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Is it Rational to Maximize?

  • James Wood Bailey (a1)

Most versions of utilitarianism depend on the plausibility and coherence of some conceptionof maximizing well-being, but these conceptions have been attacked on various grounds. This paper considers two such contentions. First, it addresses the argument that because goods are plural and incommensurable, maximization is incoherent. It is shown that any conception of incommensurability strong enough to show the incoherence of maximization leads to an intolerable paradox. Several misunderstandings of what maximization requires are also addressed. Second, this paper responds to the argument that rationality is not a matter of maximizing, but of expressing proper attitudes. This ‘expressivist’ position is first explicated through the elaboration of several paradoxes. It is then shown how, through an application of economic and strategic thinking, these paradoxes can be dissolved. The paper then concludes with some reflections on the indispensability of calculation for moral and prudential reasoning.

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1 For succinct discussions of this point see Brennan Geoffrey, ‘What Might Rationality Fail to Do?’, The Limits of Rationality, ed. Cook Karen Schweers and Levi Margaret, Chicago, 1990, and Epstein Richard, Simple Rules for a Complex World, Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

2 Some theorists of rationality have suggested that it may be rational to satisfice -that is, to settle for an adequate amount of good – rather than to maximize. See Simon Herbert, ‘Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment’, Economics, Bounded Rationality, and the Cognitive Revolution, ed. Simon Herbert et al. , Brookfield, Vermont, 1992, and Slote Michael, Beyond Optimality: An Essay on Rational Choice, Cambridge, Mass., 1989. The question of whether it is rational to satisfice rather than to optimize raises questions too complex to deal with here. It is likely, however, that the problems of incommensurability and expressivity that are aimed at an optimizing version of consequentialism could also be levelled at a satisficing version of consequentialism.

3 One of which is the actual rationality of the parties to the contract. As a matter of brute psychological fact, human rationality may be defective, inefficient at maximizing. A good summary of work on this empirical issue is Camerer Colin, ‘Individual Decision Making’, The Handbook of Experimental Economics, ed. Kagel John H. and Roth Alvin, Princeton, 1995. Readers may be relieved to know that I do not enter into the vexed question of how rational human beings actually are. The central question behind this paper is the normative one.

4 See Dennett Daniel, Consciousness Explained, Boston, 1991, pp. 437–44, where he applies this term to John Searle's famous ‘Chinese room’ thought experiment.

5 These requirements are not exactly von Neumann and Morgenstern's own; rather they are a generalization of the concept vNM utilities worked out by John Harsanyi. See Harsanyi John, ‘Normative Validity and Meaning of von Neumann-Morgenstern Utilities’, Frontiers of Game Theory, ed. Binmore Ken, Kirman Alan, and Tani Piero, Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

6 One significant exception is the decision theorist Anand Paul, who, in an elegant little book entitled Foundations of Rational Choice under Risk, Oxford, 1993, explicitly argues that one can reasonably reject the axiomatic foundations of modern utility theory. Limits on space do not permit me to reproduce my response to him here. Interested readers should see note 34 to chapter one of my Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice, New York, 1997.

7 A vNM utility function of course requires that an agent have a preference ordering over states of affairs, but grounds for these preferences need not just be what an agent desires. The ordering may emerge from any account an agent may give of why he makesone choice rather than another, as long as those choices are consistent.

8 Raz Joseph, The Morality of Freedom, Oxford, 1985, pp. 321–68.

9 Finnis John, Fundamentals of Ethics, Oxford, 1987, pp. 8693.

10 George Robert, Making Men Moral, Oxford, 1993, pp. 8890.

11 George, p. 88.

12 See Barry Brian, Political Argument, London, 1965, pp. 38.

13 John Searle once used a formulation like this in an aside in a lecture on another topic. Actually, in Searle's declaration the amount of money in play is only a dime, but the principle at stake is similar, and indeed the examples could be made structurallyidentical, since there is a sequence of bets with the probability p* of death and otherwise a dime which, if aggregated and played in sequence, would be mathematically equivalent to a lottery with probability p of death with twenty dollars as a prize.

14 Anand, p. 97.

15 James Griffin notes the existence of a similar kind of Sorites-like paradox, albeit in a dimension other than continuity. See Griffin James, Weil-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance, Oxford, 1986, p. 87.

16 They make all sorts of strange errors. For two good readable accounts, see Gilovich Thomas, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, New York, 1991, and Piatelli-Palmarini Massimo, Inevitable Illusions: How Mis-takes of Reason Rule Our Minds, trans. Piatelli-Palmarini Massimo and Botsford Keith, New York, 1994.

17 For a good introductory discussion of self-deception, see Wright Robert, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, New York, 1994, ch. 13.

18 On the phenomenon of ‘dating’ of risks and its consequencesfor public policy, see Fumento Michael, Science under Siege, New York, 1993, pp. 262f.

19 Griffin, p. 82.

20 See Finnis John, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford, 1980, pp. 118–25.

21 That conflicts between beauty and life may push us to make some hard choices may have meaning in non-stochastic contexts too. Daniel Dennett, in an odd moment of argument which seems to be aimed at incommensurability, but perhaps points in a different direction, put it this way: ‘Which is worth more, a human life or the Mono, Lisa? There aremany who would give up their lives to save the painting from destruction, and many more would sacrifice someone else's life for it, if push came to shove. (Are the guards in the Louvre armed? What steps would they take if necessary?)’ See Dennett Daniel, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, New York, 1995, p. 513. If there are intelligible, defensible answers to Dennett's questions, then perhaps incommensurability really is not what it is stacked up to be.

22 Raz, pp. 348–50.

23 See Katz Leo, ‘Blackmail and Other Forms of Arm-twisting’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, cxli (1993), 1567 and a similar discussion of greater length in Katz Leo, Ill-Gotten Gains, Chicago, 1996, pp. 133–96.

24 See Broome John Weighing Goods, Oxford, 1991, pp. 94115 where he argues that an expected loss of money is not the same as an expected loss of money with regret, as a means of squaring conventional utility theory with Allais's famous paradox.I do not mean to suggest here that his distinguishing outcomes finely is always a mistaken strategy, only that in the case of something like the paradoxes of blackmail and friend-ship distinguishing between states that finely can well lay one open to charges of desperate ad-hocery.

25 Tullock Gordon, ‘The Welfare Costs of Tariffs, Monopolies, and Theft’, Western Economic Journal, v (1967), 224.

26 Axelrod Robert, The Evolution of Cooperation, New York, 1984.

27 Smith John Maynard, Evolution and the Theory of Games, New York, 1973.

28 See Posner Richard, ‘Blackmail, Privacy, and Freedom of Contract’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, cxli (1993), 1817, and Posner Richard, ‘The Legal Protection of the Face We Present to the World’, Overcoming Law, Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

29 Indeed, so strategic is this intrepid pair that Annina attempts at the end of Act II to extract a payment from Ochs in return for not even attempting any intrigue against him with the ominous hint, ‘Vergessen nicht der Botin, Euer Gnade’. With a descent to an E below the staff on the first syllable ofGna-de, her remark is clearly a threat (which Ochs, to his later sorrow, ignores). See Strauss Richard, Der Rosenkavalier. Vollständiger Klavier-Auszug mit deutschem Text, Berlin, 1911, republished as Der Rosenkavalier: Vocal Score, New York, 1987, p. 290.

30 Scholars of law and economics offer a different analysis of why blackmail is a crime when the target of blackmail is a criminal, an analysis which turns on the relative efficiency of private versus public law enforcement. See Richard Posner, ‘Blackmail, Privacy and Freedom of Contract’, and Ginsberg Douglas H. and Schectman Paul, ‘Blackmail: An Economic Analysis of the Law’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, cxli (1993), 1849.

31 Anderson, p. 88.

32 Anderson, p. 40.

33 Ken Binmore, in arguing for what he calls Hobbist psychology, makes a similar point. ‘People presumably feel somehow diminished at the suggestion that they are “no better” than robots –just as bourgeois Victorians felt their dignity impugned when they learned of their kinship with the apes. Or perhaps they fear that the news that we are apes or robots will result in the proletariat adopting the habits of King Kong or ArnoldSchwarzenegger. Both responses seem to me more than a little silly. I certainly noticed no lossin self-importance when I gave up the ghost in my own machine. Nor did my change of heart seem to require that I alter my behavior at all. Indeed, the fear that society will fall apart if people learn of their true nature seems to me absurd. If people are apes or robots, then they arealready behaving like apes or robots!’ Binmore Ken, Playing Fair, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, p.231.

34 In chapter two of Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice and more specifically, in ‘Moral Adaptions and Thought Experiments in Ethics’, unpublished paper, 1996.

35 In still more exotic contexts, our ordinary intuitions are probably worse than misleading. A friend of mine who was once a teaching assistant in a course on quantum electrodynamics (QED) was fond of the following pedagogical device. ‘When encountering a problem in QED,’ he would tell them, ‘first consult your intuitions as to the answer. That answer is wrong. Now go back and do the calculations like you were supposed to.’

36 Adapted from Gilovich, p. 17.

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