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RATIONALITY, CHOICE, AND MORALITY / Vol. 44, No. 4 (Winter 1977)

Sidney Morgenbesser, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Arnold Brecht, Professor Emeritus of Political Science on the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, died after a brief illness on September 11, 1977. Death called to him while he was vacationing in West Germany, the country of his birth. He spent indeed his very last days in a region close to his beloved native Lubeck. What seems to be a mere accident is not without deeper significance. The return of the native in the shadow of approaching death symbolizes the closing of the circle that circumscribes Brecht's long and harmonious life.

In the first section, I will remind the reader of some fundamental formal criteria for rationality in preferences and choices, of the recurring controversy whether preferences have a cardinal as well as an ordinal significance—that is, does it make sense to speak of intensities of preferences—and of the possibility and meaning of interpersonal comparability of preferences. In Section 2, majority voting is analyzed as a means of social choice. The reasons it might be judged desirable are stated as criteria for social choice mechanisms. Section 3 is a statement of the central result in the theory of social choice, that the paradox arising in majority voting is a general phenomenon which holds for all social choice mechanisms satisfying some reasonable conditions. Section 4 examines a weakening of rationality requirements for social preference. Section 5 explores perhaps the most fundamental reorientation, that of strengthening the rationality conditions for individuals so as to admit certain kinds of interpersonal comparisons. In one direction, we are led to classical utilitarianism; in another, to criteria closely resembling those of Rawls.

I propose to argue that the emergence of modern decision theory has made ethics into an organic part of the general theory of rational behavior. The concept of rational behavior (practical rationality) is important in philosophy both in its own right and because of its close connection with theoretical rationality. It plays a very important role also in the empirical social sciences, mainly in economics but also in political science and in sociology (at least in the more analytically oriented versions of these two disciplines). What is more important for our present purposes, the concept of rational behavior is the very foundation of the normative disciplines of decision theory, of game theory, and (as I will argue) of ethics.

The fiscal proposals put by President Carter before Congress this legislative year are of unusual interest because they constitute a response to the unprecedented volume of criticism, some of it fanned by the President himself, of the existing Federal tax system. Various elements of the tax code, including some of its discernible principles, are viewed as arbitrary, capricious perverse-in short, irrational. And therefore unjust. In the minds of some, a tax system making myriad distinctions and discriminations is a manifest conspiracy to divert tax burdens unfairly from one group to another. Many commentators, populist and conservative, now envision radical reconstructions of the tax system along novel and simpler lines.

In every society decisions are constantly made which influence the lives and interests of people. Many of these decisions are made by the state through the different arms of its governmental machinery. An agreement is negotiated, a law is imposed, a ruling is overturned. Society will change, and a choice will have been made. The actions of individuals interact with those of everyone else and a collective result is produced. This, too, is a form of social choice. The mechanism of social choice is a complex one, and its modes are neither always explicit nor conscious. But whatever the mechanism of social change, a kind of choice may be identified, a choice affecting people.

In a formal sense, rationality of individual behavior under certainty can be taken to mean merely that the individual's choices conform to some consistent set of preferences such that the preference relation is transitive. Operationally, however, merely to observe that an individual chooses A when the range of choice is between A and B, chooses B out of a range of B and C, and chooses C out of a range of C and A does not necessarily imply irrationality. Thus while in a world of certainty it is possible to describe behavior that one would characterize as irrational, opportunities for observing behavior that one would confidently so characterize may be somewhat more infrequent than might at first appear.

Many philosophers have hoped that egoism could be shown to be inconsistent and thus not rational. Showing this would accomplish with dispatch the difficult task of establishing that egoism, although it may qualify as "a moral theory," is nevertheless a moral theory that should not be accepted, for among the best reasons for rejecting any theory is its inconsistency. But the task, I think, remains unachieved. Egoism has not been shown to be inconsistent, and rationality as usually understood offers no defense against its spread.

In real life, men do not adopt cognitive stances representable as extreme states of modal ignorance where all logical possibilities are serious possibilities. On the other hand, no one ever endorses as his corpus of knowledge or evidence (his standard for serious possibility) a maxilnally consistent set. In deliberation and in inquiry, men find themselves in a state of modal ignorance in some respects and free of modal ignorance in others.

The notion of reasoned choice is central to most discussions of decision and action. It is usually anchored, in the more formal of these discussions, in a binary relation of preference over alternatives. The preference relation being but a partial ordering, however, it is quite standardly augmented by the equivalence relation of indifference to render it complete. This, then, is where the notion of indifference enters the picture—and this is usually where it is left. But does it deserve to be left there? This paper raises some philosophical questions that may be asked about the notion of indifference and attempts to answer some of them. It is a plea not to be indifferent to indifference.

H ow can people be got to cooperate? How can they be induced to help out where they know they can get away? There is no problem for anyone willing to say that people are naturally sociable. But if this does not sit well with you, if you hold that people act only on what they see as their interests, you may suspect that the prospects are poor. Some authors hold that sensible people do cooperate, often at some cost. Others only insist that working together might be rational, even where it costs us something. The question is how to prove this. Several arguments have been tried. I shall describe some recent developments along one line of reasoning and consider how far these take us.

Pragmatists have objected to the passivity of mankind as portrayed in the empiricist account of the acquisition of knowledge: Knowledge of the world comes from experience, and experience is whatever happens; the role of human beings is to be the haver of experiences. By contrast, pragmatists see human beings as the ultimate shapers and interpreters of experience; what the world is depends on what we decide it is, in the light of what works best for our purposes. But pragmatism then sails off into seas of unreason, flying flags of romantic metaphor.

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