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Fr. 506

April 10, 2014

Leaving behind the question of whether the view of reason advanced above is fundamentally Western, we can now register a second critical remark with regards to the problem as currently worded:

“4. New models of collective decision making and collective rationality.

Solving the problems of the 21st Century will require coordinated rational action on a massive scale. But we really have no models of collective rationality, no idea of the institutional, social, political and economic structures that will allow us to meet these challenges. Can philosophers help build them in time to guide us in meeting the challenges of this century?”

In particular, it is the second bundle of sub-claims that we would bring to the fore at this time and their reliance on the notion of the model.

2. Models for collective rationality are not in place.
2a. Collective rationality on a global scale requires global models and structures.
2b. There are no such models or structures ready at hand.
2c. The institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality will need to be developed.

At issue in each part of the sub-claim is precisely the ideal of a model. We can surmise of this ideal that, for each instance in which the parties would need to navigate the murky waters of conflict, there would be a single model that we would bring to bear on that instance. This model would presumably come complete with its collection of rules and cases, as well as major exceptions. Taken as a whole, these rules would then be applied to this instance so as best to solve for institutional, social, political and economic problems bound up with that instance. Being a model, this collection would naturally attain to a universal status and would thus apply across the entire range of concrete instances. Moreover, once agreed upon, the constituent rules and cases would stand as a complete entity, with little need for further alteration or review. On a final note, it seems reasonable to think that rational agents would themselves choose from a range of options precisely those rules and cases most essential to the arbitration of global problems and conflicts of institutional, social, political and economic kinds.

Although there is much to be commended on this view, particularly in its call for cooperation, the notion of “model” engendres considerably more problems than might otherwise be thought to be the case. Indeed, the concept of a “model” seems entirely too rigid, strict, and inflexible to be able to arbitrate properly all of the varied concrete instances that we are likely to encounter in solving for problems across the globe. It is important to note that this is not mere trifling at the level of semantics. If we are to use the word “model” to designate the ensemble of rules and cases to be applied and a “model” is precisely that is which is uniform across and capable of solving for all instances, then this word would obscure rather enlighten the function of this ensemble, as well as our expectations for it, should it prove insufficient in some context or other.

Indeed, it is eminently plausible that it will in the end prove insufficient when faced with one instance or another and will need to be considerably amended or even thrown out entirely in order to come to grips with said instance. For it is difficult to cite any particular model capable of solving for the full range of phenomena in a field so diverse and underdetermined as even that of “institutions”, much less “society”, “politics” or “economy”. More precisely, we might wonder what single model in the field of institutions would be able to provide satisfactory responses or explanations for the diverse arrangements and structures that will inevitably be found therein. What then is to be made of this notion of model?

To illustrate further this same point, we need only consider the way in which John Rawls and Jeffrey Stout navigate a similar difficulty with regards to the question of justice. For Rawls, rational agents in society come to agreement about a system of rules for arbitrating instances of justice and injustice. Although broad in application, these rules are fixed in number and are nominally the object of consensus for every citizen in society. Whereas their precise application and interpretation is subject to some variation, the rules themselves and their content remain the same for each member of society qua legal subject bearing rights. Where this conception of fixed rules and universal consensus comes up short is precisely in its expectation that every citizen will assent and that every instance of dispute is capable of being arbitrated along these lines. In those instances where the rules do not seem to apply, it is difficult to see how dialogue between the different parties might continue.

To this end, Jeffrey Stout notes that some citizens might find such a notion of consensus and fixed rules epistemically dubious or stifling. For these parties, there is reason to suspect that such consensus and rules are, on one hand, out of the realm of possibility and, on the other, potentially harmful to the society in which they are being applied. For these stifle the particularities of a given instance to which any satisfactory solution would have to pay careful attention. To remedy this lack of flexibility, Stout recommends instead preliminary dialogue so as to establish or at the least adapt the rules to be applied in that instance. Following this period of dialogue and exchange, the parties are more likely to come to satisfactory conclusions and agreements about the best means to arbitrate their problems.

In this way, flexible dialogue would supplant rigid rules. That said, it remains to be seen just how far such dialogue could be applied in situations in which the opposing sides find themselves in long-held and particularly entrenched positions. Regardless, this does give us pause when it comes time to advance a “model” rather than a more open-ended collection of rules or cases or other predictive tools.

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