Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Are Voters Rational? (4)

Following parts one, two and three, here's the final installment of this essay.

IV. Rationality, Plurality and Permission

Though there have been some, like Plato, who have supposed rationality lays down a fully determinate life plan for everyone, liberals have generally recognised it is best to leave everyone to live their own life by their own lights (limited by something like the harm principle). They recognise the limits of reason, in at least one of the ways identified by Swift (above).

Rationality, understood in a more modest sense, very rarely requires us to do (or not do) any particular thing. Though there may be a rational requirement not to believe both Q and not-Q, it is generally open to us to believe either. If J and K entail L, we are not rationally required to believe L – merely to accept it or abandon either J or K. Rationality frequently permits options. I can have either toast or cereal for breakfast, without threat to my rationality. If I decide to go for a walk, it is no more rational to go left than right. Plenty of matters involve areas of rational indifference, where one has discretion to just choose.

The examples given above concern relatively trivial matters, but there are more significant choices that cannot be resolved rationally. Many values are incommensurable, such that it is neither true that X is better than Y, nor that Y is better than X, nor yet that the two are equally good (consider being an academic or a management consultant). In these cases, it may be that X is better in one respect (say, it is more intrinsically satisfying) but Y better in another (say, more financially lucrative), and there may be no possible trade off between these different values. In such circumstances, we are rationally permitted to choose X or Y, but not rationally required to choose either one.

When we choose between, say, becoming an academic and a management consultant, our choice can be at best partially reasoned. We can have rational justification for either option, but since neither is rationally compelled, we cannot be judged irrational for not taking one (though we may be irrational for not taking either, and instead becoming a road-sweeper or something else clearly dominated by either). Sometimes two choices may have very different outcomes for us – for instance, given a choice between saving my own leg or a stranger’s life, I may be rationally permitted to choose either option.

If rationality allows us a wide range of discretion, then it appears there is nothing I am rationally required to do between, say, 4 and 5pm this afternoon. There may be some options ruled out – e.g. if I was to spend the time counting blades of grass on my lawn – but I could spent the time reading, going for a walk, writing a letter, organising my finances, watching a movie, tackling some households chores, relaxing in the garden or engaged in any one of countless other activities. Choosing any one of these pursuits would not count against my rationality, they would all be permissible uses of my time. If it happened to be an election day, then taking a stroll down to the polling booth and exercising my democratic right to a say in the nation’s government would seem to be another possibility figuring in such a list. It is something I can do if I feel like it, but needn’t if I feel I have something I’d rather do. Whether or not I do it says nothing about my rationality. It is quite possible – judging from overall observation of my behaviour – that I could be found irrational, even insane, but it is also possible that I am a perfectly rational and reasonable person, who happens to have a penchant for voicing my opinion and voting in elections, though I know my vote alone will make no difference to the outcome.

While I do not think RCT adequately explains people’s voting behaviour – since this is also influenced by the non-rational desires, socialisation and morality, as well as rational factors such as costs, benefits and probability (which all seem to have some role in comparative statistics predictions) – this does not mean that people aren’t rational, merely that rationality doesn’t explain or determine everything. The limits of RCT do not tell against the assumption that people are rational and, while this consistency doesn’t validate the assumption, we have no reason to doubt that voters are rational


At 5:18 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

You know I agree with you about it, but the unargued appeal to incommensurability - unless it's argued in an earlier section, and I've forgotten - might be a bit dodgy

At 5:23 pm, Blogger Ben said...

Thanks Rob.

You're right, I don't think I ever exactly argue for incommensurability, but I'm not really aware of anyone who does - isn't it simply an acceptance of the phenomena?

Surely it's those, like utilitarians, who think you can reduce everything to some single scale, that face the burden of proof...

At 9:47 am, Anonymous Nick L said...

Berlin is the best known defender of incommensurability I think. And erm... Satre I guess.

I'm not sure how far I would agree with this section: surely liberals don't have to believe that reason cannot discriminate between different life choices, but rather only that people ought to be able to choose for themselves. Freedom is the freedom to get things wrong etc.

In addittion I think that arguing that reason cannot really discriminate between life choices takes your position a little bit close to nihilism (in the technical sense). This is exactly what MacIntyre accuses liberalism of leading to. But of course you can see this as a good thing rather than as detracting from liberal political theory.


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