[Elster, Jon (1996), Doing our level best, The Times Literary Supplement, March 29: 12-13]

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Doing our level best

Jon Elster

Rational-choice theory tells us how to act to achieve our ends, and tries to explain our behaviour by stipulating that we do what it tells us. In its explanatory version, the theory can be stated very simply: people do as well as they can. In this phrase, both key words are to be understood in a strictly subjective way. What counts as doing more or less well is determined by the agent's view of what is good, not by any externally imposed standard. What people can do is a matter of the options people believe they have, not of those an external observer might ascribe to them.

To understand the implications of this subjective approach, consider drug addiction. Gary Becker argues that addicts can be rational, given the low weight they place on future gratifications compared to present ones. That weight - expressed in the rate of time-discounting - is not itself subject to rational assessment. A time preference is just another preference. Some like chocolate ice-cream, whereas others have a taste for vanilla; this is just a brute fact, and it would be absurd to say that one preference is more rational than the other. Similarly, it is just a brute fact that some like the present, whereas others have a taste for the future. If a person discounts the future very heavily, consuming an addictive substance may, for that person, be a form of rational behaviour.

To be sure, addicts have no reason to discount the future heavily. The date at which a good becomes available does not in itself constitute a reason for wanting it, although it may be associated with such reasons. If we disregard such facts as that we know we shall die but not when, or will enjoy things less as we grow old, any year is as good as any other. Yet the lack of reasons for discounting the future does not detract from the explanatory power of discounting. In a more tentative spirit, we can apply a similar argument to self-interested motivations. Although many persons give more weight to their own gratifications than to those of others, one might argue that the mere fact that these are their gratifications does not amount to a reason, although it may be associated with such reasons. If we disregard such facts as that we may be more efficient at promoting our own good than that of others, or that an impersonal attitude may detract from the motivation to do anything at all, the welfare of any person is as valuable as that of any other. Yet this (putative) lack of reasons for treating other people differently does not detract from the explanatory power of self-interest.

I have been suggesting that giving reasons is closely associated with an impartial attitude, be it impartiality across time or across individuals. Any deviation from impartiality calls out for a reason. I believe that when the moralists - from Seneca to La Bruyère - refer to reason, what they have in mind is something like impartiality. In On Anger, Seneca writes that "reason wishes the decision that it gives to be just; anger wishes to have the decision which it has given seem the just decision." In the Characters, La Bruyère observes that "nothing is easier for passion than to overcome reason: its great triumph is to win out over interest." Both oppose reason to passion. Seneca explicitly identifies reason with justice, and La Bruyère implicitly, when he also opposes reason to interest. Whereas La Bruyère simply states that passion can overcome reason, Seneca also provides a mechanism by which this can happen. We may identify interest with self-interested rationality, in the subjective sense explained above. Whereas reason and rationality overlap (one may pursue impartial ends by instrumentally rational means), reason and interest are mutually exclusive. Although reason and passion also overlap - Marx, I believe embodied the passionate pursuit of justice - I shall limit myself to passion not motivated by reason. We are left, then, with a triad of motivations: reason, interest and passion. What is their respective importance or domain in explaining behaviour? I do not have in mind issues of consumer choice, where interest reigns supreme, but rather interpersonal transactions and political behaviour.

To identify the motivations, we cannot simply look at what people say about them. There are two distorting mechanisms that can interpose themselves between the original motivation and overt declarations. On the one hand, there is what one might call the alchemy of motivations, whereby one motive is transmuted into another. On the other hand, there is a pervasive tendency to misrepresent one's motivations. The first is more like unconscious self-deception, the second more like conscious deception of others. Each mechanism can induce self-serving conceptions of justice, where the motivation that is served can be either interest or passion.

People have material interests, but they also have a need to see themselves as not motivated exclusively by material interest. These two concerns may cause us, in full sincerity, to embrace a conception of justice that promotes our interest. Workers in low-income occupations may naturally gravitate towards a conception of fairness that emphasizes equal wages. Skilled and highly paid workers believe in a merit-based wage system. These beliefs will be fully sincere, in the sense that people will stick to them later, even if at that time they are no longer in their interest. This is because their self-image will not allow them to see themselves as persons who choose normative conceptions à la carte in a purely opportunistic manner.

Consistency over time is one constraint on the transmutation of interest into reason. Another (the "imperfection constraint") is that the coincidence between interest and impartial argument must not be too close. This is demonstrably a factor in self-serving misrepresentations of one's motivation, and plausibly also in self-serving transmutation. If I advocate a conception of' justice that coincides perfectly with my interest, that fact may be so obvious to me as to make me feel uncomfortable. My self-respect requires me to adopt a conception that deviates somewhat from the one that is optimal from the point of view of self-interest, whereas, of course, that latter motivation stops me from deviating too much. The position finally chosen is not the result of a trade-off between self-interest and self-respect, because the very notion of such a trade-off would be incompatible with my self-respect. Rather, it is the resultant of some kind of parallelogram of psychic forces.

Passion, as Seneca noted, also tends to become transmuted into reason. Suppose I am initially motivated by envy of another's possessions. Envy being an emotion that is both socially unacceptable and subjectively very unpleasant, a double-barrelled pressure is set up to redefine the situation so as to generate a more acceptable emotion. I may be able to tell myself a story in which the other had acquired his possessions by illegitimate means, and perhaps at my expense. This cognitive reassessment of the situation induces the wonderfully intoxicating feeling of righteous indignation, which I can justify to others and to myself by appealing to impartial norms of fairness. Although I certainly do not follow those who dismiss all theories of justice as sublimated envy, individual appeals to justice may have that genesis.

An example is provided by work on the "Ultimatum Game". Two subjects in an experiment are asked to divide ten dollars between themselves, according to the following principles. First, one proposes a division. If the second accepts, they get what the first proposed. If the second subject refuses the proposal, neither gets anything. The experiment is done under conditions of full anonymity that prevent considerations of reputation-building or shame in face-to-face relations from influencing the subjects. If both subjects were rational and self-interested, and knew each other to be so, the first would propose that he get nine dollars and the second one dollar, a proposal which the second would then proceed to accept on the grounds that something is better than nothing. What one actually observes is a different pattern. Subjects placed in the first position typically offer something like seven dollars for themselves and three for the other. Subjects placed in the second position typically refuse if offered less than three dollars.

These findings can be interpreted in many ways. A common view is that the second subject is motivated by a sense of fairness that makes him willing to take a loss rather than be exploited; and that the first, anticipating this reaction, pre-empts it by offering enough to placate the second. An alternative interpretation could be that the second is motivated by the emotion of envy that makes him willing to cut off his nose to spite his face. What I have been saying is that these two interpretations are compatible with one another. The envy may transmute itself into righteous indignation based on a norm of fairness. I believe this is often more plausible than the standard economist account, according to which the subjects are motivated by a "taste for fairness". This rational-choice account overlooks the enormous importance in people's lives both of unjustifiable passion and of their need to justify their actions to themselves no less than to others. As Montaigne said, every day "we give the name of duty to an inward bitter harshness born of interest and private passion".

Conscious misrepresentation of one's motives to others is also very common. A speaker may find it in his interest to present himself as not moved by interest. First, he might want to deceive others about his real motivation. This case has two sub-cases, depending on what he hopes to achieve by the deception. On the one hand, he may want to avoid the opprobrium associated with the overt appeal to private interest in public debates. On the other hand, he might want to present his position as based on principle in a way that precludes compromise or bargaining. Second, he might want to persuade others, if he believes they are susceptible of being swayed by impartial argument.

For specificity, imagine that we are dealing

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with an assembly debating and voting before a public audience or voters. The first sub-case of the first motive for substituting impartial reasoning for interest could exist even when all members of the assembly are and know each other to be motivated exclusively by interest. In order to deceive their audience, they might still pretend to be motivated by the public interest, assuming that they care about re-election and that voters penalize naked appeals to interest. By contrast, the second sub-case can exist only if the speaker believes that other members might believe his claim to be motivated by genuinely impartial concerns. The second motive, however, can exist only if he believes that other members might themselves be motivated by such concerns.

Concerning the first motive, we again run into a snag mentioned earlier. If the impartial justification corresponds perfectly to the speaker's interest, the disguise may be too transparent to work. Suppose that a conservative party proposes a tax cut for the wealthy by appealing to the trickle-down argument that the cut will ultimately benefit everybody. If the immediate effect is to produce benefits for all the rich and only for the rich, it is quite likely to be met with derision and might produce electoral defeat. The party would do well, therefore, to dilute its proposal, so that it will benefit most but not all of the rich, and not only the rich. In these cases, there is an obvious trade-off. The proposal has to be sufficiently diluted to deflect suspicions; yet it must not be so much diluted that the interest in question is harmed rather than promoted. To propose tax cuts only for the poor would appear as eminently disinterested, but hardly appealing to con servative voters.

Although I do not think that interest can be transmuted into self-serving passion, it can and does induce instrumental simulation of passion. If credible, the simulation may in fact be superior to the real thing, because one does not run the risk of loss of control. According to Seneca, "often the feigning of an emotion produces an effect which would not be produced by genuine emotion". Yet to be credible, one probably has to give the impression of loss of control. Behaviour contrary to one's interest may be necessary to create the appearance of being deaf and blind to interest. If I act against my interest, others may infer that I am motivated by irrational passions and thus unlikely to be dissuaded by threats that would deter a rational person. They may, therefore, decide to let me have my way. Before one decides that successful simulation is rational, however, one has to keep in mind that it may have negative effects as well. First, people who use anger as a weapon might fare badly in encounters with other persons using the same strategy. Second, they will often experience that other people walk around them rather than dealing with them. The fact that they have fewer encounters with others may offset the fact that they are more likely to benefit from whatever encounters they do have.

The fact that transmutation and misrepresentations of interest are constrained by consistency and imperfection has important consequences. If these constraints did not exist, the impartial justification of interest would not make any difference in practice. People would act on their self-interest, and justify what they do, to themselves or to others, on impartial grounds. But that is not how the world is. In fact, it could not be like that, for if the justification made no difference for behaviour there would be no reason to engage in it. The grip that norms of fairness, justice and impartiality exercise on the mind has two effects. On the one hand, it induces transmutation and misrepresentations of interest. On the other hand, it induces the constraints on these mechanisms by virtue of which they make a difference for behaviour.

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[Elster, Jon (1996), Doing our level best, The Times Literary Supplement, March 29: 12-13]

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]


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