Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self‐Defeating? Author(s): by Thomas Christiano Reviewed work(s): Source: Ethics, Vol. 115, No.

1 (October 2004), pp. 122-141 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 30/11/2012 16:09
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Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating?* Thomas Christiano
RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY AND POLITICS Rational choice approaches to politics have, in the main, been concerned to pursue two principal aims. First, they attempt to explain and predict the operation of economic and political institutional structures on the basis of a conception of human beings as homo economicus. Public choice theory, game theory, neoclassical economic theory, law and economics, and some of social choice theory all share this explanatory aim. Second, rational choice theories attempt to justify and criticize institutional structures by showing that when in place, the institutions are likely to bring about outcomes that are for the common good or not, under the assumption that they operate in the way that the explanatory theory says they do. This evaluation and justification are done with an eye to justifying policy proposals for the reform of those institutions and in some cases even the total transformation of economic and political institutions. This is the practical aim of rational choice theory. In the pursuit of the explanatory and practical aims, these approaches conceive of rational agents as pursuing their own interests understood broadly in conflictual terms (that is where the interests are not inherently harmonious).1 The rational choice theorist then argues in favor
* This is a review essay of Russell Hardin, Liberalism, Constitutionalism and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Geoffrey Brennan and Alan Hamlin, Democratic Devices and Desires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). References to these books will be in parentheses in the text under the authors’ names. I thank Charles Larmore and John Deigh for their helpful comments on a previous draft. 1. For the most part, rational choice theorists think of the mainstream approach as committed to the thesis that agents are self-interested, and I will simplify the discussion in what follows by using this account. But some theorists have used the idea that the agents are “nontuistic” in the sense that they are not inherently concerned with the interests of those they strategically interact with, for example, people in another society Ethics 115 (October 2004): 122–141 ᭧ 2004 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014-1704/2004/115010001$10.00


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at least in a large set of cases. but the mainstream approach treats the nontuistic motivation as if it operated in the same way as the purely self-interested motivation that takes little or no account of the interests of others. The mainstream approach is still the dominant approach to rational choice theory. 1986). Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mainstream rational choice theory. Anyone who wishes to learn about the power and complexity of rational choice theory and its potential for subtle and illuminating analyses of the development and maintenance of political institutions can do no better than to read these works. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 2. but they do so in opposite ways. The explanatory and practical aims are at odds with one another. In other words. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. adheres strictly to the thesis of homo economicus. Some have thought. as I shall conceive of it. The differences between these two types of motivations are important. By contrast. Russell Hardin. the practical aim of the rational choice approach may be undermined at least to a significant degree. follows the mainstream approach to rational choice theory.217 on Fri. as not maximizing utility in every action but as adopting dispositions to act that maximize utility for the person on the whole. Hardin and Brennan and Hamlin notice that if we are to conceive of rational agents as for the most part self-interested.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 123 of those institutions that tend to bring about good outcomes given these assumptions. that a person who has the disposition to act cooperatively in prisoner’s dilemma situations is likely to do better in the long run than the person who maximizes utility and thus defects in all such situations. or so I shall argue. These two books display the diversity of ideas that rational choice theory has given rise to in the past twenty years. but it does require that their actions nearly always display utility maximization (with allowances due to irrationality). What is striking about these two books is that they both notice a central problem with taking the mainstream approach and are concerned to overcome the problem. for the most ambitious philosophical effort to ground morality in the revisionist way. it explains the operation of institutions and justifies the reform of those institutions under the assumption that individuals normally maximize their own utility in every action they undertake.168.82. though the revisionist approach has acquired many allies over the years. They note that the mainstream approach to the explanation of the operation of economic and political institutions tends to result in a highly deterministic approach to those institutions and that this tends or possibly animals. for example. See David Gauthier. by contrast. This need not entail that individuals always and everywhere deliberate in terms of maximization of utility.2 Geoffrey Brennan and Alan Hamlin have more recently made the revisionist approach a cornerstone of their approach to political institutions and democracy in particular. revisionists think of individuals.

Hardin and Brennan and Hamlin do not take the full measure of the problem as seriously as they should. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .217 on Fri. Basic structure determinism is a bit like determinism with regard to individuals. in the sense that the development of these institutions is not guided by human design. But unlike some forms of individual determinism. choice. and decline of basic structural institutions in society is determined by forces that are beyond the capacity of human beings to guide and design. Or so I shall argue. by an invisible hand. and the consequence is that their approaches remain mired in paradox. BASIC STRUCTURE DETERMINISM What I mean by “basic structure determinism” is the thesis that the development. It is important to note the distinction between basic structural institutions and other kinds of institutions. to use Brennan and Hamlin’s expression. the political system. It is not merely the case that agency is determined by external forces. They do not develop in accord with the ideals that human beings develop for their lives together. The development of political institutions is not up to human beings. Hardin sides with the mainstream view and expresses considerable skepticism about the prospects for reform of economic and political institutions even when these reforms would bring about significant improvements in the economic performances of the societies in question over the long term. Political and social institutions are the product of the cumulative effects of many people acting with a great variety of different purposes. Political institutions and arrangements are largely the result of the unintended cumulative consequences of many human actions. in basic structure determinism.82.168. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. In this article. Brennan and Hamlin attempt to preserve both the explanatory and practical aims of rational choice theory by jettisoning the mainstream approach to human behavior and adopting a revisionist view. I want to go into some depth about this feature of rational choice theory. Though they notice the problem.124 Ethics October 2004 to undercut the practical aim of rational choice theory of proposing reforms for those institutions. Their development is guided. there is no agency at all. basic structure determinism is a hard kind of determinism. By “basic structural institutions” I have in mind the basic institutions of the market. Political institutions do not develop the way they do because human beings think that this is the best way for them to develop. or plan. It has seemed to me that it has gone mostly undiscussed in the literature even though it represents a profound set of problems in rational choice theory. Rational choice theory all but loses its practical aim in this context while maintaining its explanatory aim. maintenance. and the development of the institutions overall cannot be said to be determined by any kind of design.

When they do achieve their goals it is more a result of happenstance than the will of a particular person or group of persons.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 125 and the basic informal institutions of society such as the family and religious institutions.82. As soon as one’s ambitions turn to larger scale institutional changes and effects. Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press. when added up. for a discussion of this notion. The fact that basic structural institutions are not subject to human design or agency is compatible with those institutions changing as a result of intentional human actions. The basic structural institutions set the parameters for individual choice. there is still some room for rational choice theorists to make practically effective recommendations for change. chap. While the basic structure is not subject to human control. it provides limited opportunities for people to take some control of their own lives. But it is a highly limited space and is certainly much more limited than rational choice theorists normally have in mind for the practical purposes they pursue. human beings do have the capacities to shape their lives to some degree within the framework set by these institutions. Furthermore. usually do not produce the intended overall effects that they may have originally been designed to produce. the rule of unintended consequences takes over. Political. and in some cases succeed. Individuals can still freely and intelligently design associations within the context of the basic structural institutions. One might attempt to change aspects of the committee system in the United States Congress. 1996). and social institutions normally do not change without being the result of intentional human actions. and destroyed by forces that are beyond the control of human beings. nor does it imply that all social institutions are beyond the intelligent design and control of human beings. But the changes that occur in the basic structural institutions are the unintended consequences of the accumulation of many actions. according to this form of determinism. 6.217 on Fri. and basic structure determinism does not imply that individuals are not free within the parameters defined by these institutions. The thesis of basic structure determinism does not imply a thesis of determinism with regard to individual action. See John Rawls. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. This implies an inevitable vagueness in the thesis of basic structure determinism since it is going to be difficult to determine exactly when 3. The thesis of basic structure determinism is also compatible with people making marginal changes to the basic structural institutions. maintained. for example. economic. The actions that are designed to bring about intended changes in the basic structure of society almost always fail to achieve their goals. And to this extent.3 Though these are formed.168. incremental changes. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .

And this latter claim is an understatement of the view that he holds. (3) There are severe cognitive limitations to the capacities of individuals for understanding how society works. there are four basic components to the argument as I understand it. then much of what I will say here might be irrelevant” (p. Hardin’s claims for his approach are modest. p.168. as many rational choice approaches have come to be. Hardin states: “Neither moral commitment nor terror seems likely to induce widespread creativity and innovation. 12). constitutionalism and democracy are the acquiescence of most people most of the time in the political order established by these and the mutual advantage of the politically effective groups of society” (p. (1) The basic structure of any society is made stable only by being a coordination point for all of its members that serves the interests of a few well-situated and powerful minorities. But even so. THE COORDINATION ACCOUNT OF POLITICAL ORDER The most explicit aim of the arguments of the book is to defend a “coordination theory of political order” (Hardin. p. Hardin claims that the “two criteria of workability that distinguish the successful workings of liberalism. (4) When people do consider change. Brennan and Hamlin assert this kind of determinism when they say: “Invisible hands are the only kinds of hand that are allowable in this world of unrelieved egoism” (p. Russell Hardin’s book defends a roughly deterministic conception of politics. but if either of them or if some other system not dependent on stable expectations and incentives could be made to work. Control is not exerted by any human agent over the basic structure of the social and political world if agents are purely rational egoists. 316). 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . He says: “For most people in the United States most of the time. In addition to the thesis of rational egoism.82. the thesis has enormous implications for our understanding of the legitimate purposes of rational choice theory. The coordination account of political order asserts This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. there is substantial disagreement about how to do it and where to take it.126 Ethics October 2004 a change is marginal or incremental and when it is a change to the institutions overall.217 on Fri. the order that the US Constitution brings about is a part of the necessity of the world in which they live” (Hardin. HARDIN’S BASIC ARGUMENT The thesis of basic structure determinism is grounded in a number of factors pertaining to human choices and their cumulative impact. only an invisible hand controls the system. (2) Each person has negligible impact on the development of the basic structure. In one of many caveats for his approach. 313). 232). The most important component is the thesis that individuals are primarily rational egoists. 40).

The most obvious examples of coordination points are the rules of the road. and then the less-powerful groups must go along. p. As Brennan and Hamlin and Hardin point out. 284). If the rule is to drive on the right-hand side. institution. The latter states that constitutions solve large-scale prisoner’s dilemma problems and advance the common good in doing so. democracy. p. p. The coordination account of political order is distinct from the contractarian account of political order.168. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Hardin. 87). 3). or even a convention that is such that no individual has an incentive to defect from the arrangement. It is that for these institutions to be workable. Prisoner’s dilemma accounts of political order start with the observation that society faces large-scale prisoner’s dilemma problems. In this sense. The most basic condition under which these institutions are coordination points is when they serve the mutual advantage of the most efficacious groups in the society (Hardin. By contrast. p.82. Much of the book consists in detailed accounts of the conditions under which these institutions have been coordination points for the members of the society in which they occurred and when they failed (Hardin. Hence. which are often different from the interests of the rest of society (Brennan and Hamlin. Also. In these problems individuals prefer that others undertake the burdens of an arrangement while they free ride and receive the benefits of the arrangements. Hardin gives a number of examples of nonliberal and nondemocratic arrangements that coordinated the actions of the members (p. Then the powerful groups can coordinate on the institutions (assuming they have preferences in favor of mutual accommodation as opposed to preferences that place the pursuit of glory or the religious conversion of others above all other concerns). A coordination point is a social arrangement.217 on Fri. these solutions are not stable. 194). such as the need for public order and a system of property and contract. liberalism and democracy are not necessary conditions of coordination. they must coordinate the members of the society. They structure the incentives of individuals so that those individuals have reasons to stick to the rules for the most part. or a constitution is necessarily a coordination point.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 127 that a constitution must be a coordination point for the members of society in order to succeed. in a coordination point each person has an incentive to stick to the coordination to the extent that others do. Hardin’s point is not that economic or political liberalism. 39. the main trouble with these accounts is that they fail to take account of the enforcers’ incentives. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. and so the arrangement is self-enforcing. which can be solved only by introducing enforcers who punish defectors from the collectively desirable behaviors. constitutions that serve to coordinate the members of society are self-enforcing. it is in each person’s interest to drive on the right-hand side.

So individuals do not have incentives to try to change the constitutional order under which they live. people will focus on their individual tasks This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. could not agree on one (Hardin. With the coordination account of political order in place we can see how the other three elements of the argument fit in.168. It failed to take such a stand not as a result of the wisdom of the framers but as a result of the fact that the two main powers in the society. The development and workings of large societies are extremely complex and are far beyond the capacities of individuals to understand.128 Ethics October 2004 The less-powerful groups must acquiesce in the scheme that is to the mutual advantage of the powerful. Constitution worked. Third. Hardin repeatedly reminds us that the stability provided by institutions that coordinate individuals’ actions is only a necessary condition of the normative justification of those institutions (p. p. For most people the ignorance is the result of the division of labor of any complex society. p. 15). But this is nearly always impossible to achieve because the individuals who might desire this change face massive collective action problems as well as uncertainty. 234). largely because it didn’t take a stand on what the best economic structure for society is. The lack of knowledge about how institutions work in general is a function of the general limits to human cognitive abilities. Hardin argues. and so individuals go along with the institutions even if most of them would be better off under alternative arrangements (Hardin. The expected value of their actions is so low in this area that the selfinterest of individuals inclines them to concern themselves with other issues. ignorance about the nature and workings of social and political institutions ensures that whether constitutions work or not is largely a matter of chance and happenstance (Hardin. the constitution merely enabled trade to occur between the states without interference between them.217 on Fri. As a consequence. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .S. This mutual advantage account is not meant to provide a normative underpinning of the institutions that are sustained by it. p. plantation agrarians and commercial interests. 38). The second element is that individuals rarely have much impact on the social and political institutions in which they live. Under these circumstances. The U. This was something that benefited the main interests in society in ways they didn’t envision. 237). The trouble is that individuals cannot depart from the coordination individually or in small groups without harming themselves. The only way that a superior coordination point could come about for most of the society is if there were massive recoordination on new institutions. It can be the case that the institutions on which a society is coordinated are such that the great majority of subjects would be better off coordinating on other institutions.82.

154). and Mill argues something quite similar in Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett.4 A fourth reason for the deterministic thesis is that people disagree about the proper ideals for society. p. however. Ignorance also results from the fact that since individuals have very little impact on the basic institutions under which they live and their basic concerns are to advance their own interests. given the amount of disagreement in society. 166). 1959).217 on Fri. they have little incentive for coming to understand the whole society. which says essentially that there is no rational social preference over outcomes under the normal circumstances of politics (Hardin. The utilitarian tradition he comes from. p. 22. An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 5. This is the thesis of the rationality of ignorance argued for by Anthony Downs. what is more likely. none of them will get his or her way for long. In addition. 1979). 1981]. As a consequence.168. the idea that a society can determine its future in accordance with its own preference is undermined by Arrow’s theorem. is strongly attached to the idea of progress. Needless to say.5 BASIC STRUCTURE DETERMINISM AND DEMOCRACY Democracy has traditionally been one of the main supports for the idea that human beings can have some control over their own collective destiny. 454). when most are acting principally in their self-interest.82. See Anthony Downs. [Indianapolis: Hackett.and nineteenth-century progressive and teleological accounts of history and society is made evident by the fact that he never mentions them. Hardin’s estimation of the eighteenth. As a consequence.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 129 and not on the whole. 7th ed. While one person might set in motion a vision of a certain kind of society. the outcomes of elections are for the most part not very edifying (Hardin. The thought is that in democracy the people take control of the political institutions under which they live by debating the merits of different institutions and choosing them through voting. even when a person attempts to realize some ideal in practice. the thousands of other people on whom this person depends to realize this vision are likely to carry things in very different directions from the one originally intended. Hardin moderates this conclusion by noting that in times of crisis citizens do have a heightened awareness of political matters and play a 4. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Sidgwick argues that commonsense morality is guided by an “unconscious utilitarianism” (in The Methods of Ethics. p. p. Hardin argues against this sanguine view of democracy by invoking the view that individuals in a democracy have minimal impact on the outcomes of democratic decision making. others are likely not to help him in this to the extent that they have different ideals and. For example. and as a result they have little incentive to have informed opinions about what ought to be done.

it will simply not be possible intentionally to reform the basic structure of society in accord with standards of assessment. but it need not have any practical import in the sense that we may know which institutions are best but not be able to do anything about it. But let us see exactly what this incompatibility is. neoclassical economics.” To the extent that the rational choice approach to politics is the right one and entails the kind of determinism that I have described. I might still be able This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. The second is a practical concern. And I include here public choice theory. What I have in mind here is a completely general exhortation to do what will enhance human welfare. This exhortation may require an individual to help another person in need. the conflicts of interests and opinion between them and the generally high degree of ignorance about the consequences of institutional change ensure that the results of their activities will rarely correspond to their initial aims. Here we must distinguish between three possible normative concerns in the rational choice approach. I shall call it a “practical incompatibility. which institutions are likely to be the most productive. Even if basic structure determinism is true. There is also normally a sufficient diversity of ideas among the major players about how to direct the society to make it unlikely that anyone can predict in advance the outcomes of these moments of collective decision. as well as some versions of social choice theory.82. Hardin seems to pin some hope on this possibility. and which institutions are workable or reasonably stable. THE THESIS OF INCOMPATIBILITY The puzzle that Brennan and Hamlin and Hardin notice is that basic structure determinism is incompatible with the normative aspirations of most (perhaps almost all) rational choice theorists. the likelihood that self-interested individuals are going to undertake the sustained sacrifices necessary to transform these institutions into efficient ones is very low. The knowledge that people have about how institutions work is very poor even when they do make efforts to acquire it.130 Ethics October 2004 larger role in politics (p.168. it implies only that these institutions will come about regardless of the intentions of the participants or by luck.217 on Fri. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . From these assessments we may determine which would be the best institutions to have. of course. In these circumstances citizens do control some important aspects of the societies in which they live. law and economics. This aim is normative. which tells us that we ought to do what we can to enhance the welfare of human beings. And when the reformers do gain the upper hand. But it is not clear to me that this can preserve any real popular control. 157). Whatever inefficient institutions we live under. that desirable institutions cannot come about. The first is an evaluative concern to determine which institutions are Pareto efficient and which are not. None of this means.

So the evaluative concern need not be undermined by the commitment 6. . . I claim.168. But the third concern picks out a particular set of actions and enjoins us to perform them for the sake of human welfare. including Russell Hardin. But the actions it enjoins are institutionbuilding actions. utilitarians may have some difficulty actually adopting the second concern without the third. The second and third concerns are both practical. The third enjoins us directly to bring about the kinds of institutions that would bring about optimal states of affairs. This seems to me to be overstated. In effect. Though this observation may hold for some rational choice theorists such as James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 26). The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 131 to help a person in need. It says that one must engage in institution-building actions to enhance human welfare. Logically. The second concern just tells us to do whatever we can to bring about more welfare. It is this last practical aim of most rational choice theorists. one can abandon the third concern while holding on to the second. many theorists are not. some kinds of institutions are better than others are. they assert that the commitments of rational choice theory are metaethically incompatible with any kind of moral or even welfare economic approach to economic and political institutions.82. Most theorists in this tradition. It is meant to tell policy makers and legislators what kinds of institutions they ought to bring about. Brennan and Hamlin argue that the first concern is incompatible with the mainstream rational choice approach: “in an egoistic universe agents are committed to a language in which ‘good’ can only mean ‘good for me’ or more particularly. it need not hold for most rational choice assessments of political institutions. In that world there is simply no meaningful possibility of distinctively moral or justificatory argument” (Brennan and Hamlin. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . This approach determines what institutions we ought to bring about. and the injunction to enhance welfare may direct me to do this. ‘in my interests’. They enjoin us to act so as to bring about human welfare. 1986). 1962). for example. The metaethical claim is stated and defended explicitly in James Buchanan and Geoffrey Brennan’s The Reason of Rules (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. that is incompatible with the determinism implied by rational choice theory.6 While James Buchanan and many other public choice theorists are what we might call “normative individualists” in the sense captured by the above quotes. This concern is action guiding. See James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. p. But as we will see below. They deny the incompatibility of the view that human beings are motivated nearly exclusively by considerations of self-interest and the existence of moral principles that imply that.217 on Fri. . are utilitarian even though they hold that self-interest is the mainspring of human motivation.

And. Hardin often writes as if the limits of work7. The commitment to this idea derives from a strong version of the maxim that “ought implies can.” The idea of possibility behind the doctrine of “ought implies can” as it is used by Hardin is defined by the motivations and knowledge of human beings and the constraints imposed by the circumstances in which they find themselves. as a matter of logic. And moral requirements need not. for a statement of this view. p. it is consistent to hold both that human beings are morally required to bring about the greatest amount of happiness and that human beings are nearly exclusively motivated by selfinterest. for many utilitarian thinkers. 1989).217 on Fri. or so many consequentialist theorists maintain. social philosophy became unmoored” and the claim that political philosophy must be closely attached to social science (Hardin. And the reason for this is that it is simply not within the power of human beings voluntarily and by design to bring about desirable basic structural change given the thesis of basic structure determinism. His argument for the claim that moral requirements do not give reasons for action is grounded in the observation that one can imagine a perfectly amoral person who is not irrational.168. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. The combination of the assumption of homo economicus and the exhortation to bring about the best basic structural political institutions seems to be a self-defeating approach to politics if basic structure determinism is true. Its contribution stems from its resolute adherence to the claim that “when the social sciences were detached from philosophy. The first is the workability limitation. But there are two different ways in which we can understand the limitations on the possible imposed by rational choice theory. it is intended to have a significant impact on moral and political debates. See David Brink. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .7 But the third institution-building concern that is characteristic of mainstream rational choice theorists is in trouble if the difficulties I have outlined above cannot be overcome. The development of basic structural institutions is guided only by an invisible hand. Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The explanatory part of rational choice theory tells us what human beings will do under various circumstances and thereby defines the limits of what is possible in human social and political interactions.132 Ethics October 2004 of mainstream rational choice theory to direct rational egoism. The reason for this is that what makes an action the right action for the utilitarian are the results of action and not the motives behind the action. 318). DETERMINISM AND NORMATIVE POLITICAL THEORY Though Hardin’s book is not primarily a work of moral philosophy.82. be springs of human motivation.

Usually this starts with a denial of the basic thesis that individuals pursue primarily their own interests. can be brought about by design. The most prominent and well-developed position on this is in John Rawls. chap. 8. So basic structure determinism. self-enforcing institutions are workable for rational choice theorists. A society could be perfectly workable in the sense that it would be stable if it were to exist. The reason for this is that even the attempt to approximate the ideals would be. they can and do often respond by denying the truth of rational choice theory. any society. There might be a kind of theoretical interest in this activity. Let us call this the “basic structure determinism limitation” on the possible. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge. It will be unstable and cannot survive.8 Second.217 on Fri. many political philosophers think that it is worthwhile arguing in favor of certain political ideals. 206).: Harvard University Press. would certainly be a real threat to the purposes of political philosophers. while not completely defeating the traditional activities of political philosophy. Hardin argues. And he takes the maxim of “ought implies can” to imply that it is not true that we ought to bring about an egalitarian society. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . But a second way of understanding the limits of the possible is also present in Hardin’s work. 1971).Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 133 ability are the same as the limits on the possibility of social arrangements. which may not be fully realizable in practice but can nevertheless serve as ideals to be approximated. and others are not. This concerns the limits on what can be brought about under the circumstances and given the facts described by rational choice theory. Whether a society approximates an ideal or not would be beyond the capacities of human beings to control. Now if rational choice theory were true and basic structure determinism were also correct.168. futile. More generally. What the thesis of basic structure determinism denies is that a society. Mass. that an egalitarian society is not a workable society (p. but it would not satisfy the aspirations of most people who engage in this activity.82. then it is unclear what the point of articulating social and political ideals would be. for the most part. First. It can be brought about by design or can simply come about. And here too there are two different ways in which a society can be brought about. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. To the extent that a society fails to realize the appropriate ideal it is deemed unjust. but there are two ways in which traditional political philosophers can respond. but it cannot be brought about under the circumstances. for instance. Since these ideals can be approximated they can serve as standards against which societies are to be measured even if no society can ever fully satisfy them. 8. Hardin’s invocation of “ought implies can” is meant to be a criticism of much of the project of political philosophy.

And the implication of this for many utilitarians is that if one wants to bring about greater utility one must change or reform the institutions within which people act. The reason for this is that most utilitarians have been defenders of the claim that it is institutions that make the main contribution to utility. and Hardin has been the most eloquent spokesman for this tradition in contemporary moral and political philosophy. bring about worse outcomes overall. accepted by many utilitarians. but the conjunction of many such actions may. the second normative concern might appear to survive even if the third normative concern is defeated. But this possibility is not obviously open to utilitarian thinkers. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . One might think that the institutionalist aspect of utilitarianism need not undermine the utilitarian injunction to act to bring about more utility. The reason for this has to do with the rationale for institutions on the utilitarian account. It might at first blush appear that Hardin’s utilitarianism can escape the puzzle of basic structure determinism and the problem this poses for the aim of institution building. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Mill. that individuals are primarily self-interested and institutions are necessary to channel that self-interest to bring about greater utility. See Russell Hardin. in the context of problematic institutions. 319) and refute many of the rival moral theories to utilitarianism.134 Ethics October 2004 DOES HARDIN ESCAPE THE PROBLEM? Hardin thinks that these arguments show the “power and relevance of utilitarian argument” (p. Mill argued that individuals ought to pursue their own interests and the well-being of those closely related to them if they wish to bring about the most utility. Act utilitarianism survives the critical edge of basic structure determinism because it can direct us to maximize utility even when we cannot expect to be able to build institutions. Bentham thought that people were simply hedonistic egoists. 18.9 Classical utilitarians such as Bentham. 1988).10 The right kinds of political and social institutions could channel these motivations so as to bring about the most human happiness. Here. Unfortunately this approach will not save most utilitarians or Hardin from the problem of basic structure determinism. it is still possible for a utilitarian to say that one ought to try to maximize utility within the context of institutions that cannot be changed by design. See Mill. After all. The rationale for institutions is precisely the claim that efforts at maximizing utility within the context of institutions may bring about locally good outcomes. And one must not in general attempt to bring about 9.82. p.168.217 on Fri. Morality within the Limits of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This conclusion is strengthened by the mainstream rational choice claim. and Sidgwick all argued that the formal and informal institutions of society play the major role in bringing about human happiness. 10.

168. they argue that in the context of This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. They argue that there is no reason to put away the aim of reform. Brennan and Hamlin argue that there is a solution to this problem. The problem is that the enforcement mechanisms must be manned by self-interested maximizers. RATIONAL CHOICE MADE MORAL Brennan and Hamlin’s approach can be read as an attempt to avoid the kind of determinism we find in Hardin’s approach to rational choice. the simple fact that the act of enforcement benefits the two original players does not provide her with a reason to act in that way. p. Invisible hands are the only kinds of hand that are allowable in this world of unrelieved egoism” (Brennan and Hamlin. Many rational choice theorists miss this conclusion because they don’t always see that the theory that establishes the limitations on the workability of a society also establishes limitations on the possibility of bringing about institutional change by design.82. Their solution is to argue that in fact rational agents are likely to develop moral dispositions that regulate their behaviors and political institutions. The problem of determinism arises in their discussion of the mechanisms of enforcement necessary to ensure that rational egoists behave in a way that promotes Pareto optimal outcomes in prisoner’s dilemma–like situations. 39). In general. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 40). Utilitarians have been the most important champions of the thesis that the common good comes about through an invisible hand. Basic structural determinism is incompatible with the practical aims of most variants of utilitarianism. The theory with which they determine the limits of the workable implies basic structure determinism and so defeats the practical aim of the theory itself. If the enforcer is granted powers sufficient to ensure compliance by B. regardless of the impacts on A and B. There is nothing to show that the enforcer’s pay-offs are connected to A’s and B’s in the relevant way” (Brennan and Hamlin.217 on Fri. So we can see that the problem that basic structural determinism poses for many political theories also arises for most variants of utilitarianism because of the institutionalist bent of most utilitarian views. the idea is that “while some enforcement may be possible within an institution. They are concerned with the implications of the hypothesis of homo economicus for the viability of efforts at reform that constitutes the aim of many public choice theorists. the institution as a whole must be self-enforcing in the sense that it operates only by channeling the self-interest of the individuals who act within it. They argue that “if the enforcer is herself a rational egoist. p. In particular.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 135 greater utility except by bringing about changes in institutions. she must be assumed to use those powers to maximize her own pay-off. Unlike Hardin.

following David Gauthier. p. This is possible because they assert that “there is a roughly shared moral code” in terms of which moral agents will guide the society (Brennan and Hamlin. Third.168. at least given certain kinds of institutional structure. 36). 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .82. Let us call someone who attempts to maximize utility in every action a “straightforward rational maximizer. Second. voting is likely to express adherence to that code of morality. then straightforward rational maximizers will not be accepted as participants in mutually beneficial exchange because of others’ awareness of the likelihood that they will defect (p. society will then be ruled by the “visible hand” of the agents. To the extent that the society is guided by individuals who are disposed to act morally in their political actions and share the same moral dispositions. Let us take a look at each one of these claims in turn. As a consequence. the society is likely to be guided by the shared moral code of the society. they are inclined to defect from agreed-upon courses of action when those situations are structured like prisoner’s dilemmas. and whose dispositions are apparent to others. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. The thought seems to be that once rational agents become moral agents in the political system. those who are cooperators will end up better off than the straightforward rational maximizers. 167. Brennan and Hamlin argue that there are a variety of mechanisms that are likely to induce people to adopt dispositions to act in accordance with that code. certain kinds of political institutions give political elites incentives to adopt those dispositions in their political behavior. 41). For the use of the terms ‘straightforward’ and ‘constrained’ maximization.136 Ethics October 2004 political institutions the motivations of individuals are likely to be morally virtuous. at best it shows only that they have reason to be reasonably cooperative with at least some others. 64).” Brennan and Hamlin. Brennan and Hamlin argue that self-interested agents have incentives to become morally virtuous (p. Rational egoists are not trustworthy as a rule.217 on Fri. see Gauthier. The most fundamental virtue that self-interested agents have reason to acquire is the virtue of trustworthiness.”11 One major worry about this approach is that it does not actually show why people have reason to be moral. those who have a disposition to cooperate. individuals will be induced to adopt dispositions to be trustworthy. First. So it will be to the benefit of individuals to abandon the trait of straightforward rational maximizing in favor of a disposition to be trustworthy or to engage in what Gauthier calls “constrained maximization. 11. p. argue that if people are reasonably translucent (meaning that their dispositions are somewhat transparent to others). will be accepted as participants in mutually beneficial exchanges. Given this roughly shared moral code. On the other hand.

especially in many of the contexts in which it will be needed. Brennan and Hamlin argue that in the context of voting in large-scale constituencies. voters might systematically vote their views of the public interest” (Brennan and Hamlin. First. a person acts merely expressively. they argue that anything other than expressive voting would be irrational. The second thesis in opposition to the hypothesis of universal rational egoism is the thesis of expressive voting. operate as a visible hand. 133). The reason for this is that candidates will seek out the median voter and thus will usually end up at the same position in the issue space or very close to one another. Many of the transactions in which people engage in any complex society are with strangers. they no longer regulate their actions by rational selfinterest. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Brennan and Hamlin claim. The reason for this is that there is no opportunity cost for this expression. Brennan and Hamlin argue that in this context. p. And one circumstance in which a person’s action has no impact on his interests is the circumstance of voting in the polling booth. When one’s self-interest is no longer in question. Brennan and Hamlin give two kinds of arguments for the expressive voting hypothesis. As long as they have the power to carry out their designs with others. They claim that if voters vote strategically. Strategically minded voters will see very little difference between candidates and thus not turn out at all (Brennan and Hamlin. They say: “If expressive voting cannot operate as an in visible hand it could. A second worry is that the assumption of general translucency seems quite unmotivated.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 137 Whether that cooperation is moral or not will depend on what they are cooperating about. voters do not have incentives to vote on the basis of a calculation of self-interest.168. p. Here the connection between what I have called the problem of basic structure determinism and expressive voting is quite clear. We will see that this assumption becomes particularly implausible in the most important context in which Brennan and Hamlin wish to use it. they may not care whether the outsiders know what their dispositions are.217 on Fri. The thought that one is likely to be able to detect the motives of strangers seems a bit stretched. That is. they argue that the thesis that voters vote strategically yields a number of odd implications. voter turnout in two candidate elections should be zero or near zero. They may well cooperate on criminal schemes with those who are like-minded. 175). The idea is that when people are in circumstances where their actions have no consequences for their interests.82. at least in principle. 176). the rational agent will vote in an expressive way. Second. because the chance that one’s vote will make a difference is very near zero (p. This second argument relies on a number of assumptions that are This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. They will express their moral opinions or their emotional states.

First. Moreover.138 Ethics October 2004 usually not satisfied in ordinary politics. See Joseph Schumpeter. And the political parties are likely to display some inertia in making changes. The process of elections was for him merely a formal device by which rulers could be chosen peacefully.82. Brennan and Hamlin recognize that expressive voters may not express moral attitudes when they are in the polling booth. voting on the basis of sinister or simply irrational motives is in no way ruled out by the rational choice approach. First. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Such knowledge is hard to come by. or in a way that is calculated to bring about the best outcomes. p. But surely this is not something about which candidates have precise knowledge. they claim that voters are likely to vote morally. (New York: Harper & Row. they are likely to lose the support of their parties. the preferences of the voters in the middle are likely to shift with changing circumstances as are the preferences of most voters. Socialism and Democracy. Schumpeter argued that since this kind of voting would be prevalent in democratic societies. the role of citizens ought to be reduced to the merely formal role of selecting elites to rule. since the opportunity costs of voting on the basis of these attitudes are near zero. 1950). He completely rejected the view that the voters ought to be the ones in the driver’s seat.168. it is precisely the hypothesis that voters would act on the basis of childlike motives in the polling booth that Joseph Schumpeter made the centerpiece of his highly skeptical conception of democracy. And if they stray too far from the political party that supports their electoral efforts. Second. There is a lot of evidence that 12. therefore involves two separate hypotheses. candidates cannot stray too far from the political party positions they have taken in the past. So candidates for election are not likely to be quite as flexible in deciding what positions to take as the Brennan and Hamlin argument above requires. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 3d ed. Capitalism. Second.12 The thesis of expressive voting. they may rather express more sinister attitudes or attitudes of vengefulness and hatred.217 on Fri. the argument relies on the assumption that candidates know where the median voter stands. Indeed. But. 262. There is another serious difficulty with the expressive voting hypothesis. they claim that voters do not vote strategically. So candidates will likely have different estimates of where the median voter is. as it is outlined by Brennan and Hamlin. Rational choice theorists think that normally actions that express these attitudes are filtered out in the processes of economic exchange and other activities because acting on them is not usually optimal and because the opportunity costs of acting on these attitudes are high. otherwise instrumental voters will think of them as not reliable for bringing about outcomes they want. The first hypothesis seems to me to be highly questionable from an empirical standpoint.

But. it is unclear how this benefit is to be weighed against the opportunity costs of voting. The second point merely magnifies this problem. as Brennan and Hamlin note. and second. There is evidence that voters vote strategically in presidential elections when there are more than two candidates. it is hard to see why voters would vote at all and why they would think strategically about their voting.217 on Fri. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. for the evidence. Another worry about the expressive voting hypothesis is that it is unclear on this hypothesis why voters would ever go to the voting booth in the first place. would vote for obviously losing candidates as long as the candidates present something with which the voters can identify (p.82. That suggests that the value of expressing the attitude is very low and that it could be easily outweighed by the opportunity costs of going to the polling booth. 137). The third thesis is that some democratic political institutions can select for politicians who are morally virtuous and will thereby have the effect of encouraging virtue among some of the participants. by rational choice theorists. the whole account suffers from a terrible explanatory defect. first. And when voters vote for thirdparty candidates that have little chance of winning.13 This kind of justification only makes sense if voters are thinking strategically. on the mainstream rational choice view. and since the rest of the theory cannot explain this. The central idea is that to the extent voters are voting expressively. Brennan and Hamlin suggest that voters would vote on the basis of a “sense of civic responsibility” (p. the hypothesis of expressive voting is based on the thought that the reason why people express their attitudes in the polling booth is that there are no opportunity costs to voting. 1991). and the costs are usually thought. See Samuel Popkin. they will vote 13. My aim is not primarily to reject the expressive voting hypothesis.Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 139 voters do vote strategically in presidential primaries in the United States. 155). and thus we see the occurrence of bandwagon effects in presidential primaries. So some kind of amendment to the mainstream approach seems necessary here. If this is so then the hypothesis cannot explain why voters vote at all.168. Voters tend to vote for candidates they think will win. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . to outweigh the benefits. That decision does have opportunity costs. On the first point. Expressive voters. The benefit would be the good of expressing one’s attitudes. it is also unclear why voters would choose this particular way to express themselves. The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. they usually justify this on the basis of the claim that the two main parties are not different from each other. Admittedly. But how this sense is acquired by rational agents is left entirely unexplained. It is to call into question the thesis that it is compatible with the rational actor model or that it could be used by a rational actor model to remedy some of the defects of that model.

82. But.168. 175).217 on Fri. politicians will not be chosen on the basis of their upstanding characters or on the basis of the quality of their political platforms. It merely says that if voters happen to be in the polling booth. This is a straightforward consequence of Downs’s thesis of the rationality of ignorance. morally speaking. but to people who pay very little attention to politics. The thesis that in this context politicians’ motivations will be translucent is simply not plausible because voters do not have the incentives to look into their characters or their past. CONCLUSION I conclude that the explanatory apparatus of rational choice theory seems to be committed to basic structure determinism and that this commitment is incompatible with the practical aim of rational choice This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. they will vote in a way that expresses certain attitudes because there are no opportunity costs to doing this. And if they do not have the morally salutary effects hoped for. I have a fundamental worry about this approach. 180). the negative campaigning will likely not offer a particularly edifying picture of who is preferable to whom.140 Ethics October 2004 for politicians who appeal to them. there are opportunity costs to going to the polling booth and there are serious opportunity costs to becoming informed about political parties and platforms as well as about the characters of politicians. which Brennan and Hamlin accept (p. So it is not clear to me that the institutional mechanisms that Brennan and Hamlin describe will have the morally transformative effects for which they hope. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . And so they will have little incentive for going beyond any of this. The upshot is that. They will be chosen on the basis of superficial displays of virtue and crude political appeals at best. Thus a system of political representation will tend to select for morally motivated politicians and will also give incentives to other politicians to be morally motivated (Brennan and Hamlin. p. The thesis of expressive voting does not deal with this issue at all. contrary to Brennan and Hamlin’s argument. Of course. As a consequence. The voters will simply not have the necessary information to evaluate the real characters or platforms of politicians. other elites will try to uncover the unseemly aspects of the politician’s activities. as I pointed out above. then it is unclear how they can avoid the conclusions of basic structure determinism they desire to avoid. If voters are primarily self-interested they are not likely to be well informed about what the parties or politicians have to offer in the first place. They will at most have incentives to appear to be upstanding and supportive of desirable goals only for brief periods of time. politicians will not have incentives to be upstanding or to remain faithful to their platforms.

Christiano Is Normative Rational Choice Theory Self-Defeating? 141 theory. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. The two books reviewed in this essay are written by three of the foremost exponents of the approach and by people who have a very sophisticated appreciation of the theory. yet they seem unable to spring loose from the trap of determinism laid by the theory.168.217 on Fri. 30 Nov 2012 16:09:43 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .82.