Maybe you saw John McCumber’s excellent look at The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy in the Times’ Stone column a few weeks back. Don’t be put off by the academic tone – this is concrete stuff and very much worth your time, especially with July 4th approaching. McCumber traces that most precious tenet of American individualism, that we are free agents making rational choices, casting it as the national dogma that (still) shapes our economic and governmental realities – despite the myriad and increasingly self-evident philosophical misgivings about its validity. If it sounds like a chapter from The Social Animal, that’s because it sort of is. The ethical implications that McCumber outlines are particularly relevant, as is his invocation of Hegel’s appeal to community as the arbiter of meaning/value. Essentially, the language of choice is both deceptive and deceived, ignoring both the randomness of nature and the compromised human will (or, as we might say, the providence of God and the broken/bound creature). It’s not doing us any favors, in other words:
One prominent component of America’s basic vocabulary is ”individualism.” Our society accords unique rights and freedoms to individuals, and we are so proud of these that we recurrently seek to install them in other countries. But individualism, the desire to control one’s own life, has many variants. Tocqueville viewed it as selfishness and suspected it, while Emerson and Whitman viewed it as the moment-by-moment expression of one’s unique self and loved it.
After World War II, a third variant gained momentum in America. It defined individualism as the making of choices so as to maximize one’s preferences. This differed from “selfish individualism” in that the preferences were not specified: they could be altruistic as well as selfish. It differed from “expressive individualism” in having general algorithms by which choices were made. These made it rational…
Once established in universities, rational choice philosophy moved smoothly on the backs of their pupils into the “real world” of business and government (aided in the crossing, to be sure, by the novels of another Rand—Ayn). Today, governments and businesses across the globe simply assume that social reality is merely a set of individuals freely making rational choices. Wars have been and are still being fought to bring such freedom to Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Grenadans, and now Libyans, with more nations surely to come.
At home, anti-regulation policies are crafted to appeal to the view that government must in no way interfere with Americans’ freedom of choice. Even religions compete in the marketplace of salvation, eager to be chosen by those who, understandably, prefer heaven to hell. Today’s most zealous advocates of individualism, be they on Wall Street or at Tea Parties, invariably forget their origins in a long ago program of government propaganda.
Rational choice philosophy, to its credit, made clear and distinct claims in philosophy’s three main areas. Ontologically, its emphasis on individual choice required that reality present a set of discrete alternatives among which one could choose: linear “causal chains” which intersected either minimally, trivially, or not at all. Epistemologically, that same emphasis on choice required that at least the early stages of such chains be knowable with something akin to certainty, for if our choice is to be rational we need to know what we are choosing. Knowledge thus became foundationalistic and incremental.
But the real significance of rational choice philosophy lay in ethics. Rational choice theory, being a branch of economics, does not question people’s preferences; it simply studies how they seek to maximize them. Rational choice philosophy seems to maintain this ethical neutrality (see Hans Reichenbach’s 1951 “The Rise of Scientific Philosophy,” an unwitting masterpiece of the genre); but it does not. Whatever my preferences are, I have a better chance of realizing them if I possess wealth and power. Rational choice philosophy thus promulgates a clear and compelling moral imperative: increase your wealth and power!
…Rational choice theory came under fire after the economic crisis of 2008, but remains central to economic analysis. Rational choice philosophy, by contrast, was always implausible. Hegel, for one, had denied all three of its central claims in his “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences” over a century before. In that work, as elsewhere in his writings, nature is not neatly causal, but shot through with randomness. Because of this chaos, we cannot know the significance of what we have done until our community tells us; and ethical life correspondingly consists, not in pursuing wealth and power, but in integrating ourselves into the right kinds of community.
If philosophers cannot refrain from absolutizing choice within philosophy itself, they cannot critique it elsewhere. If they did, they could begin formulating a comprehensive alternative to rational choice philosophy — and to the blank collectivism of Cold War Stalinism — as opposed to the specific criticisms advanced so far. The result might look quite a bit like Hegel in its view that individual freedom is of value only when communally guided. Though it would be couched, one must hope, in clearer prose.