Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rational Fools

Paper for discussion in class;
Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory, Amartya K. Sen, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 4. (Summer, 1977), pp. 317-344;

There is not much merit in spending a lot of effort in debating the "proper" definition of rationality. The term is used in many different senses, and none of the criticisms of the behavioral foundations of economic theory presented here stands or falls on the definition chosen. The main issue is the acceptability of the assumption of the invariable pursuit of self-interest in each act. Calling that type of behavior rational, or departures from it irrational, does not change the relevance of these criticisms, though it does produce an arbitrarily narrow definition of rationality. This paper has not been concerned with the question as to whether human behavior is better described as rational or irrational. The main thesis has been the need to accommodate commitment as a part of behavior. Commitment does not presuppose reasoning, but it does not exclude it; in fact, insofar as consequences on others have to be more clearly understood and assessed in terms of one's values and instincts, the scope for reasoning may well expand. I have tried to analyze the structural extensions in the conception of preference made necessary by behavior based on reasoned assessment of commitment. Preferences as rankings have to be replaced by a richer structure involving meta-rankings and related concepts.

I have also argued against viewing behavior in terms of the traditional dichotomy between egoism and universalized moral systems (such as utilitarianism). Groups intermediate between oneself and all, such as class and community, provide the focus of many actions involving commitment. The rejection of egoism as description of motivation does not, therefore, imply the acceptance of some universalized morality as the basis of actual behavior. Nor does it make human beings excessively noble.

Nor, of course, does the use of reasoning imply remarkable wisdom.
It is as true as Caesar's name was Kaiser,
That no economist was ever wiser,

said Robert Frost in playful praise of the contemporary economist. Perhaps a similarly dubious tribute can be paid to the economic man in our modified conception. If he shines at all, he shines in comparison -in contrast-with the dominant image of the rational fool.

Related Videos;
Conversations with History: On Theory, with Amartya Sen

Identity and Violence


florian said...

hi there,

first, thanks a lot for your wonderful blog. i am graduate student in economics and philosophy from austria doing research on risk and rationality. therefore, i am very interested in sen's "rational fools"-article.

since our university has only limited access to jstor, i cannot dl it - funny enough.

do see any possibility to post that article somewhere online so that i would be able to 'retrieve' it.

thanks a lot and very kind regards


Marina said...

you can get the article in Tracy Strong's "The Self and the Political Order"