The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Society of Individuals

June 29, 2013

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.

Let me begin by clarifying my methodological stance. As I have argued on many previous occasions including my post last week, I regard rational choice theory and other flavors of decision theory as analytical abstractions, not to be evaluated in terms of the empirical correspondence between theoretical assumptions and anything detectable in the world, but instead to be treated instrumentally in terms of what they bring to an explanation. Ideal-types provide a baseline against which we can evaluate the impact of various situationally-specific factors, and in that sense it really doesn’t matter for explanatory purposes what the content of the ideal-type is as long as it is logically general and systematically elaborated. An ideal-type has no truth value or validity in itself; it is a device for producing valid case-specific explanations and true empirical claims.

So this means that the only properly scientific way to evaluate an ideal-type is to examine the extent to which it is internally consistent, and the extent to which it provides insight when deployed in the context of a particular explanation. There is no scientific way to evaluate the content of any ideal-type, decision-theoretical or otherwise; such an evaluation would take us over a line into the moral value of substantive assumptions, and hence into a realm of questions that can’t be answered with any amount of factual research.


The limitation of science to explanation, and scientific criticism to explanatory worth, does not mean that we can or should use exclusively scientific criteria in selecting our theoretical assumptions. As a matter of sociological fact, we don’t pick our ideal-types on solely explanatory grounds, but by taking up positions in dialogue with elements of the cultural context within which we are concretely embedded; as a matter of methodology, once we move out of purely formal criteria any reasons we might give for evaluating one ideal-type to be superior to another can’t be exclusively explanatory ones. As Weber pointed out a long time ago, this does mean that our scientific explanations are in one sense culturally contingent, and if values change, so too can our theories and our accounts. It is important to note that it is only the content of our explanations that is contingent, and not their logical consistency; the epistemic contingency revealed by the ways in which our theories are indebted to a cultural backdrop that is not constant over time does not imply “relativism” in the chimerical sense that that term is all-too-often utilized. But it is the case that our use of certain assumptions and not others cannot be simply reduced to a question of the explanatory prowess of those assumptions. Contra the dreams of the early Vienna Circle, the fact that we don’t tend to produce explanatory accounts these days that utilize notions like “the Spirit of History” does not signal an ineluctably unscientific character of that notion; it signals only a change in broader cultural values such that researchers no longer take that notion seriously as a component of scientific explanation. Once upon a time they did.

My point is that even though from a methodological standpoint the content of theoretical assumptions (a scientific ontology, to be more precise) is arbitrary, from a practical standpoint, it is never wholly arbitrary. Not all possible assumptions are “live possibilities” (to invoke William James) available to researchers at any given point in time. And the use of particular assumptions, even for carefully delimited explanatory purposes, is likewise never just a contribution to the endeavor of scientific explanation and the production of impersonal knowledge; it is also, and simultaneously, an intervention into a broader flowing stream of cultural conversation, either challenging or shoring up assumptions that form the backdrop of everyday life outside of the delimited sphere of scientific explanation. The empirical contribution of scientific theories, and social-scientific theories in particular, to this broader cultural conversation might (and probably does) pale in comparison to other nodes and vectors with a far wider audience — which is why authors and other producers of pop cultural artifacts are probably more important for the near-term shaping of our cultural lifeworlds — but there is still something to the epistemic privilege that we scholars exercise, even if the effects of shifts in how we world in scholarly discussions take more time to make their way out into public discussions. In elaborating and utilizing explanatory theories, we are not just explaining; we are helping to shape the broader culture of which we are a part.

Let me bring this back to decision-theoretic accounts and my hesitation about them. The assumptions of individual autonomy that are encoded into such accounts have a history — this wasn’t always the way we understood personhood to be — and are not completely self-evident even to people in the U.S. where the founding documents claim divine sanction for that kind of liberal individuality. So there is a cultural dialogue about person-hood, individuality, and authority in which decision-theoretic accounts participate, and they participate by weighing in heavily on one side of the balance. Individuals have scientific-ontological primacy in decision-theoretic accounts: they stand alone, their behavior described by preference-functions that characterize them as individuals, and by the interaction of those preference-functions with an external strategic environment that confronts each of them as a natural fact over which they exercise no influence. “Society” is, in this account, nothing but a collection of associated individuals, associated only insofar and inasmuch as their individual preferences are better served by belonging to that association. And this is the case even if we were to describe a group of individuals as having a preference to be associated with one another: shifts in the strategic environment might make it better for those individuals to be associated in different ways with different groups, so any given pattern of association that we see is, by definition, evanescent.

The picture is made more complicated, but not fundamentally different, by allowing individual preferences to encompass goals far broader than material returns on investment (even of the sort that Phil mentions that he does in his department: good citizenship in Phil’s very honest account reduces to a canny, forward-thinking form of self-interest, of the sort that Bentham might applaud). In the society of individuals envisioned by decision-theoretic accounts, the central process through which action is produced is calculation, whether conscious and deliberate or the result of a happy evolutionary accident: course of action X produces a better result than course of action Y, so course of action X is chosen. “Better” in this context means only one thing: meeting the preferences of the deciding individual. All values are preferences in this world, and derive their value, in the last instance, from their being held as a preference by an individual, and not from any other source. “I prefer” is the whole of the moral universe, and there are no ways to criticize that preference within the theory itself: de gustibus non est disputandum [behind a paywall, sorry]. The apparent breadth of the possible decisions is undermined by the fact that one is always fated to decide, and to decide based on individual preferences.

By contrast, in a world of relationally embedded actors, action comes not from calculation, but from something unknown in the society of individuals: deliberation. Actors find themselves within a set of delimited though ambiguous cultural resources — resources that are never solely the possession of any one individual, unlike preferences which are individual from the get-go — and are confronted not with the question of how to best fulfill their ends, but the question of what their ends ought to be. “What is the right thing to do in this situation?” is the operative question, and answering it involves characterizing the situation and discerning the proper course of action by creatively deploying cultural resources that are “public” in the sense that even if I myself am the one doing the deliberating with no one else around, I am still engaged in a process that is accessible to other competent actors and thus, at least implicitly, accountable to them. I order for “what I prefer” to even become my course of action in this world, I first have to figure out what I prefer, and then I have to determine that the right thing to do in this situation is to do what I prefer — and in the course of my deliberations I might come up with all kinds of alternatives and reasons why “doing what I prefer” is the wrong thing to do. Deliberation, messy and open-ended, yields meaningful action — unlike calculation, actual or as-if, which yields only the maximizing of returns.

So we have two fundamentally different models here: autonomous individuals — prototypical males? — with preferences making strategic calculations, and relationally embedded actors (I’m not going to push the gender point any further here, but I think that many feminists might agree with me about the relative depictions of autonomy-vs.-embeddedness in a patriarchal society) engaged in deliberation and discernment looking for the right course of action. While the former might end up conforming to one or another moral code, only the latter can actually engage in “moral action” per se, because autonomous individuals would be choosing whether or not to act morally while embedded actors would be endeavoring to suss out the moral thing to do and then doing it. One does not choose to be moral as a moral actor; one acts morally, or one fails to do so (and depending on your moral tradition, that’s likely either weakness of the will, sin, fallenness, or some other way of characterizing human frailty and imperfection). The very fact of making “acting morally” something that one could or could not choose to do means that one is no longer bound by anything beyond one’s own preferences, which in turn is only possible if morality has been converted from a set of common cultural resources into an individual preference. Decision-theoretic accounts tell us a story in which value is radically subjectivized, individuals are separated from one another by firm borders, and social relations are nothing but instrumental conveniences (contra Phil, I would claim that public choice theory isn’t about what is best for the collective as a collective, but what is best for the individuals inhabiting it, since collectives don’t have preference-functions). Relational accounts tell us a far different story.

I suppose that my point here is not to persuade anyone that decision-theoretic accounts are morally suspect, except (to channel Wittgenstein for a moment) in that special sense of persuasion that aims to give someone my worldview. Instead, what I have tried to do here is to call attention to the ways that decision-theoretic accounts stand on a set of value-commitments that make society, moral action, and non-instrumental commitments to other people into subordinate or nonsensical elements of human life. The fact that we tell decision-theoretic stories about entities that can’t be said to be actually making decisions — we have “selfish genes” and utility-maximizing ants — simply shows how our values have shifted to the point where such stories seem to make intuitive sense, and also contributes to the further promulgation (what I actually want to say here is Veralltäglichung, Weber’s word that literally means “making-everyday”) of those assumptions and value-commitments. While I have fewer problems telling these stories about situations that are in fact configured such that actors are relatively autonomous and relate to one another strategically — back to my two basic examples, cars on the highway and legislators in committee — I think that things like Freakonomics are basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable. We owe it to the broader society not to simply tell stories that reaffirm the value-commitments and modes of person-hood prized by dominant social actors who want us to equate our happiness with the satisfaction of personal desires. There is a vocational aspect to what we do as scholars, even when we are engaged in the construction and refining of scientific explanations, and part of that vocation is the capacity to step out of the onrushing social current and reflect on its course, perhaps posing alternatives. We forget that at our, and the world’s, peril.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.