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.)

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Rationality over the long term

image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students

Millions of words have been written on the topic of rationality in action. Life involves choices. How should we choose between available alternatives? Where should I go to college? Which job should I accept? Should I buy a house or rent an apartment? How much time should I give my job in preference to my family? We would like to have reasons for choosing A over B; we would like to approach these choices “rationally.”

These are all “one-off” choices, and rational choice theory has something like a formula to offer for the decider: gain the best knowledge available about the several courses of action; evaluate the costs, risks, and rewards of each alternative; and choose that alternative that produces the greatest expected level of satisfaction of your preferences. There are nuances to be decided, of course: should we go for “greatest expected utility” or should we protect against unlikely but terrible outcomes by using a maximin rule for deciding?

There are several deficiencies in this story. Most obviously, few of us actually go through the kinds of calculations specified here. We often act out of habit or semi-articulated rules of thumb. Moreover, we are often concerned about factors that don’t fit into the “preferences and beliefs” framework, like moral commitments, conceptions of ourselves, loyalties to others, and the like. Pragmatists would add that much mundane action flows from a combination of habit and creativity rather than formal calculation of costs and benefits.

But my concern here is larger. What is involved in being deliberative and purposive about extended stretches of time? How do we lay out the guideposts of a life plan? And what is involved in acting deliberatively and purposively in carrying out one’s life plan or other medium- and long-term goals?

Here I want to look more closely than usual at what is involved in reflecting on one’s purposes and values, formulating a plan for the medium or long term, and acting in the short term in ways that further the big plan. My topic is “rationality in action”, but I want to pay attention to the issues associated with large, extended purposes — not bounded decisions like buying a house, making a financial investment, or choosing a college. I’m thinking of larger subjects for deliberation — for example, conquering all of Europe (Napoleon), leading the United States through a war for the Union ( Lincoln), or becoming a committed and active anti-Nazi (Bonhoeffer).

The scale I’m focusing on here corresponds to questions like these:

  • How did Napoleon deliberate about his ambitions in 1789? How did he carry out his thoughts, goals, and plans?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery and the Union in 1861? How did his conduct of politics and war take shape in relation to his long term goals?
  • How did Richard Rorty plan his career in the early years? How did his choices reflect those plans? (Neil Gross considers this question in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link.)
  • How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer deliberate about the choices in front of him in Germany in 1933? How did he decide to become an engaged anti-Nazi, at the eventual cost of his life?

What these examples have in common is large temporal scope; substantial uncertainties about the future; and extensive intertwining of moral and political values with more immediate concerns of self-interest, prudence, and desire. Moreover, the act of formulating plans on this scale and living them out is formative: we become different persons through these efforts.

The intriguing question for me at the moment is the issue of rational deliberation: to what extent and through what processes can individuals engage in a rational process in thinking through their decisions and plans at this level? Is it an expectation of rationality that an individual will have composed nested sets of plans and objectives, from the most global to the intermediate to the local?

Or instead, does a person’s journey through large events take its shape in a more stochastic way: opportunities, short term decisions, chance involvements, and some ongoing efforts to make sense of it all in the form of a developing narrative? Here we might say that life is not planned, but rather built like Neurath’s raft with materials at hand; and that rationality and deliberation come in only at a more local scale.

Here is a simple way of characterizing purposive action over a long and complex period. The actor has certain guiding goals he or she is trying to advance. It is possible to reflect upon these goals in depth and to consider their compatibility with other important considerations. This might be called “goal deliberation”. These goals and values serve as the guiding landmarks for the journey — “keep moving towards the tallest mountain on the horizon”. The actor surveys the medium-term environment for actions that are available to him or her, and the changes in the environment that may be looming in that period. And he or she composes a plan for these circumstances– “attempt to keep moderate Southern leaders from supporting cecession”. This is the stage of formulation of mid-range strategies and tactics, designed to move the overall purposes forward. Finally, like Odysseus, the actor seizes unforeseen opportunities of the moment in ways that appear to advance the cause even lacking a blueprint for how to proceed.

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc.

As biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have recognized, the process of species evolution through natural selection is inherently myopic. Long term intelligent action is not so, in that it is possible for intelligent actors to consider distant solutions that are potentially achievable through orchestrated series of actions — plans and strategies. But in order to achieve the benefits of intelligent longterm action, it is necessary to be intelligent at every stage — formulate good and appropriate distant goals, carefully assess the terrain of action to determine as well as possible what pathways exist to move toward those goals, and act in the moment in ways that are both intelligent solutions to immediate opportunities and obstacles, and have the discipline to forego short term gain in order to stay on the path to the long term goal. But, paradoxically, it may be possible to be locally rational at every step and yet globally irrational, in the sense that the series of rational choices lead to an outcome widely divergent from the overriding goals one has selected.

I’ve invoked a number of different ideas here, all contributing to the notion of rational action over an extended time: deliberation, purposiveness, reflection, calculation of consequences, intelligent problem solving, and rational choice among discrete alternatives. What is interesting to me is that each these activities is plainly relevant to the task of “rational action”; and yet none reduces to the other. In particular, rational choice theory cannot be construed as a general and complete answer to the question, “what is involved in acting rationally over the long term?”.

Michael Bratman is the philosopher who has thought about these issues the most deeply; Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe’s recent festschrift on Bratman’s work, Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, is also a useful contribution on the subject. Sarah Paul provides a nice review of Rational and Social Agency here.

Peggy Somers’ contribution to realism

Peggy Somers is an important contributor to the active field of sociological theory. And she identifies as a critical realist when it comes to understanding the logic and epistemology of the historical social sciences. Her views were extensively developed in “We’re no angels” (1998; link). The title picks up on the epistemology that she favors: non-perfectionist, anti-foundationalist, historically situated. In the essay she moves back and forth between post-Kuhnian philosophy of science and specific controversies in the methodology of the historical social sciences.

The essay takes its origin as a rebuttal to a critical review of the methodologies of historical sociology offered by Kiser and Hechter in “The role of general theory in comparative-historical sociology” (1991; link). A central target of Somers’ arguments here is the idea defended by Kiser and Hechter that rational choice theory is the preferred theoretical framework for historical social science. Somers believes — as do most historical sociologists — that rational choice theory (RCT) is a legitimate but partial contribution to a pluralistic approach to historical sociology. Emphatically, it is too narrow a basis for constructing explanations of important large-scale historical movements and outcomes. So RCT advocates like Kiser and Hechter make the mistake of “theoretical monism” — imagining that a single theoretical premise might be sufficient to explain a large, complex domain of social phenomena.

A key theme in Somers’ treatment here is a contrast among several kinds of realism. Here is Somers’ brief description:

All versions of realism accept that causal mechanisms—despite being unobservable—must be used as the basis of explanatory theoretical accounts; but only rational choice realism generates those mechanisms using on “ontic methodology” (Salmon 1984) in which the causal mechanisms of social explanation are postulated a priori from the same general theory that “guides” their research. (726)

And here are some key examples of what she means by causal mechanisms in the social world: “price mechanisms, maximizing preferences, class consciousness, value-driven intentionality, or domination” (726).

Somers identifies at least two kinds of realism — what she calls “theoretical realism” and “relational and pragmatic realism”. She favors the latter:

Relational realism posits that belief in the causal power of unobservables—such as states, markets, or social classes—does not depend on the rationality or truth of any given theory but upon practical evidence of its causal impact on the relationships in which it is embedded…. Relational realists believe that, while it is justifiable to theorize about unobservables, any particular theory entailing theoretical phenomena is historically provisional. For relational realism that means one can believe in the reality of a phenomenon without necessarily believing in the absolute truth or ultimate reality of any single theory that claims to explain it. (743-44)

And she believes that the two realisms have very different epistemological backgrounds — deductivist and pragmatist:

Where the two realisms differ, then, is that while theoretical realism attributes an ontological truth to the theoretical phenomenon (e.g., the theory of electrons or the theory of market equilibrium), relational realism focuses on the relational effect of the phenomenon itself (e.g., the impact of the hypothesized electron on its environment or of the hypothesized market forces on an observable outcome). (745)

The most basic criticism that Somers offers of Kiser and Hechter is their mono-theoretic deductivism — their claim that rigorous social science requires deductive derivation of a given social outcome from a theoretical premise. It is the theory that is at the heart of the explanation, according to this view of methodology. But for Somers — and in the relational, pragmatist version of realism that she favors — the ontology comes first. We may not know exactly what an electron is in detail; but we know the reality of electricity by the effects and causal properties we can probe practically and experimentally. This is the pragmatic aspect of her favored realism:

Social phenomena endure; but the “theoretical entities” that have purported to explain them are socially constructed—some more convincingly than others because they are more pragmatic and relational.

Somers faults what she calls theoretical realism for its commitment to explanation and confirmation through the hypothetic-deductive method. So what are the chief characteristics of her preferred alternative?

First, relational realism is “minimalist” —

[Relational realism is] minimalist because it recognizes that the partial concept- dependence of social life puts limits on the general realist premise of the absolute mind-independent status of the social world; yet realist nonetheless, in contrast to hermeneutics or radical constructivism in that some degree of concept-dependence does not in any way subvert the premise of a social world that exists independently of our beliefs about it. (766)

This amounts to an anti-foundationalist epistemology: we cannot establish the truth of all the premises and presuppositions of an explanation.

Second, relational realism is pluralistic; it encourages the discovery of multiple causal factors within a complex circumstance. This is in opposition to the theoretical monism of RCT supporters and is consistent with Robert Merton’s advocacy of a social science based on a search for theories of the middle range (link).

Third, relational realism is anti-essentialist; it recommends that the researcher should look at the social world as consisting of shifting configurations of social actors and institutions.

A relational ontology thus follows Popper’s rejection of essentialism and instead looks at the basic units of the social world as relational identities constituted in relational configurations. In place of a language of essences and inherent causal properties, a relational realism substitutes a language of networks and relationships that are not predetermined but made the indeterminate objects of investigation. (767)

An earlier post here raised a rather similar question about several kinds of realism, and the conclusions I reached were somewhat parallel as well. I offered support for scientific realism over critical realism. Here is the crucial passage:

So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:

  1. I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
  2. I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  3. I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
  4. I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
  5. I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  6. I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  7. I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  8. I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  9. I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.

These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, a scientific realism.

I wonder which of these premises Somers would endorse, and which she would criticize? I suspect that premise (5) will make her uneasy, given her desire to emphasize relationality in the social world; but that is certainly not ruled out in an actor-centered approach to social research. (This was also a contrast that Chuck Tilly drew between his approach to the social world and mine: “Dan, your approach is more individualistic than mine. I prefer to emphasize relations among the actors!”)

The domain of agent-based models

Agent-based modeling is an intriguing new set of tools for computational social science. The techniques permit us to project forward the system-level effects of a set of assumptions about agent behavior and a given environment. What kinds of real social phenomena are amenable to treatment by the techniques of agent-based modeling? David O’Sullivan and his co-authors offer an assessment of this question in their contribution to a valuable recent handbook, Heppenstall et al, Agent-Based Models of Geographical Systems. (Andrew Crooks and Alison Heppenstall provide a valuable and clear introduction to ABM methodology in their contribution to the volume.)

O’Sullivan and colleagues offer a basic taxonomy of different applications of ABM research.

— simple abstract models where the focus is on exploring the collective implications of individual-level decision making.
— more detailed [accounts that] locate virtual model agents in a representation of the real world setting of interest. Typically, such models operate at a regional or landscape scale
— some of the most ambitious models aim at detailed … representations of both the geographical setting and the processes unfolding in that setting (111-112)

This taxonomy depends on the degree of abstraction and realism that the model aspires to.

Here are a handful of research projects that are amenable to these techniques, most of which are illustrated in the Heppenstall volume.

— Land use patterns in peasant agriculture
— Residential patterns — urban and rural
— Patterns of burglaries
— Occurrence of interpersonal violence in civil war
— Traffic patterns — pedestrian and vehicular

What do the clear examples have in common? They are situations where a number of independent individuals react to a social and natural environment with a set of goals; and they are usually situations where individuals influence each other through their actions. These are situations of dynamic interactive choices. O’Sullivan and colleagues put these points this way:

We consider the most fundamental characteristics of agents in spatial models to be goal-direction and autonomy…. However, more specific definitions of the concept may add any of flexibility, ‘intelligence’, communication, learning, adaptation or a host of other features to these two. (115)

(Crooks and Heppenstall provide a similar list: autonomy, heterogeneity, and activity; 87.)

O’Sullivan et al also pose an important question about what the circumstances are where the features of agents makes a difference in the social outcome:

This argument focuses attention on three model features: heterogeneity of the decision-making context of agents, the importance of interaction effects , and the overall size and organization of the system. If agents are the same throughout the system, then, other things being equal, an aggregate approach is likely to capture the same signifi cant features of the system as an agent-based approach.

Essentially the point here is a simple one: if an aggregate outcome results from homogenous individuals making a decision about something on the same basis as everyone else, then we don’t need an agent-based model. ABM techniques become valuable when heterogeneous agents interact with each other to bring about novel outcomes.

There are quite a few social situations that do not fit the terms of these models well. Some social processes are not simply the aggregate outcome of choices by a set of independent autonomous agents. For example, the flow of work through an architectural design studio is determined by the rules of the firm, not the independent choices of the employees, and the behavior of an army is largely determined by its general staff and command structure. O’Sullivan et al put the point this way:

A more important question may be, “what should the agents in an ABM of this system represent?” If the interactions among individual actors in the real world are substantially channelled via institutions or other social or spatial structures, perhaps it is those institutions or social or spatial structures that should be represented as agents in an ABM rather than the individuals of which they are formed. (120)

So a general question for ABM methodology is this: where do structural social factors come into ABM models? Here I am thinking of things like a system of regulation and law; a pattern of racialized behavior; the architecture of the transport system; a tax system; …. We might treat these as parameters in the environment of choice for the agents. They are beyond the control of the agents and are regarded as constraints and opportunities. (This is one place where the framework of “strategic interactive fields” disagrees, since the SIF approach looks at institutions themselves as part of the field of strategic interaction in that individuals strive to modify the rules to their own benefit.)

It seems reasonable to judge that ABM techniques are very useful when we are concerned with phenomena that are aggregates of strategic behavior by individual actors; but they are not pertinent to many of the questions sociologists pose. In particular, they do not seem useful for sociological inquiries that are primarily concerned with the dynamics and effects of large social structures where the behavior of individuals is routine, homogeneous, or largely determined exogenously. These are the circumstances where the premises of the ABM approach — autonomy, heterogeneity, and activity — are not satisfied.

Social embeddedness

To what extent do individuals choose their courses of action largely on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits? And to what extent, on the contrary, are their actions importantly driven by the normative assumptions they share with other individuals with whom they interact? Mark Granovetter formulated this foundational question for the social sciences in his important 1985 contribution to the American Journal of Sociology, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness” (link). He used the concept of embeddedness as a way of capturing the idea that the actions individuals choose are importantly refracted by the social relations within which they function. This is a topic we’ve addressed frequently in prior posts under the topic of the social actor, and Granovetter’s contribution is an important one to consider as we try to further clarify the issues involved.

The large distinction at issue here is the contrast between rational actor models of the social world, in which the actor makes choices within a thin set of context-independent decision rules, and social actor models, in which the actor is largely driven by a context-defined set of scripts as he/she makes choices. The contrast is sometimes illustrated by contrasting neoclassical economic models of the market with substantivist models along the lines of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, and it links to the debate in economic anthropology between formalists and substantivists. Here is how Granovetter puts the fundamental question:

How behavior and institutions are affected by social relations is one of the classic questions of social theory. (481)

He argues that neither of the polar positions are tenable.  The formalist approach errs in taking too a-social view of the actor:

Classical and neoclassical economics operates, in contrast, with an atomized, undersocialized conception of human action, continuing in the utilitarian tradition. … In classical and neoclassical economics, therefore, the fact that actors may have social relations with one another has been treated, if at all, as a frictional drag that impedes competitive markets. (483, 484)

But the extreme alternative isn’t appealing either:

More recent comments by economists on “social influences” construe these as processes in which actors acquire customs, habits, or norms that are followed mechanically and automatically, irrespective of their bearing on rational choice. (485)

So action doesn’t reduce to abstract optimizing rationality, and it doesn’t reduce to inflexible cultural or normative scripts either. Instead, Granovetter proposes an approach to this topic that reframes the issue around a more fluid and relational conception of the actor. Like the pragmatist theories of the actor discussed in earlier posts (AbbottGrossJoas), he explores the idea that the actor’s choices emerge from a flow of interactions and shifting relations with others. The actor is not an atomized agent, but rather a participant in a flow of actions and interactions.

At the same time, Granovetter insists that this approach does not deny purposiveness and agency to the actor. The actor reacts and responds to the social relations surrounding him or her; but actions are constructed and refracted through the consciousness, beliefs, and purposes of the individual. 

The idea of embeddedness is crucial for Granovetter’s argument; but it isn’t explicitly defined in this piece.  The idea of an “embedded” individual is contrasted to the idea of an atomized actor; this implies that the individual’s choices and actions are generated, in part anyway, by the actions and expected behavior of other actors.  It is a relational concept; the embedded actor exists in a set of relationships with other actors whose choices affect his or her own choices as well.  And this in turn implies that the choices actors make are not wholly determined by facts internal to their spheres of individual deliberation and beliefs; instead, actions are importantly influenced by the observed and expected behavior of others.

Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations. (487)

Some of Granovetter’s discussion crystallizes around the social reality of trust within a system of economic actors. Trust is an inherently relational social category; it depends upon the past and present actions and interactions within a group of actors, on the basis of which the actors choose courses of action that depend on expectations about the future cooperative actions of the other actors. Trust for Granovetter is therefore a feature of social relations and social networks:

The embeddedness argument stresses instead the role of concrete personal relations and structures (or “networks”) of such relations in generating trust and discouraging malfeasance. (490)

And trust is relevant to cooperation in all its variants — benevolent and malicious as well. As Granovetter points out, a conspiracy to defraud a business requires a group of trusting confederates. So it is an important sociological question to investigate how those bonds of trust among thieves are created and sustained.

This line of thought, and the theory of the actor that it suggests, is an important contribution to how we can understand social behavior in a wide range of contexts. The key premise is that individuals choose their actions in consideration of the likely choices of others, and this means that their concrete social relations are critical to their actions. How frequently do a set of actors interact? Has there been a history of successful cooperation among these actors in the past? Are there rivalries among the actors that might work to reduce trust? These are all situational and historical facts about the location and social relations of the individual. And they imply that very similar individuals, confronting very similar circumstances of choice, may arrive at very different patterns of social action dependent on their histories of interaction with each other. 

It seems that this theory of the actor would be amenable to empirical investigation.  The methodologies of experimental economics could be adapted to study of the relational intelligence that Granovetter describes here. Recent works by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt explore related empirical questions about decision making in the context of problems involving fairness and reciprocity (Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies and “The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism – Experimental Evidence and New Theories”; link).

(These topics have come up in earlier discussions here. Here is a post on Chuck Tilly’s treatment of trust networks; link. Amartya Sen’s discussion of “rational fools” is relevant as well, as is his account of the role that commitments play in action (link). It seems likely that Granovetter would argue that Sen’s solution is still too formalist, in that it attempts to internalize he social relations component into the actor’s calculations. This is true of the “identity economics” approach as well; (link).)

Amartya Sen’s commitments

A recent post examined the Akerlof and Kranton formalization of identity within a rational choice framework.  It is worth considering how this approach compares with Amartya Sen’s arguments about “commitments” in “Rational Fools” (link). 

Sen’s essay is a critique of the theory of narrow economic rationality to the extent that it is thought to realistically describe real human deliberative decision-making. He chooses Edgeworth as a clear expositor of the narrow theory: “the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self interest” (Sen 317, quoting Mathematical Psychics). Sen notes that real choices don’t reflect the maximizing logic associated with rational choice theory: “Choice may reflect a compromise among a variety of considerations of which personal welfare may be just one” (324). Here he argues for the importance of “commitments” in our deliberations about reasons for action. Acting on the basis of commitment is choosing to do something that leads to an outcome that we don’t subjectively prefer; it is acting in a way that reflects the fact that our actions are not solely driven by egoistic choice.  “Commitments” are other-regarding considerations that come into the choices that individuals make.

Sen distinguishes between sympathy and commitment:

The former corresponds to the case in which the concern for others directly affects one’s own welfare. If the knowledge of torture of others makes you sick, it is a case of sympathy; if it does not make you feel personally worse off, but you think it is wrong and you are ready to do something to stop it, it is a case of commitment. (326)
The characteristic of commitment with which I am most concerned here is the fact that it drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare, and much of traditional economic theory relies on the identity of the two. (329)
Sen thinks that John Harsanyi made an advance on the narrow conception of rationality by introducing discussion of two separate preference orderings that are motivational for real decision-makers: ethical preferences and subjective preferences. (This is in “Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility”.)  But Sen rightly points out that this construction doesn’t give us a basis for choosing when the two orderings dictate incompatible choices.  Sen attempts to formalize the idea of a commitment as a second-order preference ordering: a ranking of rankings.  “We need to consider rankings of preference rankings to express our moral judgments” (337).

Can one preference ordering do all these things? A person thus described may be “rational” in the limited sense of revealing no inconsistencies in his choice behavior, but if he has no use for these distinctions between quite different concepts, he must be a bit of a fool. The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool decked in the glory of his one all-purpose preference ordering. To make room for the different concepts related to his behavior we need a more elaborate structure. (335-336)

Here is an example.  “I wish I liked vegetarian foods more” is an example of a second-order preference ranking: it indicates a rational preference for the first-order ranking in which the vegetarian option comes ahead of the lamb option over the ranking in which these options are reversed.  And Sen’s point is an important one: the second-order ranking can be behaviorally influential.  I may choose the vegetarian option, not because I prefer it, but because I prefer the world arrangement in which I go for the vegetarian option.  Or in other words, one’s principles or commitments may trump one’s first-order preferences. 

Significantly, Sen’s thinking on this subject was developed in part through a conference organized by Stephen Körner on practical reason in the 1970s (Practical Reason: Papers and Discussions).  This is significant because it focuses attention on a very basic fact: we don’t yet have good theories of how a variety of considerations — ethical principles, personal identities, feelings of solidarity, reasoning about fairness, and self-interest — get aggregated into decisions in particular choice circumstances.

Other economists might object to this formulation on the basis of the fact that second-order preference rankings are more difficult to model; so we don’t get clean, simple mathematical representations of behavior if we introduce this complication.  Sen acknowledges this point:

Admitting behavior based on commitment would, of course have far- reaching consequences on the nature of many economic models. I have tried to show why this change is necessary and why the consequences may well be serious. Many issues remain unresolved, including the empirical importance of commitment as a part of behavior, which would vary, as I have argued, from field to field. I have also indicated why the empirical evidence for this cannot be sought in the mere observation of actual choices, and must involve other sources of information, including introspection and discussion. (341-342)

But his reply is convincing.  There are substantial parts of ordinary human activity that don’t make sense if we think of rationality as egoistic maximization of utility.  Collective action, group mobilization, religious sacrifice, telling the truth, and working to the fullest extent of one’s capabilities are all examples of activity where narrow egoistic rationality would dictate different choices than those ordinary individuals are observed to make.  And yet ordinary individuals are not irrational when they behave this way. Rather, they are reflective and deliberative, and they have reasons for their actions.  So the theory of rationality needs to have a way of representing this non-egoistic reasonableness.  This isn’t the only way that moral and normative commitments can be incorporated into a theory of rational deliberation; but it is one substantive attempt to do so, and is more satisfactory (for me, anyway) than the construction offered by Akerlof and Kranton.

(I also like the neo-Kantian approach taken by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism as an effort to demonstrate that non-egoistic reasoning is rational.)

Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics

George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton have collaborated for over ten years on a simple idea: is it possible to introduce the concept of social identity into the formal mechanics of mainstream economics? Can “identity” complement “interest” in the calculation of rational individual behavior? Their ideas were developed in several important articles: “Economics and Identity” (link), “Identity and the Economics of Organizations” (link), and “Identity and Schooling” (link).  These earlier articles are all available on the Internet.  Much of their thinking is pulled together in a recent book, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being.

So what is their theory of identity and rational behavior?  “Economics and Identity” (2000) is a good place to begin. Akerlof and Kranton argue that there are common social phenomena that are not well explained by the assumption of narrow economic rationality, but that are more amenable to treatment with a theory of individual choice that incorporates the factor of social identity. They include “ethnic and racial conflict, discrimination, intractable labor disputes, and separatist politics” as examples of social behavior that “invite an identity-based analysis” (716).

Here is how they incorporate the behavioral mechanism of identity into an actor model, using the example of gender identity:

Everyone in the population is assigned a gender category, as either a ‘‘man’’ or a ‘‘woman.’’ Following the behavioral prescriptions for one’s gender affirms one’s self image, or identity, as a ‘‘man’’ or as a ‘‘woman.’’ Violating the prescriptions evokes anxiety and discomfort in oneself and in others. Gender identity, then, changes the ‘‘payoffs’’ from different actions. (716-717)

In other words, they incorporate identity into the rational-actor model by hypothesizing that one’s identity alters one’s utility function or preferences:

In the next section we propose a general utility function that incorporates identity as a motivation for behavior. (717)

And here is the utility function they produce (719):

We propose the following utility function:

(1) Uj = Uj(aj,a_ j,Ij).

Utility depends on j’s identity or self-image Ij, as well as on the usual vectors of j’s actions, aj, and others’ actions, a_j. Since aj and a_j determine j’s consumption of goods and services, these arguments andUj(·) are sufficient to capture the standard economics of own actions and externalities.

Following our discussion above, we propose the following representation of Ij:

(2) Ij = Ij(aj,a_j;cj,epsilonj,P).

A person j’s identity Ij depends, first of all, on j’s assigned social categories cj. The social status of a category is given by the function Ij(·), and a person assigned a category with higher social status may enjoy an enhanced self-image. Identity further depends on the extent to which j’s own given characteristics j match the ideal of j’s assigned category, indicated by the prescriptions P. Finally, identity depends on the extent to which j’s own and others’ actions correspond to prescribed behavior indicated by P. We call increases or decreases in utility that derive from Ij, gains or losses in identity.

What this comes down to, in my reading, is the idea that one’s “identity” creates a new set of payoffs for some actions, depending on whether the action confirms and enhances one’s identity fulfillment or whether it decreases one’s identity fulfillment. If I am a Welsh miner and strongly subscribe to the idealizations associated with miners — then I will take utility in the actions that express solidarity and thereby buttress my status as a good miner, even when the self-regarding utilities of the action would dictate anti-solidarity.  Crudely, identity-consonance is a plus utility, while identity-dissonance is a minus utility, and actors balance first-order utilities and identity-consonance utilities in their ultimate choice of action. So this construction doesn’t deviate from standard rational choice reasoning much, if at all. Rather, it extends the cost-benefit calculation to include a new category of effect that the agent is hypothesized to value or disvalue–consistency / inconsistency with self concept.

This is a pretty limited conception of how identities work.  A more adequate treatment of identity as a substantive feature of social psychology ought to pay attention to a number of dimensions of practical rationality that are not included in this analysis.  (i) Cognitive frameworks. Individuals with a specific identity may have distinctive ways of conceptualizing and experiencing the world.  These differences may affect behavior through mechanisms that are quite distinct from calculation of costs and benefits. (ii) Normative motivations. It is possible that people make decisions on the basis of their normative commitments, and that this process is to some degree independent from calculations of costs and benefits.  Moreover, it is possible that different groups have significantly different normative commitments. In this case individuals from different “identities” may behave significantly differently when confronted with apparently similar situations of choice. (iii) Group affinities / identifications. It is possible that there is a social psychology of “solidarity” that has its own dynamic and behavioral consequences; and that this affective or motivational system has different characteristics in different groups. (iv) Emotional frameworks. It is possible that individuals absorb behaviorally important systems of emotions and feelings through their development within a specific cultural group; and it is possible that differences across groups lead to different patterns of behavior in common scenarios of action and choice.

So I think that Akerlof and Kranton are right to think that the theory of action associated with narrow economic rationality doesn’t do justice to ordinary decision making in a range of important cases.  They are right as well in thinking that the social psychology of identities and normative commitments is relevant to behavior in ways that cannot be pushed aside as “extra-rational.” But I don’t find their solution based on incorporating identity “utilities” into a larger utility function to be an adequate way of incorporating these broader considerations for action into a theory of the rational actor.

(It is worth observing that the descriptions offered by Akerlof and Kranton of the prescriptions surrounding gender identity are quite jarring: for example, “the ideal woman is female, thin, and should always wear a dress”. Here is another set of gender stereotypes that they weave into their exposition:

Female trial lawyer, male nurse, woman Marine—all conjure contradictions. Why? Because trial lawyers are viewed as masculine, nurses as feminine, and a Marine as the ultimate man. People in these occupations but of the opposite sex often have ambiguous feelings about their work. In terms of our utility function, an individual’s actions do not correspond to gender prescriptions of behavior. (721-22)

These assumptions aren’t crucial to their argument, but they are difficult to overlook.  It is hard to read these expository paragraphs without thinking that Akerlof and Kranton have built some very basic negative stereotypes into their description of gender identities. So it’s worth noting how a very good gender theorist might react to these descriptions.  Here is a very good, nuanced analysis by Elizabeth Cole and Alyssa Zucker on “Black and White Women’s Perspectives on Femininity” that does a much more adequate job of describing gendered identities (link).)

Coleman on the elementary actor

 

James Coleman’s work has had a major influence on an important strand of thinking in the social sciences since the publication of Foundations of Social Theory in 1990.  He was a somewhat iconoclastic sociologist, in that his approach to social theory was grounded in an actor-centered view of the social world. He was a rational-choice theorist in a world of sociologists who usually have a lot of skepticism about rational-choice models of social action.

Here is how Coleman describes two basic approaches to sociology in “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital” (link; 1988).

There are two broad intellectual streams in the description and explanation of social action. One, characteristic of the work of most sociologists, sees the actor as socialized and action as governed by social norms, rules, and obligations. The principal virtues of this intellectual stream lie in its ability to describe action in social context and to explain the way action is shaped, constrained, and redirected by the social context.  The other intellectual stream, characteristic of the work of most economists, sees the actor as having goals independently arrived at, as acting independently, and as wholly self-interested. Its principal virtue lies in having a principle of action, that of maximizing utility. This principle of action, together with a single empirical generalization (declining marginal utility) has generated growth of neoclassical economic theory, as well as the growth of political philosophy of several varieties: utilitarianism, contractarianism, and natural rights. (S95)

Coleman indicates here that his distinctive approach to sociology attempts to combine both streams; but this isn’t quite accurate.  Really, his treatment of norms, rules, and organizations is grounded in the rational-choice framework; he seeks to incorporate normative behavior into the orbit of rational choice.  Fundamentally, then, Coleman’s social theory is a microfoundational attempt to show how a range of social patterns, institutions, and organizations can be explained in terms of the rational choices of the actors who are involved in those patterns.

The fundamental construct on which Coleman depends is the idea of an “elementary actor.” Here is how he characterizes the “elementary actor” in Foundations of Social Theory.

The elementary actor is the wellspring of action, no matter how complex are the structures through which action takes place. For the theory of this book, the elementary actors as described so far constitute extraordinarily simplified abstractions of human individuals. They are hedonic creatures, who experience satisfaction to differing degrees from the outcomes of various events and from the acquisition or consumption of various resources. The expectancy of such satisfaction leads an individual actor to act in a way intended to increase it. (Coleman 503)

This description is aggressively weighted towards a “thin” theory of action, and it is difficult to see where the ideas of socialization and norms can come into the picture.  It is a remarkably sketchy theory of human action; it is designed to permit mathematical modeling rather than to provide a language in terms of which to describe ordinary human behavior.  It is wholly non-contextualized; it provides no nuance in terms of other factors that might influence thought and action; and it erases all that is concrete and historical from human action.

A distinctive aspect of Coleman’s view is his willingness to countenance corporate actors as actors.  Natural, biological actors are one particularly kind of agent; but in Coleman’s model of social action, there are actors at a range of levels of social aggregation.

A natural person encompasses two selves, object self and acting self, or principal and agent, in one physical corpus. A minimal corporate actor is created when principal and agent are two different persons. With this same minimal structure, the principal may be a corporate actor, or the agent may be a corporate actor, or both may be corporate actors (as when a corporation owns another corporation). (421)

In each case an actor is defined in terms of a set of interests and goals, a set of beliefs about the environment of choice, and a decision rule.  These assumptions permit the theorist to reason about choices and interactions in complex social settings.  These actors can then be introduced into an aggregative model to simulate the consequences of their choices.

So what about norms?  How do norms play into Coleman’s conception of social action?

The concept of a norm, existing at a macrosocial level and governing the behavior of individuals at a microsocial level, provides a convenient device for explaining individual behavior, taking the social system as given. …

Durkheim began with social organization and in a part of his work asked, “How is an individual’s behavior affected by the social system within which he finds himself?” Answering this requires not the three components of social theory that I outlined in the first chapter of this book but only one — the transition from macro to micro. (241)

Coleman’s inclination is to explain norms as conventions that are in some sense advantageous over the long term for those who adopt them.  Norms have a substantial rational or prudential core; they depend on something like a social consensus about their value.

I will say that a norm concerning a specific action exists when the socially defined right to control the action is held not by the actor but by others. (243)

A norm may be embedded in a social system in a more fundamental way: The norm may be internal to the individual carrying out the action, with sanctions applied by that individual to his own actions.  In such a case a norm is said to be internalized. (243)

The emergence of norms is in some respects a prototypical micro-to-macro transition, because the process must arise from individual actions yet a norm itself is a system-level property which affects the further actions of individuals. (244)

It is hard for me to see that this construction could provide a promising framework for doing substantive sociological research.  The theory is ideal for the purpose of modeling stylized interactions and complexes of social actions.  It provides a malleable basis for simulation of social situations.  But it abstracts from the rich complexity of human agency in a way that seems assured to lead to failure when applied to real social phenomena.  Virtually every theory of agency acknowledges the importance of “purposiveness” within a theory of action.  So rational choice has a role to play within an adequate theory of the actor.  But the deficiency of this hyper-abstract rational-choice axiomatization of action is precisely that it assumes away the complexity and multi-dimensionality of real human action.  Here is an earlier post that sketches some of the other factors that need to be included in a messy theory of the actor.

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for “meta-ethics” in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of “moral constitution” for a just society.  The theory involves two fundamental principles of justice: the liberty principle, guaranteeing maximal equal liberties for all citizens, and the difference principle, requiring that social and economic inequalities should be the least possible, subject to the constraint of maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  (The principle also requires equality of opportunity for all positions.)

Two elements of Rawls’s philosophical argument were particularly striking.  The first was his adoption of the anti-foundationalist coherence epistemology associated with Quine and Goodman (SEP article by Jonathan Kvanvig); so Rawls conceded that it is not possible to provide logically decisive arguments for moral positions.  Though his theory of justice has much in common with the ideas of Kant and Rousseau, Rawls rejected the Kantian idea that moral theories could be given secure philosophical foundation.  It is rather a question of the overall fit between a set of principles and our “considered judgments” about cases and mid-level moral judgments.  He refers to the situation of “reflective equilibrium” as the state of affairs that results when a moral reasoner has fully deliberated about his/her considered moral judgments and tentative moral principles, adjusting both until no further changes are required by the requirement of consistency.

Another and perhaps even more distinctive part of Rawls’s approach is his use of the apparatus of decision theory to support his arguments in favor of the two principles of justice against plausible alternatives (including especially utilitarianism).  Essentially the argument goes along these lines.  Suppose that representative individuals are brought together in a situation in which they are expected to make a unanimous and irreversible decision about the fundamental principles of justice that will regulate their society; and suppose they are profoundly ignorant about their own particular characteristics.  Participants do not know whether they are talented, strong, intelligent, or eloquent; and they do not know what their fundamental goals are (their theories of the good).  Rawls refers to this situation of choice as the original position; and he refers to the participants as deliberating behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism.  And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct.  This is what qualifies Rawls’s theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).

Once we connect the question, “what is the best theory of justice?”, with the question, “what principles of justice would rationally self-interested persons choose?”, there are various ways we might proceed.  Rawls’s description of the original position is just one possible starting point out of several.  But if we begin with Rawls’s assumptions, then it is natural to turn to formal decision theory as a basis for answering the question.  How should rational agents reason in these circumstances?  How should they decide which of several options will best serve their future interests?  And one point becomes clear immediately: the choice of a decision rule makes a critical difference for the ultimate choice.  If we were to imagine that decision-making under conditions of uncertainty mandates the “maximize expected utility” rule, then one choice follows (utilitarianism).  But Rawls argues that the expected utility rule is not rational in the circumstances of the original position.  The stakes are too high for each participant.  And therefore he argues that the “maximin” rule would be chosen by rational participants in the circumstances of the original position.  The maximin rule requires that we rank options by their worst possible outcome; and we choose that option that comes with the least bad outcome.  In other words, we “maximize the minimum.” (The maximin rule was described by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.)

Notice that this analysis involves a question of second-order rationality: not “what outcome would the rational agent choose?”, but rather “what decision rule would the rational agent follow?”.  So it is the rationality of the decision rule rather than the rationality of the choice that is at issue.

Another important qualification has to do with defining more carefully what part of the theory of rationality Rawls is using in this argument.  It is sometimes said that Rawls applies game theory to the situation of the original position; and there is a certain logic to this interpretation.  Game theory is the theory of strategic rationality; it pertains to that set of situations in which the payoff for one participant depends on the rational choices of other participants. And the original position seems to embody this condition.  However, the requirement of unanimity and the complete absence of a context of bargaining makes the situation non-strategic.  So Rawls’s use of rational choice theory does not involve game theory per se, and he is not interested in demonstrating a Nash equilibrium in the OP.  Instead, he believes that there is a single best strategy that will be chosen by each individual–the two principles of justice.  (Here is a good brief description of the main assumptions of game theory.)

One might ask whether the two features singled out here — anti-foundationalism and decision theory — are consistent.  If Rawls’s theory of justice depends on an argument within formal decision theory, then why is it not a foundationalist argument?  (And in fact, Rawls on occasion refers to his argument as reflecting a “kind of moral geometry”.)  What makes Rawls’s use of decision theory “anti-foundationalist” is the fact that this argument itself is philosophically contestable.  Reasonable decision theorists may differ about the rationality of the maximin rule (as John Harsanyi argued against Rawls).  So the appeal to decision theory does not obviate the need for a balance of reasons in favor of the approach and the particular way in which it is specified in this situation; and this in turn sounds a lot like the role of physical theory and methodology within Quine’s notion of “The Web of Belief.”

(A mountain of words have been written about Rawls’s moral epistemology.  Here is Samuel Freeman’s excellent article on the original position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here is a useful compendium of the history of rational choice theory; and here is an old article of mine on the epistemology of reflective equilibrium.)

Norms and deliberative rationality


Why do people cooperate? That is, what motivates individuals to come together to share labor and resources in pursuit of a common good from which they cannot be excluded — fighting fires, hunting marauding tigers, cleaning up a public beach? Standard rational choice theory, and its application to problems of individual rationality in group settings, implies that cooperation should be unstable in the face of free-riding. This was Mancur Olson’s central conclusion in his classic book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Roughly, his conclusion was that cooperation would be possible only if there were excludable side benefits for participants, selective coercion to enforce cooperation, or privatization of the gains of collective action. Otherwise, it is prisoners’ dilemmas all the way down. However, we know from many social contexts that individuals do in fact succeed in establishing cooperative relationships without any of these supporting conditions. So what are we missing when we consider social action from the narrow perspective of rational choice theory?

A part of the answer to this puzzle involves the role of norms in action. Here the criticism is that the rational-choice approach, by attending solely to calculations of self-interest, is blind to the workings of normative frameworks; but in fact norms are powerful factors underlying behavior in most traditional contexts. This perspective finds expression in the moral economy literature within peasant studies — e.g. James Scott’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. (This debate is sometimes referred to as one between formalists and substantivists. Karl Polanyi is another good example of the substantivist perspective (The Great Transformation), while Sam Popkin (The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam) and Theodore Schultz (Transforming Traditional Agriculture) fall on the side of the formalists.)

According to the substantivist perspective, traditional societies are communities: tightly cohesive groups of persons sharing a distinctive set of values in stable, continuing relations to one another (Michael Taylor Community, Anarchy and Liberty). The central threats to security and welfare are well-known to such groups–excessive or deficient rainfall, attacks by bandits, predatory tax policies by the central government, etc. And village societies have evolved schemes of shared values and cooperative practices and institutions which are well-adapted to handling these problems of risk and welfare in ways which protect the subsistence needs of all villagers adequately in all but the most extreme circumstances. The substantivists thus maintain that traditions and norms are fundamental social factors, and that individual behavior is almost always modulated through powerful traditional motivational constraints. One consequence of this modulation is that many societies do not display a sharp distinction between group interest and individual interest that is predicted by collective action theory. (An important theoretical defense of this conclusion can be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom and her fellow researchers in their treatment of “common property resource regimes”; see Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.)

There are, of course, well-known social and behavioral processes that may tend to undermine the working of a given set of norms. Normative systems are inherently ambiguous and subject to revision over time. Consequently we should expect that opportunistic agents will find ways of adapting given social norms more comfortably to the pursuit of self-interest. Consider the requirement that elites should provide for the subsistence needs of the poor in times of dearth. There are some grounds for supposing that such a requirement is in the longterm interest of elites–for example, by promoting social stability and establishing bonds of reciprocity with other members of an interdependent society. But it seems reasonable to expect that elites–already by their superior economic position able to exercise political and social power as well–will find ways of limiting the effect of such norms on their behavior. So it is insufficient to simply postulate a set of governing norms; we need to identify the mechanisms at the group and individual levels that make them behaviorally relevant and stable. But, significantly, some theorists have tried to show that rational self-interest may actually reinforce certain kinds of norms of fairness and reciprocity; thus Robert Axelrod’s analysis of the dynamics of reciprocity demonstrates that cooperation is rational in relation to a variety of circumstances of face-to-face cooperation in The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition.

These points notwithstanding, there remains a credible line of criticism of the rational-choice paradigm based on the role of norms in behavior. For it is clear that individuals pay some attention to normative constraints within the process of rational deliberation. The model of simple maximizing decision-making is overly abstract; instead, we need to have a conception of rational action that permits us to incorporate some consideration of normative requirements as well as purposes and goals. We need a broader conception of practical rationality that incorporates both means-end rationality and normative deliberation; we need a theory that embraces both Mill and Aristotle.

A number of social scientists have taken this point seriously. Particularly profound is the critique of pure rational choice theory offered by Amartya Sen in an essay called “Rational Fools” (jstor link; and here is the introduction to a recent symposium on the article in Economics and Philosophy). Sen criticizes the assumption of pure self-interest which is contained in the standard conception. Against the assumption of self-interested maximizing decision-making, Sen argues for a proposal for a more structured concept of practical reason: one which permits the decision-maker to take account of commitments. This concept covers a variety of non-welfare features of reasoning, but moral principle (fairness and reciprocity) and altruistic concern for the welfare of others are central among these. Sen believes that the role of commitment is centrally important in the analysis of individuals’ behavior with regard to public goods, and he draws connections between the role of commitment and work motivation. He argues, therefore, that in order to understand different areas of rational behavior it is necessary to consider both utility-maximizing decision-making and rational conduct influenced by commitment; and it is an empirical question whether one factor or the other is predominant in a particular range of behavior. Thus Sen holds that an adequate theory of rationality requires more structure than a simple utility-maximizing model would allow; in particular, it needs to take account of moral norms and commitments.

These arguments are telling; the model of narrow economic rationality makes overly restrictive assumptions about the role of norms in rational behavior. Human behavior is the resultant of several different forms of motive–self-interest, fairness, and altruism; and several different types of decision-making processes–maximizing and deliberation. A more adequate model of broadened practical rationality therefore needs to incorporate a decision rule that represents the workings of moral constraints and commitments as well as goal-directed calculation. This rule should reduce to the familiar utility maximizing rule in circumstances in which moral constraints are not prominent — e.g., in decision-making within a market. But in situations where important norms of behavior are in play, we need to try to reproduce the more complex deliberation processes that real human decision-makers undergo in order to combine their normative commitments and their goals and preferences.

This is not a small problem, however; for one of the chief merits of the paradigm of narrow economic rationality is its parsimony–the fact that it reduces rational choice to a single dimension of deliberation. Once we require that rational choice theory needs to take normative constraints and commitments into account as well as interests, it is much more difficult to provide formal models of rational choice. However, some progress has been made on this problem. For example, Howard Margolis (Selfishness, Altruism, and Rationality) attempts to formalize represent rational deliberation in the presence of public goods as the result of two utility functions, one representing the individual’s private interests and the other the individual’s appraisal of the public good; the two functions are then aggregated by a higher order decision rule. (John Harsanyi makes similar arguments.)

This broadening of the conception of individual rationality has important implications. For example, consider public goods problems. Once we consider a more complex theory of practical deliberation, formal arguments concerning freeriding problems in real social groups will be indeterminate. On a more complex, and more empirically adequate, account of practical reason, conditional altruism, cooperation, and reciprocity may be deliberatively rational choices; therefore we would expect a social group consisting of rational individuals to show signs of cooperation and conditional altruism. And the challenge for sociology is to identify the mechanisms of individual deliberation and social reinforcement that serve to stabilize the system of norms and the behaviors that conform to them. This is one of the tasks that the field of new institutionalism has taken on (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, eds., The New Institutionalism in Sociology).

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