Friday 8 May 2009

Rational chairs and empty tables

Reason and Rationality, by Jon Elster (Princeton University Press)

Those restless French are often thought to take the dictates of human reason that bit more seriously than the rest of us, the Revolution of 1789 being a popular example. The less inflammatory creation of the Chair of Rationality at the public-oriented College de France for Jon Elster and his work on reason and rationality might be another. Yet today, more theorists are turning to behavioural economics in search of explanations for the current economic crisis - and strategies for getting us out of it. Nudging people into making more rational choices is an increasingly popular strategy on the part of western governments, whilst eradicating irrational beliefs, lifestyle and consumer choices is the aim of many a campaign. Whilst eighteenth century reason used to have a certain political charm, twenty first century rationality can seem its dowdy second cousin thrown headlong into a motley marriage with managerialism.

Elster’s contribution to this growing debate, in a palm-sized transcription of his inaugural lecture, is to diagnose two intellectual traditions; one that explores rationality and premises rational choice theory, and another – following the classical philosophers and seventeenth century moralists – that focuses instead on human reason. Hence, Reason and Rationality. Formerly a defender of methodological individualism whose early work attempted to use game theory to provide a non-functionalist basis for Marxism, following a fashionable trend amongst academics, he has now seen some limitations in his former position and begun seeking a way forward through more interdisciplinary means (see his 2007 book Explaining Social Behaviour. Though this introduction still offers an analysis at the level of individuals, it attempts to integrate political scientists’ normative theories of reason with social scientists’ explanatory uses of rationality in a bid to go beyond rational choice theory.

Elster begins, ‘whereas the theory of rational choice has been elaborated and developed with great precision, the same cannot be said of the idea of reason’ (p7). Rather than opposing rationality to various forms of irrationality as suggested by rational choice theorists concerned with what a person ideally should choose to do given their desired outcome; this tradition (from Seneca to La Bruyere) opposes rationality to the emotions or passions and later adds the notion of self-interest. Nevertheless, both share a certain ‘deference on the part of the actor…with regard to a source of normativity’ (p5). Though in many ways various theories aim both to explain and prescribe human behaviour, proposing different ways of pursuing the common good, ‘clarification also has its place in political debate’ (p6).

Indeed, historically the French Revolution represented a definitive moment in the development of human reason, where ideas about man’s ability to think and judge for himself was used to undermine the ruling monarchical and religious authorities of the day. The resultant idea of human rights is today a central plank of international law; whilst the Enlightenment ideals of liberté, fraternité, equalité continue to inspire academics and activists alike. Yet the reason of the Enlightenment philosophers met with fierce criticism not only from reactionaries but from the materialists who followed in the Enlightenment’s wake, and the attendant notion of human rights has similarly been criticised by many on the far left. For these critics, the idealised kingdom of reason envisaged by the philosophers was wrongheaded in its ‘bourgeois’ character, inextricably linked with the interests of those who theorised it. Similar challenges, often expressed in the language of today’s identity politics, have been taken up by many of the ‘postmodern left’.

Instead, Elster uses a ‘synthesis’ of classical theorists to propose his own distinctive theory of reason. An interesting discussion about how to understand ‘self interest properly understood’ draws on Tocqueville, explaining self interest as an ‘amalgam’ of both objective and subjective elements – both well-founded beliefs about the world and personal aims and goals. This ‘radically subjective’ element serves to accord an individual’s wants and desires more of a role in explaining and prescribing their actions than is usually afforded by rationality theorists.  Nevertheless, Elster also points out the problems raised by hypocrisy, or purposefully hiding the real motivations behind an action or proposal from others. Referring to the Ancient Greek republics, he notes, ‘in public debates, every self-interested proposal has to be presented as concerning the public interest’ (p51). This leads on to the problem of ‘bad faith’, deceiving oneself as to the real motivations of one’s own desires or actions by pretending they’re virtuous when in fact they’re not. Further, emotions can function in the same way, by veiling themselves as justified beliefs or responses to situations. 

And this raises interesting questions about the principle of equality in many human practices, where it is ‘to the advantage’ of everybody to present themselves as not acting only out of self-interest. Perhaps those who are better able to hide what they’re really doing and why are the most able to persuade others to support them. Yet, if everybody is playing this same game it may be impossible to reach agreement, and so ‘the appeal to reason subverts reason’ (p.64). Though interestingly, this rests already on certain assumptions: firstly that everybody is trying to be rational, secondly that people meet each other in public spaces solely as individuals protecting their own wants and desires, and thirdly that people will be most persuaded by those who present themselves as being motivated by something other than their own interests. Arguably, there are many situations where agreement is impossible, just as there are situations where defending self-interest is no bad thing.

Elster takes the line of argument further, defining hyperrationality as ‘the search for the action that would have been optimal if one ignored the costs of the search itself’. His attempt to devise an alternative that does take these costs into account leads to some interesting consequences, as Elster has previously proposed that divorced parents may as well draw lots for the custody of their children, to avoid long and arduous court cases that damage the very children they’re both trying to protect. According to Elster, such hyperrationality is ‘a specifically western or modern phenomenon…the search for optimal solutions has been described as iatrogenic’ – in short, fussing over the most rational or optimal way to go about things gets in the way of actually being able to find it (p67). This leads to his final word on the function of reason and rationality in human societies:

‘The tutor teaches the prince to promote the public good in the long term. The councillor tells him how to act in order to achieve his goals. It is not incumbent upon the councillor to impose the demands of reason; but if the tutor has done his job well, the prince will make them his own. ‘ (p68)

Whilst this might be all very well for princes, with their advisors, people to rule, a public and well-defined ideas about the public good, it might ring more hollow today. Debates about the ‘public good’ are few and far between, a function of the fact that what constitutes the public is today an open question. With its echoes of Plato’s philosophers kings or Machiavelli’s handbook to would-be rulers The Prince, it does shows that theories about rationality and reason – whether from the Classical period, the eighteenth century or from today’s behavioural economists and rational choice theorists – are proposed either as theories to show how to make optimal agreement between individuals which doesn’t acknowledge the underlying inrqualities between them, or partly as guidelines for how to better manage the masses. Nevertheless, the idea of people promoting the public good in the long term - once there is agreement about what constitutes the public good - is a message that might carry some weight in discussions about how best to move forward from the current economic crisis, in focusing not on ‘correcting’ market and consumer behaviours, but appealing to more social notions of a shared future.

Slightly relatedly, Michael Ball singing ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Les Mis, not yet removed by Youtube:

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