Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.3 (Fall 2007): Book Reviews: Rationality and the Ideology of Disconnection [Full Text]

Sep 26, 2007

David A. Welch(reviewer)

This passionate book is a powerful conceptual, empirical, and normative critique of Rational Choice theory by a former practitioner. Rational Choice, Taylor argues, is more than a simple style of analysis and approach to problem solving: it is a hegemonic orthodoxy that has subverted psyches, societies, and cultures. By insisting that everything has a price, that values can be reduced to preferences, and that an efficient allocation of resources is the highest social good, this ideology, as Taylor insists on calling it, disconnects us from our pasts, our places, and our purposes. By undermining self and meaning, Rational Choice literally dehumanizes us. It may even destroy us: the current "market dystopia" is rapidly ravaging the ecosphere.

These are not new themes, but Taylor gives them a uniquely authoritative voice. He is not vulnerable to the usual rejoinders that he does not understand Rational Choice theory or that he has a competing ideological agenda. He is simply that rare thing—a circumspect scholar who has come to the conclusion that a style of analysis he used to practice and promote is both flawed and dangerous.

Taylor begins his critique by exploring a series of examples of classically "irrational" behavior. He takes the first three from John Berger's fictional trilogy, Into Their Labours: Marcel, who refuses to sell his old cider press for much more than it would cost to purchase a newer, more efficient one; Odile’s father, who refuses to sell his family farm on the ground that his patrimony "is not for sale"; and Sucus, a migrant worker, who refuses to sell his knife, though he desperately needs the money, because it once belonged to his father. From fiction, Taylor moves on to fact, movingly telling the stories of one Portuguese couple's refusal to sell their mountain village plot to corporate agribusiness carpetbaggers; of the James Bay Cree's ultimately futile attempts to halt a massive hydroelectric project that would destroy their way of life; of the Yavapai, who refused any amount of money to permit the flooding of their land behind the Orme Dam; and of the Sioux, who in 1979 refused a massive offer of compensation for the U.S. government's illegal taking of their land more than a century earlier. By means of these examples, Taylor seeks to make the point that certain things have no price and certain losses cannot be compensated. From here it is a short step to the claim that Pareto optimality and social utility maximization—pillars of Rational Choice, public policy, and welfare economics—are illusions, pure and simple.

Taylor moves on to consider a number of famous Rational Choice paradoxes. Why do people vote when the costs of voting so obviously outweigh any possible material benefit? Why do so many people cooperate when they could free ride? Why aren’t more people crooks? None of these can be explained by Rational Choice, Taylor argues, because it denies, as it must deny, the importance of moral motivation, a narrative conception of the self, the cultural embeddedness of practice, and human sociability. When devotees attempt to rescue Rational Choice from paradoxes such as these, Taylor insists—here indulging in some sheepishly self-critical autobiography—the fixes result in nothing more than vapid tautologies.

At the end of the day, Taylor argues, Rational Choice elevates irrationality to an ideal, because its preoccupation with calculations leaves no room for reasons as motives to action.

None of this is mere academic debate. There are real stakes here, and they are of the first importance. Taylor is surely right that an approach to life and to policy that reduces everything to an indifference curve can lead to anomie and atomie, to social and ecological collapse. But at the risk of parroting the National Rifle Association ("Guns don’t kill people, people do"), I believe we should try to draw a sharp distinction between Rational Choice as such and the uses to which it has been put.

Recall that Rational Choice is itself the product of a moral impulse: the desire to improve people's quality of life. Adam Smith was no amoral worshipper of wealth. Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill did not mean for their doctrines to promote the evils Taylor lays at their feet. Anyone who takes the concept of social or individual utility seriously would have to be concerned about the social consequences of distributional inequality and the ecological consequences of plundering the planet for profit. We can condemn the misplaced zeal and the tunnel vision of a Richard Posner or a Milton Friedman without demonizing the entire apparatus of Rational Choice.

In one sense, Rational Choice is nothing more than a language of representation. Its outputs depend critically upon its inputs. No doubt the machine will generate terrible evils indeed if all we feed it is maximization of wealth; but as Taylor himself so convincingly shows, there are many things that people prefer to money. We can say of Marcel, when he refuses to sell his cider press, that he has a very intense preference for keeping it over getting a new one (and pocketing a windfall in the bargain). It is so intense that it looks like the product of an "exclusionary reason." But we can always meaningfully ask whether someone prefers one thing to another. Sophie's choice was a choice, horrific and heartrending though it was.

Still, Taylor would be on solid ground retorting: "Guns don’t kill people; people with guns kill people." Is it something about us, or something about Rational Choice, that invites pathological, dehumanizing applications? Why have we been unable to make the kind of positive use of it that its inventors surely intended? And given that we haven't, how do we free ourselves of the social and economic structures in which our pathological applications have ensnared us? Taylor may not have answers to these questions, but he has eloquently sounded the warning that we fail to find them at our peril.

—David A. Welch, University of Toronto

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