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