Day: June 29, 2013

The Society of Individuals

Although I have made many of the points I am about to make in comments posted on Phil’s and Eric’s posts about rational choice theory over the past week, what I want to do at this point is to pull the whole thing together and make clear just why I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action. This is not a social-scientific criticism, and has nothing to do with the explanatory power of decision-theoretic accounts. I am not suggesting that there are empirical phenomena that for some intrinsic reason can’t be accounted for in decision-theoretic terms; indeed, given a sufficiently clever decision theorist, armed with game theory on the one hand and some individual psychology on the other, I think it likely that everything of interest (except, as Phil and I acknowledge, fundamental changes in the constitution of actors themselves — this is his “paintbrush” point) could be explained decision-theoretically.

My point — my plea — is that it shouldn’t be. The “model of man” (sexism in original, and that’s almost certainly important…) at the heart of decision-theoretic accounts begins, as a matter of assumption, with individuals isolated from one another in a deep ontological sense. Such individuals can’t engage in moral action; the best they can do is to act in ways that happen to correspond with moral codes. Such individuals can’t make commitments to one another; the best they can do is associate and interact with one another as long as there are more benefits from doing so than from striking off in another direction. And such individuals can’t actually be members of communities, since their place in any given community is only ever contingent on factors over which they exercise no influence: namely, the strategic environment and their own preferences. Deploying explanatory models and theories that stem from such a notion of the human person, even though this is an ideal-type rather than an actual description or an explicit normative recommendation, reinforces the notion that this is how people are and should be, and that the most they can do is form, in Norbert Elias’ apt phrase, a “society of individuals.” In my view, reducing social outcomes to individual decisions is thus problematic for ethical, rather than explanatory, reasons. Continue reading


Graduate School After Peace Corps

In 1998, while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, I decided to apply for a PhD program in political science. I had no idea what I was doing. Though I had majored in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating in 1993, I had a limited understanding of the “discipline.” I barely knew what journals were. I had limited access to information about programs, with no access to the internet on a regular basis (I had a dial-up connection once a month or so if I took a two hour bus ride). In the end, two of the four programs I applied to required prior Master’s and I didn’t get in to those (including the one where I now am a professor!). I studied for the GRE’s using a practice book, in between neutering pigs and workshops on cultivating blackberries. When I went to take the exam, it was the first time they had used the on-line computer version, and it was so different! My quantitative score, compared to the practice exam, paled. It was a miracle I got in to Georgetown.

With volunteers and other prospective applicants having access to the internet in even remote locations (I just got an email from my graduate student in East Timor), there is no excuse for that kind of ignorance in this day and age. What can prospective graduate students coming out of the Peace Corps do to prepare themselves? In addition to my scholarly activities, I lead a small NGO called Friends of Ecuador. I know we have a great set of guidance for would-be applicants to PhD programs, but here is a post for returning Peace Corps Volunteers that speaks to applying for graduate school, both for MA and PhD programs.  Continue reading


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