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Fr. 507

April 11, 2014

The third remark to be registered in regards to the problem of universal models of rationality and decisions concerns more particularly the precise mechanisms by which such decisions are to be made. More simply, what would such models look like?

One possibility lies in catallaxy or rational choice theory, defined as the means of aggregating preferences and solving for the greatest number possible or with the most efficient input/output ratio. This theory has without a doubt its application to the field of political arrangements, as is shown in Chapter 5 of Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy. Of this theory, Cunningham remarks:

“Social choice theory is a species of more general ‘rational choice’ theory and is sometimes simply referred to by this name when it is understood that collective decisions are being addressed. Social choice theorists concerned with political behaviour agree on the core of their ideal model: a rational individual comes to a political situation calling for a collective decision with ranked preferences over possible outcomes and chooses that course of action […] deemed likely to realize the most highly ranked of his or her preferences possible given the decision-making rules in place, the anticipated behaviour of other individuals, and other such constraints. One guiding methodological postulate of social choice theory is that rationality has only to do with whether people take appropriate means to their preferred ends. The ends themselves are neither rational nor irrational, but are simply taken as given for evaluating the rationality of those who take actions to further them” (p. 101).

Indeed, it is simple enough to see precisely how such a theory could be called upon within the framework of the problem that we are treating. If this problem sets as its goal precise the development of models of collective decision making and collective rationality, then it will be necessary to take stock of the preferences of the parties involved in the particular conflicts or disagreements under consideration. In short, catallactic theories of the sort above seem to fit quite well just this scenario.

Yet any attempt to bring a catallactic solution to global problems and conflict will run the same risk as any other catallactic theory, some of which is hinted at by Cunningham above. For rational choice theory of this kind remains silent as to what we are to make of the ends being put forward. These are taken as givens, mere brute facts. Fixed as the ends are, they are neither subject to further analysis and questioning nor subject to change following dialogue and reflection. It is precisely this that constitutes the impoverished nature of catallaxy and rational choice theory: they have nothing to say on the preferences or ends themselves.

More precisely, this insufficiency reveals itself in two ways. On one hand, there are the considerations of arbitrating between qualitatively different goods, preferences and ends, in the sense that not all of the latter are to be valued to the same extent. Some are without a doubt of higher value than others, and the rankings of these values will vary from one group to another. This is not to posit a complete lack of uniformity. Indeed, we have already conceded that there are more or less universal aspirations. Yet so long as these universal aspirations common to individuals and groups worldwide belong to a “soft” rather than “hard” consensus and there is to be expected some variance at the level of valuation, then these universal aspiration should not tempt us to require more work of these than they can reasonably hope to do for us the time come for the preference calculus. Here, the partisan of catallaxy must remain silent, for one good has largely the same worth as any other.

On the other hand, catallactic theories of this sort are, in some sense, change-blind. Preferences are taken as givens and come ever from the outside of the system or situation at issue. More simply, these preferences are established in a vacuum, prior to any and all reflection or dialogue that might provoke change in these. Cunningham singles out this feature when he writes:

“This prospect highlights a feature of catallactic and public choice theory generally that some have seen as questionable. On such theory preferences and the presence or absence of rationality in action on them are regarded parts of a given background against which political cost/benefit calculations are made. In this way the preferences and rational habits are outside of or ‘exogenous’ to political processes. But if political activity itself can internally, or ‘endogenously’, affect preferences and rationality, this assumption is challenged. Introduction of sophistications such as learning through repeated efforts to make a collective decision (called participation in ‘iterated strategic games’) can account for some changes internal to political processes, but it is not clear how this could accommodate changes in given preference rankings or in how rational one is. Moreover, even this complication detracts from the descriptive simplicity and prescriptive neatness that attracts many to the catallactic approach” (pp. 119-120).

We see just how far the manner of treating preferences is distant from the realities of dialogue between parties in global problems, where the mere fact of coming together to discuss the issue at hand might itself engender new preferences as well as different arbitrations or values of the preferences already being put forward. In this way, a catallactic approach to global problems seems to ignore the potentially transformative effect that models of collective decision making and collective rationality could have with regards to the preferences, goods, ends and goals being considered in a given problem. Wherefore the characterization of catallactic theories as impoverished views of human rationality.

The challenge would then consist in combining that which the social choice theory can offer with a more thoroughgoing transformative model for decision making.


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