Thursday, June 18, 2009

Practice makes perfect

I believe the most egregious falsehood peddled by economics is the rational choice picture of human agency. I believe it is false not, like the behaviorists, because people make systematic mistakes in trying to be rational, but because we are not trying to be rational - in the sense the theory means, the belief-desire model, where desires are reasons - at all. Our lives are spent for the most part, and for the most meaningful part, as participants in a diverse set of "practices" (in the sense made famous by Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue). Being a participant in a practice means, inter alia, governing one's desires in acccordance with norms, norms to which we grant authority. Practices are in many cases constituted by deontic constraints on participants. There is a wonderful new book by the philosopher James D. Wallace, Norms and Practices, which I strongly recommend to fans of the rational actor model. At one point he quotes John Dewey and I want to pass it along. Dewey was not known for his eloquence, but as Wallace notes, this passage is an astonishing exception:

"The eternal dignity of labor and art lies in their effecting that permanent reshaping of environment which is the substantial foundation of future security and progress. Individuals flourish and whither away like the grass of the fields. But the fruits of their work endure and make possible the development of further activities having fuller significance. It is of grace not of ourselves that we live civilized lives. There is sound sense in the old pagan notion that gratitude is the root of all virtue. Loyalty to whatever in the established environment makes a life of excellence possible is the beginning of all progress. The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends on the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live." (The source is Human Nature and Conduct (1922) a wonderful book altogether).

8 comments:

Stephen Monrad said...

I like the idea that culture and habits govern a lot of our behavior.

The rationalists will argue that somehow our choice of habits is itself rational. I think eventually believing in rationality gets silly. It's easier just to assume that other factors are important in how we make decisions.

hapa said...

it's never been a mystery.

"Loyalty to whatever in the established environment makes a life of excellence possible is the beginning of all progress. The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life."

loyalty creates opportunities.

now we have loyalty to coal and oil....

Sandwichman said...

The rationalists will argue that somehow our choice of habits is itself rational.

It is indeed possible to argue that it is rational to be guided by one's habits. The rub there is that rational choice relies on a very narrow interpretation of rationality.

john c. halasz said...

As for the Dewey quote:

Some watered-down Congregationalist preaching mixed in with some watered-down Hegel. The environment we produce will be our saving grace, due to a faithful guarantee of its continuous line of succession.

Shag from Brookline said...

Is rational choice in actual practice by many a zero sum game? While we may consider the common good, we may have the bottom line of self-protection. To some that may be rational, to others selfishness.

Jack said...

The Behavioral Strategy of Man:
Part I
What worked once may work again.
What works again may work often.
What works often, but not always, will never fail.

Part II
Recognizable pain results in rational fear.
Rational fear ecnourages directed flight.
Irrational fear results in helter skelter activity.

Behavioral strategies Parts I&II interact with nearly unpredictable and often irrational results in human behavior.

Iyad Dakka said...

perhaps this is the perennial struggle of human existence: the tug-of-war between 'independent reason' and 'norms'. From the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there was always a clash-to-be between 'what's good for me' and 'what's good for the group', at least in the short-term weighing of personal interests.

Robert said...

Repeated agency leads to structuration - structures of legitimation are formalisms of behavioural norms. There is also structuration of communications, of processes - Baron Giddens makes it to Wikipedia for explaining the way institutions form and continue to incrementally change.

He doesn't explain why. Rationalism vs emotional responses? ... all individual - centred motivations.

There seems to be a complete neglect of the Weberian fundamentals of power, status and wealth that surround the individual's agency. If they are left out of any analysis of "Market" behaviour we do not get a full picture of what is really going on.