investigate them empirically and they can be demonstrated to have stable and enduring effects in the world. And social causes have an element of subjectivity built into them, for the simple reason that social causes always invoke the subjective states of mind of the actors who make them up. It isn’t even accurate to say that meanings exist solely within the actor, whereas causes exist outside the actor. The meanings that Weber identified in the notion of the Protestant Ethic are indeed embodied in a population of individuals (inward); but they are pervasive and influential on those same individuals (outward). So the Protestant Ethic is both an inner state of mind and an external and coercive set of values and beliefs.

(The photos of Dr. King above are relevant in this context because the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s offers ample examples of meanings and mechanisms in the evolving mobilizations, legislation, cycles of Jim Crow violence, and emerging ideas about Black Power within the African-American community.)

Deliberation, rationality, and reasoning


Recent posts have raised questions about formulating a rational plan of life. This way of putting the question highlights “rationality,” which has the connotation of short-term, one-off decision making. And this implication plainly does not fit the problem of life planning very well — as noted in the two prior posts on this topic. Living a life is more like the making of a great sculpture than it is planning a Napoleonic military campaign. But what if we shifted the terms of the question and asked instead, what is involved in being deliberative and reflective about the direction of one’s life? Does this give more room for bringing the idea of rationality into the idea of a life plan?

Being deliberative invokes the idea of considering one’s goals reflectively and in comparison, considering strategies and actions that might serve to bring about the realization of these goals, and an ongoing consideration of the continuing validity of one’s goals and strategies. Instrumental rationality takes a set of goals as being fixed; deliberative rationality works on the assumption that it is possible to reason reflectively about one’s goals themselves. This is the thrust of Socrates’ “unexamined life” — the good life requires reflection and deliberation about the things one seeks to achieve in life. Here is how Aristotle describes deliberation in the Nicomachean Ethics, book 3:

We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done; and these are in fact what is left. For nature, necessity, and chance are thought to be causes, and also reason and everything that depends on man. Now every class of men deliberates about the things that can be done by their own efforts. And in the case of exact and self-contained sciences there is no deliberation, e.g. about the letters of the alphabet (for we have no doubt how they should be written); but the things that are brought about by our own efforts, but not always in the same way, are the things about which we deliberate, e.g. questions of medical treatment or of money-making. And we do so more in the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics, inasmuch as it has been less exactly worked out, and again about other things in the same ratio, and more also in the case of the arts than in that of the sciences; for we have more doubt about the former. Deliberation is concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate. We call in others to aid us in deliberation on important questions, distrusting ourselves as not being equal to deciding. (Nicomachean Ethics, book 3)

What Aristotle focuses on here is choice under conditions of uncertainty and complexity. Deliberation is relevant when algorithms fail — when there is no mechanical way of calculating the absolutely best way of doing something. And this seems to fit the circumstance of planning for a life or career.

How does “deliberation” come into the question of life plans? It is essential.

(1) The goals a person pursues in life cannot be specified exogenously; rather, the individual needs to consider and reflect on his or her goals in an ongoing way. Aristotle was one of the first to reveal that often the goals and goods we pursue are, upon reflection, derivative from some more fundamental good. But Kant too had a position here, favoring autonomy over heteronomy. Reflection allows us to gain clarity about those more fundamental goods that we value.

(2) The strategies and means that we choose may have only a superficial correspondence to our goods and values which is undercut by more rigorous examination. We may find that a given mode of action, a strategy, may indeed lead to good X, but may also defeat the achievement of Y, which we also value. So deliberative reflection about the strategies and actions we choose can allow us to more fully reconcile our short-term strategies with our long-term goals and goods.

Economists and philosophers have sometimes maintained that values and goals do not admit of rational consideration. But this is plainly untrue. At the very least it is possible to discover positive and negative interactions among our goals and desires — the desire to remain healthy and the desire to eat ice cream at every meal are plainly in conflict. Less trivially, the goal of living life in a way that is respectful of the dignity of others is inconsistent with the goal of rising to power within a patriarchal or racist organization. It is possible that there are values that are both fundamental and incommensurable — so that rational deliberation and reflection cannot choose between them. But it is hard to think of examples in which this kind of incommensurability arises as a practical problem.

Consider Bruce, Jorge, and Filippo. Bruce believes that being wealthy by the age of 60 is the most important thing in his life. Jorge believes that attaining a state of spiritual fulfillment by the age of 60 is most important. And Filippo believes that having circumstances of life by age 60 in which he is involved in satisfying work, has successful family relationships and friendships, and has enough income and wealth to support a decent middle-class life is most important. Are there reasonable considerations that any one of these individuals could bring to bear against another to suggest that the other’s goals are incomplete or defective?

Aristotle addresses Bruce directly by asking how wealth could possible be a fundamental good. What does Bruce want to gain by achieving great wealth? Aren’t these activities and goods more fundamental than the wealth itself? This line of argument perhaps succeeds in persuading Bruce to give more thought to what he wants out of life — not wealth, but the things that wealth permits him to do.

Jorge may seem to be just like Bruce except he values spiritual fulfillment rather than money. Indeed, they are similar in that there is only one dimension to their life goals. But Jorge can at least maintain against Bruce that his goal is good in itself, not because of its ability to bring about some other desirable thing.

Finally, Filippo. Filippo has a more complex set of life goals, none of which reduces to a combination of the others. It is true that these goals require tradeoffs in behavior and effort; strategies that enhance friendships may depress the attainment of wealth, for example. But I think it is Filippo that we think of when we imagine a person with a reflective and deliberative life plan: a person who has identified a small but plural set of longterm goals, and who recognizes that it is necessary in the moment to find ways of balancing the attainment of one with what it takes to attain more of the other.

We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm’s leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.

(The reference to Napoleon in Jena in the graphics above is pertinent because of the implications that Hegel drew from his experience of Napoleon as a “world historical figure”. Hegel was clear that, even with a brilliant commander and a great general staff, Napoleon’s ambitions in Europe were based on an unavoidably incomplete knowledge of the terrain of history. “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.)

Rational life plans

Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls agree: people ought to have rational plans of life to guide their everyday efforts and activities. But what is involved in being rational about one’s plan of life? And really, what is a plan of life? Is it a sketch of a lifetime goal, along with some indications of the efforts that are currently thought to lead to this goal? Is it a blueprint for organizing one’s thinking, actions, investments, time, resources, and character over time in order to bring about the intended goal? Or is it something more flexible that this? Did Walter White in Breaking Bad have a plan of life, either before and after his cancer diagnosis? Did Dostoevsky have a plan of life? How about Wagner or Whitman? Is it possible to be rational in making partial or full life plans? How have philosophers thought about this topic?

Planning means orchestrating one’s activities over time in such a way as to bring about good outcomes over the full period. When a person plans for a renovation of his/her home, he or she considers the reasons for considering the renovation; the results to be achieved; the enhancements that would contribute to those results; the resources that are necessary to fund those enhancements; the amount of time that will be required for each of the sub-tasks; and so forth. With a good plan and a good execution, it is likely that a good outcome will be achieved: an improved residence that was accomplished within the budgeted time and resources available.

A plan of life is something larger than a plan for a house renovation, though it has some aspects in common. John Rawls was the philosopher in recent times who brought this idea into serious attention. The concept plays a crucial role within his theory of justice in A Theory of Justice. (Perhaps Aristotle is the ancient philosopher who had the greatest interest in this idea.) Rawls introduces the idea in the context of his discussion of primary goods.

The main idea is that a person’s good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances. A man is happy when he is more or less successfully [sic] in the way of carrying out this plan. To put it briefly, the good is the satisfaction of rational desire. We are to suppose, then, that each individual has a rational plan of life drawn up subject to the conditions that confront him. This plan is designed to permit the harmonious satisfaction of his interests. It schedules activities so that various desires can be fulfilled without interferences. It is arrived at by rejecting other plans that are either less likely to succeed or do not provide for such an inclusive attainment of aims. Given the alternatives available, a rational plan is one which cannot be improved upon; there is no other plan which, taking everything into account, would be preferable. (TJ 92-93)

Several things are noteworthy about this description. First, it involves scheduling activities so as to “harmoniously satisfy interests”, which is paraphrased as “fulfilling desires without interferences”. In other words, Rawls’s account of a plan of life is a fairly shallow one in terms of the assumptions it makes about the person. It takes desires as fixed and then “plans” around them to ensure their optimal satisfaction. But there are other things that we might want to include in a plan of life: choices about one’s enduring character, for example. And second, Rawls makes very heroic assumptions here by requiring that a rational plan of life is a uniquely best plan, an optimal plan, one which cannot be improved upon.

There is a very direct connection between planning and rationality. But, surprisingly, this connection has not been a strong topic of interest within philosophy. The most important exception is in the work of David Bratman, including his 1987 book, Intention, Plans and Practical Reason. Here are a few key ideas from Bratman’s book:

Our need for plans concerning the future is rooted in two very general needs. We are rational agents, to some extent. For us this means in part that deliberation and, more generally, rational reflection help shape what we do. If, however, our actions were influenced only by deliberation at the time of action, the influence of such deliberation would be rather minimal. This is so because deliberation requires time and other limited resources, and there is an obvious limit to the extent to which one may successfully deliberate at the time of action. 2 So we need ways to allow deliberation and rational reflection to influence action beyond the present.




Second, we have pressing needs for coordination. To achieve complex goals I must coordinate my present and future activities. And I need also to coordinate my activities with yours. Anyone who has managed to write a lecture, pick up a book at the library, attend a committee meeting, and then pick up a child at school will be familiar with the former type of intra personal coordination. And anyone who has managed to arrange and participate in a committee meeting with several colleagues will be familiar with the latter sort of inter personal coordination. Of course, as the examples make clear, we are typically in need of both sorts of coordination; for we are both temporally extended and social agents. And as we all learn to our chagrin, neither sort of coordination happens effortlessly.


We do not, of course, promote coordination and extend the influence of deliberation by means of plans that specify, once and for all, everything we are to do in the future. Such total plans are obviously beyond our limits. Rather, we typically settle on plans that are partial and then fill them in as need be and as time goes by. This characteristic incompleteness of our plans is of the first importance. It creates the need for a kind of reasoning characteristic of planning agents: reasoning that takes initial, partial plans as given and aims at filling them in with specifications of appropriate means, preliminary steps, or just relatively more specific courses of action. (section 1.1)

Here Bratman makes the connection between deliberation, intentions, and planning explicit: planning permits the coordination of one’s intentions over time. And in the final paragraph he correctly observes that there is no such thing as a complete plan for a topic; plans are created in order to be updated. (Notice, however, that this runs contrary to Rawls’s assumption quoted above.)

Jonathan Baron also gives some attention to the role of planning in deliberative reasoning in Rationality and Intelligence. Here is a statement from Baron:

A good definition of happiness … is the achievement of just these consequences, or, more precisely, the successful pursuit of a plan that is expected to lead to them …. If the world is at all predictable, rational plans and decisions will, on average, lead to better outcomes in this sense than will irrational ones. Luck, of course, may still intervene; a person might make the best decisions possible, but still be unhappy because things turned out badly. (RI 206)

There are several features of life that make it difficult to formulate a satisfactory theory of the formulation and assessment of rational life plans.

  • The extended timeframe of the planning problem: formulating a plan in one’s twenties that is intended to guide through the end of one’s life in his or her nineties. 
  • The fact of a person’s plasticity. Features of character, personality, habit, taste, and preference are all subject to a degree of purposive change. So it would seem that these should be the object of rational deliberative planning as well. But it is hard to see how to do this. 
  • The fact of the unpredictability of the external environment, both natural and social. 
  • The difficulty of designing a plan that is robust through dramatic change within the person.
  • The difficulty of incorporating possible future capabilities of changing the self and the body directly through genetic engineering.

These challenges make traditional rational-choice theory unpromising as a foundation for arriving at a theory of life planning. Traditional rational choice theory is designed around the assumption of exogenous and fixed preferences, the ability to assign utility to outcomes, and quantifiable knowledge of the likelihood of various outcomes. But the five factors mentioned here invalidate all these assumptions.

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this set of issues: link, link, link.)

Marx on peasant consciousness


One of Marx’s more important pieces of political writing is the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) (pdf). Here is his analysis of the causes of the specific nature of peasant political consciousness leading to the election of Napoleon III:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France‘s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

This a particularly interesting analysis of the social psychology of group solidarity, and one that has contemporary significance as well. It sheds a lot of light on how Marx thinks about the formation of class consciousness — even as it significantly misunderstands the agency of rural people.

What are the limitations of the French peasantry, according to Marx here? They are isolated, burdened, unsophisticated, primitive, apolitical, and ignorant of the larger forces around them. Therefore, Marx says, they cannot constitute a unified and purposive political force. (The photo of a battalion of Vietnam Minh troops in Indochina just a century later refutes this conception.)

From this description we can draw several positive ideas about the foundations of collective solidarity. Here are the elements that Marx takes to be crucial in the formation of collective consciousness in this passage:

  1. The group needs to possess “manifold relations” to each other.
  2. There needs to be effective communication and transportation across space, not just local interaction.
  3. There needs to be a degree of economic interdependence.
  4. There need to be shared material conditions in the system of production.
  5. There needs to be an astute appreciation of the social and economic environment.
  6. There needs to be organization and leadership to help articulate a shared political consciousness and agenda. 

And Marx seems to have something like a necessary and sufficient relation in mind between these conditions and the emergence of collective consciousness: these conditions are jointly sufficient and individually necessary for collective consciousness in an extended group.

There are several crucial ideas here that survive into current thinking about solidarity and mobilization. So Marx’s thinking about collective consciousness was prescient. It is interesting to consider where his thoughts about collective solidarity came from. How did he come to have insightful ideas about the social psychology of mobilization and solidarity in the first place? This isn’t a topic that had a history of advanced theory and thinking in 1851.

Two sources seem likely. First is the tradition of French socialist thought in which Marx was immersed in the 1840s. French socialist thinkers were in fact interested in the question of how a revolutionary spirit came to be among a group of people. And second is Marx’s own experience of working people in Paris in 1843-45. He writes of his own observations of working people in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844:

When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.

Here Marx gives as much importance to the substantive relations of friendship and everyday association as he does to shared material interests in the formation of the class consciousness of French workers.

Marx’s misunderstanding of the political capacity and consciousness of peasant communities has been noted by many scholars of rural revolutions. James Scott once opened a public lecture on the revolutions of the twentieth century by saying that his lecture would only treat the peasant revolutions of the century. But he then paused and laughed, and said, this isn’t much of a limitation, because they were all peasant revolutions! Marx’s assumption that only urban workers were capable of revolutionary consciousness was a serious misreading of the coming century of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. (Here is an earlier post on Scott’s studies of peasant politics. Scott’s accounts can be found in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century picks up similar themes.)

Also interesting in the Eighteenth Brumaire is Engels’ statement on the law of history as class struggle in his preface to the third edition of the book:

In addition, however, there was still another circumstance. It was precisely Marx who had first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science — this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.

Engels plainly endorses the idea of laws of motion of society and the idea of class conflict as the primary motor of historical change. “History is a history of class struggle.” There is not much room for contingency or conjunctural causation here! But this is a dimension of Marxist theory that is plainly incorrect. Far better is to understand history in a more multi-factoral way in which contingency, conjunction, and agency all play a role.

A survey of agent-based models


Federico Bianchi and Flaminio Squazzoni have published a very useful survey of the development and uses of agent-based models in the social sciences over the past twenty-five years in WIREs Comput Stat 2015 (link). The article is a very useful reference and discussion for anyone interested in the applicability of ABM within sociology.

Here is their general definition of an ABM:

Agent-based models (ABMs) are computer simulations of social interaction between heterogeneous agents (e.g., individuals, firms, or states), embedded in social structures (e.g., social networks, spatial neighborhoods, or institutional scaffolds). These are built to observe and analyze the emergence of aggregate outcomes. By manipulating behavioral or interaction model parameters, whether guided by empirical evidence or theory, micro-generative mechanisms can be explored that can account for macro-scale system behavior, that is, an existing time series of aggregate data or certain stylized facts. (284)

This definition highlights several important features of the ABM approach:

  • unlike traditional rational choice theory and microeconomics, it considers heterogeneous agents
  • it explicitly attempts to represent concrete particulars of the social environment within which agents act
  • it is a micro to macro strategy, deriving macro outcomes from micro activities
  • it permits a substantial degree of “experimentation” in the form of modification of base assumptions
  • it is possible to provide empirical evidence to validate or invalidate the ABM simulation of a given aggregate outcome 

Bianchi and Squazzoni note that the primary areas of application of agent-based models in social-science research include a relatively limited range of topics. The first of these topics included uncoordinated cooperation, reciprocity, and altruism. Robert Axelrod’s work on repeated prisoners’ dilemmas represents a key example of modeling efforts in this area (link).

A peculiar form of altruism is punishment: imposition of a cost on non-cooperators by other actors. Without punishment the exploitation strategy generally extinguishes the cooperation strategy in a range of situations. A “reciprocator” is an actor who is open to cooperation but who punishes previous non-cooperators on the next interaction. Bianchi and Squazzoni spend time describing an ABM developed by Bowles and Gintis (link) to evaluate the three strategies of Selfish, Reciprocator, and Cooperator, and a derived Shirking rate in a hypothetical and heterogeneous population of hunter-gatherers. Here is Bowles and Gintis’ hypothesis:

The hypothesis we explore is that cooperation is maintained because many humans have a predisposition to punish those who violate group-beneficial norms, even when this reduces their fitness relative to other group members. Compelling evidence for the existence and importance of such altruistic punishment comes from controlled laboratory experiments, particularly the study of public goods, common pool resource, ultimatum, and other games.

And here is their central finding, according to Bianchi and Squazzoni:

They found that the robustness of cooperation depended on the coexistence of these behaviors at a group level and that strong reciprocators were functional in keeping the level of cheating under control in each group (see the shirking rate as a measure of resources lost by the group due to cheating in Figure 1). This was due to the fact that the higher the number of cooperators in a group without reciprocators, the higher the chance that the group disbanded due to high payoffs for shirking. (288)

Here is the graph of the incidence of the three strategies over the first 3000 periods of the simulation published in the Bowles and Gintis article:


This graph represents the relative frequency of the three types of hunter-gatherers in the population, along with a calculated shirking rate for each period. The Selfish profile remains the most frequent (between 40% and 50%, but Reciprocators and Cooperators reach relatively stable levels of frequency as well (between 30% and 40%, and between 20% and 30%). As Bowles and Gintis argue, it is the robust presence of Reciprocators that keeps the Selfish group in check; the willingness of Reciprocators to punish Selfish actors keeps the latter group from rising to full domination.

In this simulation the frequencies of Selfish and Shirking begin high (>85%) and quickly decline to a relatively stable rate. After 1000 iterations the three strategies attain relatively stable frequencies, with Selfish at about 38%, Reciprocator at 37%, Cooperator at 25%, and a shirking rate at about 11%.

It is tempting to read the study as representing a population that reaches a rough equilibrium. However, it is possible that the appearance of equilibrium conveyed by the graph above is deceptive. Other areas of complex phenomena raise the possibility that this is not a longterm equilibrium, but rather that some future combination of percentages of the three strategies may set off a chaotic redistribution of success rates. This is the key characteristic of a chaotic system: small fluctuations in parameters can lead to major deviations in outcomes.

Also interesting in Bianchi and Squazzoni’s review is their treatment of efforts to use ABMs to model the diffusion of cultural and normative attitudes (293ff.). Attitudes are treated as local “contagion” factors, and the goal of the simulation is to model how different adjacencies influence the pattern of spread of the cultural features.

Agents interacted with neighbors with a probability dependent on the number of identical cultural features they shared. A mechanism of interpersonal influence was added to align one randomly selected dissimilar cultural feature of an agent to that of the partner, after interaction. (294ff.)

Social network characteristics have been incorporated into ABMs in this area.

Bianchi and Squazzoni also consider ABMs in the topic areas of collective behavior and social inequality. They draw a number of useful conclusions about the potential role that ABMs can play in sociology, including especially the importance of considering heterogeneous agents:

At a substantive level, these examples show that exploring the fundamental heterogeneity of individual behavior is of paramount importance to understand the emergence of social patterns. Cross-fertilization between experimental and computational research is a useful process. It shows us that by conflating the concept of rationality with that of self-interest, as in standard game theory and economics, we cannot account for the subtle social nuances that characterize individual behavior in social contexts. (298)

And they believe — perhaps unexpectedly — that the experience of building ABMs in a range of sociological contexts underlines the importance of institutions, norms, and social context:

Moreover, these ABM studies can help us to understand the importance of social contexts even when looking at individual behavior in a more micro-oriented perspective. The role of social influence and the fact that we are embedded in complex social networks have implications for the type of information we access and the types of behavior we are exposed to. (301)

This is a useful contribution for sociologists, as a foundation for a third alternative between statistical studies of sociological phenomena and high-level deductive theories of those phenomena. ABMs have the potential of allowing us to derive large social patterns from well chosen and empirically validated behavioral assumptions about actors.
I mentioned the common finding in complexity studies that even fairly simple systems possess the capacity for sudden instability. Here is a simulation of a three-body gravitational system which illustrates periods of relative stability and then abrupt destabilization.

ABMs permit us to model populations of interactive adaptive agents, and often the simulation produces important and representative patterns at the aggregate level. Here is an interesting predator-prey simulation on YouTube using an ABM approach by SSmithy87:

The author makes a key point at 2:15: the pattern of variation of predator and prey presented in the simulation is a well-known characteristic of predator-prey populations. (Red is predator and blue is prey.)


But the equations representing this relationship were not built into the model; instead, this characteristic pattern is generated by the model based on the simple behavioral assumptions made about prey and predators. This is a vivid demonstration of the novelty and importance of ABM simulations.

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