Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Moral action in the real world

An ongoing exchange at Duck of Minerva between PTJ (here) and Phil Arena (here) raises some interesting questions about rational choice theory and moral action (among other things).

PTJ argues that "moral action strictly speaking" does not take any account of an individual's preferences or desires and that choice-theoretic models therefore rule out moral action by definition.

I don't want to get deeply into the argument about rational choice theory for several reasons (one of them being that I don't care that much about it one way or another), but I do want to raise another issue -- albeit not that systematically or even coherently, given the hour.

The issue is this: does anyone engage in "moral action strictly speaking" in the real world? That is, does anyone act without taking into account his or her own desires, at some level? To some extent this is a semantic question: one can always say that because X did Y, X wanted to do Y. Mother Theresa must have wanted to minister to the poor of Calcutta (Kolkata), otherwise she wouldn't have done it. But the use of "want" in this way begs the question. More pointedly, one can suggest that of course Mother Theresa acted out of moral and religious conviction but presumably it must also have given her satisfaction, in some sense that can be separated from acting purely out of a sense of moral duty. At least, it's not absurd to think that might have been the case. (And if you don't like the Mother Theresa example, substitute one of your own choosing.)

There are at least a few philosophers who think, as Iris Murdoch remarked, that "every second has a moral tinge," that we are constantly faced with moral decisions. This, I think, is an overstatement: there are large swaths of mundane daily life that do not have a moral tinge. But even if only ten percent of one's existence involves moral questions, that's still a lot. And I think ten percent might be on the low side.

The point I'm trying to get to, though, is that real-world decisions usually involve a mix of considerations, in which one balances what one thinks or knows is the right thing to do, abstractly speaking, against the inconvenience or cost to oneself which doing that thing might entail. After all, if Christians followed Christ's example literally, they would live in poverty and give all their wealth and possessions to the less fortunate. Ditto for Jews and Muslims who followed the relevant scriptural injunctions for them. Of course monks and saints might do that, and the WaPo recently ran an article about some young people in well-paying jobs who give most of their income to charity (having been influenced by, inter alia, the writings of Peter Singer), but most people balance the imperatives of their moral and/or religious beliefs against the practical costs of operationalizing those beliefs. I give a small amount of money each month to an organization that works against global poverty. Could I give more? Yes. Why don't I? Because there are other, mostly less selfless (or more selfish, if you prefer to put it that way) calls on a finite amount of resources.

So, to come back to rational choice theory, even if it does rule out "moral action strictly speaking" by definition, if few people engage in such action in the real world, I don't know that the exclusion-by-definition greatly matters -- especially if you assume that ultimately the point of even highly stylized models is to advance understanding of the real world.


Phil Arena said...

Well said, LFC. I couldn't agree more.

LFC said...


You know, I sometimes disagree with Patrick about various things, but to be agreeing with you and disagreeing with him at the same time -- now that feels a little weird to me. ;)

Plus, it feels weird to me to be defending 'rational choice theory' which, for the most part, I can barely make heads or tails of.

But hey, that's the way the cookie crumbles... :)

Phil Arena said...

Understandable. :)

Anonymous said...

PTJ is apparently taking a Kantian view; I believe Kant held that morality is unrelated to personal preferences.

Seems to me that, as LFC says, no one actually does this, and that our moral thinking, like all our other thinking, tends to be muddled and inconsistent. We all the time balance our own interests against those of others in moral calculations.

LFC said...

"PTJ is apparently taking a Kantian view"


Btw I should note that I find some other aspects of PTJ's critique of 'rational choice' more compelling than the specific criticism addressed here.

Anonymous said...

Well, if I remember correctly, Kant was unsure as to whether there had ever been a true moral act in all of human history. I think he was aware of how stringent his requirement that moral acts be carried out for duty's sake alone was.

I think PTJ's strong Kantian interpretation of moral decision-making comes by way of his strong take on Weber's distinction between 'value-rational' action and instrumentally rational action. For what it is worth, contemporary philosophers such as Elster and Parfit (to name two I'm familiar with) do not draw such a sharp distinction.

LFC said...

re the Kant/Weber connection -- that could well be; it'll be interesting to see whether PTJ mentions this in his promised follow-up at Duck. (maybe it's up already -- I haven't been there yet today)