Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Identity and Interests

I believe that the "economic way of thinking," as the textbooks have it, destroys the world we have in common, because that world is a world constructed in a normative, not a natural, space and rationality, as economists understand it, is inconsistent with, indeed makes nonsense of, the notion of normative authority. In effect, this point was made 30 years ago by Amartya Sen in "Rational Fools," where he argued that while the economic conception of rationality can make sense of "sympathy," - preference structures that made the utility of others part of the agent's objective function - it cannot make sense of what Sen called "commitment," which he defined as "counter-preferential choice." The idea that we sometimes sacrifice something - lower our utility - to do what is right is absolutely inconsistent with rational choice. I don't doubt that there are people who are well described as rational choosers - and more of them, unfortunately, than there would be had rational choice theory never been invented - but they are damaged humans, sociopaths.

The history of attempts to make sense of normative authority without giving up utility maximization is sad and pathetic and I will not rehearse it here. (The crudest is the attempt to make values a species of meta- or second-order preferences; the problem is that this approach cannot explain why their "second-orderness" gives them any more authority than the first-order preferences they are about.)

At one time, influenced by Mark Sagoff and early Bowles and Gintis, I thought that a reasonable way of "assimilating" the normative, taming it, in effect, was to distinguish between our concern with pursuing our interests and our concern with our identities, with the latter concern giving rise to commitment and making sense of normativity. So I refrain from doing something that would serve my interests because I am (we are) not the sort of person (people) who would do such a thing. This sort of thing is perfectly compatible with utility maximization, as the Akerlof/Krainton papers have shown, and therefore perfectly inconsistent with Senian commitment.

Here is the deeper problem with using "identity" to make sense of commitment: the criteria of identity are, if identity is to underpin the normative, themselves normative, not natural. My commitment to honest inquiry is tied to my identity as a "scientist," say- but scientists understood as honest inquirers, not scientists per se -many of whom are not honest. So appeal to identity to make sense of normative authority is, or can be, question-begging.

The normative, I submit, is irreducible. Hic rosa, hic salta!



Peter Dorman said...

Interesting post, Kevin. There is an empirical side to normative behavior that is more or less tractable. This is about explaining why one norm is chosen over another, and, in some cases, why behavioral discontinuity (the indicator of a norm) exists. I've been interested in risk norms for some time.

But you are interested in the question of why individuals accept the authority of externally-given norms, which is different. I suspect this is (at least) two different problems. One is how individuals constitute themselves, perhaps fictitiously, as a "we" instead of an "I". That is an identity problem, but not exactly the same one you describe. (It is invoked at times by Sagoff, but not with much precision.) The other is the willful abandonment of personal authority -- simply giving over one's choice to an external institution or dictate. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish.

I'm less worried than I used to be about figuring this stuff out. There are sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists and now neuropsychologists to do that job. I think it's enough for economists to just import their findings, as long as we don't try to squeeze it through the filter of utility theory.

Ken Houghton said...

"as long as we don't try to squeeze it through the filter of utility theory."

Uh, doesn't that make it less economics and more a real social science? (Not arguing that economics cannot be a real social science, but rather that it isn't if you pretend that the "rational being" is a "representative agent.")

Kien said...

Interesting post indeed.

Reading your comment about using identity to "assimilate" normativity reminded me of a comment the Rowan Williams (Archibishop of
Canterbury) is said to have made - that "love" hangs mid-way between "self" and "other". The "other" is not completely assimilated into "self". In a marriage, the two becomes one, but remains two.

It is interesting to reflect on what motivations could have led to the rise of the major world religions. Why did people start identifying themselves as "Christians"? The "Christian" identity seems to have evolved initially from a Jewish sect to a "new people" neither Jew nor Gentile.

kevin quinn said...

Peter: I don't think we will get much of an explanation of the authority of norms from soc, anthro, or -egad!-neuropsychologists. I'm thinking philosophy and perhaps, as Kien's comment hints - theology.

I think that taking normativity seriously requires giving up social-scientific naturalism - the view that there is no problem employing the methods of the natural sciences to study human society -, not necessarily for super-naturalism but for an ontology along the lines proposed by McDowell with his concept of "second nature." The work of the late Jean Hampton, especially her *The Authority of Reason* has persuaded me that the scientific enterprise itself can't be comprehended without violating naturalism, because it relies on norms of inquiry and belief that have objective authority, and whose correctness is part of the explanation of why they are adhered to.