[Ryan, Alan, Reasoning with the unreasonable, The Times Literary Supplement, October 14, no. 4202, p. 1112-1112]

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Reasoning with the unreasonable

[start of page 1112]

Alan Ryan


Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality
177pp . Cambridge University Press.
£17.50. 0 521 25230 X

It is a moot point whether social scientists are right to spend much time on the topic of rationality. Attempts to show that reason indicates the ends of life as well as the means to those ends have been notably unsuccessful, and most social scientists take it for granted that rationalism is not a live option in ethics, Used as they are to Weber's distinction between Wertrationalität and Zweckrationalität, they have come to think that no action can be condemned as irrational, so long as it either "expresses" some value or is believed by the agent to be a means to some end he has in mind.

But it is not a unanimous view that sociologists might well be interested in the causation of beliefs and desires but not in their rationality. However abstemious with praise and blame they seek to be, they encounter too many fellow sociologists who are not. When Pareto called action based on false belief " non-logical", he seemed to most of his successors to be setting too high a standard for "logical" action the man who believes what is in fact false, but only after the most careful scrutiny of the evidence available to him, is not a paradigm of irrationality.

All Marxists and critics of Marxism are embroiled in much the same argument. The Marxian theory of ideology - or perhaps one should say some of the Marxian theories of ideology - explains the workings of capitalism by appealing to the functions served by irrational beliefs and irrational desires. Workers falsely believe that capitalists "deserve" their returns, or falsely believe that capitalists' profits represent a sort of managerial wage. More elaborately, they and their employers have in the past subscribed to Calvinist or Methodist theologies which have defused revolutionary vigour, have hidden from the capitalists the exploitative nature of their undertakings, and have thus legitimated the capitalist mode of production. The "irrationality" of these beliefs, and of the aspirations to salvation which go with them, is precisely what makes them interesting to the Marxist - the fact that the capitalist economic system could not continue if all the participants were rational, simultaneously explains why people have irrational beliefs and desires, and condemns capitalism as irrational too.

The Marxist theory of ideology is one of Jon Elster's stalking-horses in the latest instalment of his wrestling match with irrationality. In anyone less coolly intelligent than Elster, his passion for the analysis of social rationality and irrationality - in Logic and Society, Ulysses and the Sirens and here in Sour Grapes - might be thought to be obsessive. But Elster's intellectual interests are so wide- ranging that the last thing one could complain of is a narrow and blinkered concentration on one topic. In Sour Grapes, as in his earlier books, he calls upon the resources of philosophy, game theory, history, social psychology, and literary criticism, to illuminate such topics as why really good writers cannot write mediocre best-sellers, what the difference is between "character planning" and mere "sour grapes ", why some political theories are self-defeating, and, his major interest I suspect, why any serious Marxist theory has to subscribe to "methodological individualism".

Although Elster is extremely tidy-minded, Sour Grapes is not a tidy book. It divides into four sections, the first a general discussion of the criteria for rationality which owes a good deal to Donald Davidson; the second and longest, a discussion of mental and social states which are essentially by-products and which cannot be the objects of deliberate choice; the third, an account of the phenomenon which gives the book its title - "sour grapes", or, more technically, adaptive preference formation; and the last and briefest, a discussion of some of the shortcomings of the package of views which make up the Marxian theory of ideology.

It is not a complaint against Elster to say that there is no single argumentative thread which runs all the way through the book. For what he sees, as others have before him, is that there is less to be said about the positive requirements for rationality than about the various ways in which individuals and societies do not - and sometimes cannot - behave rationally. If the book were more disconnected than in fact it is, it would still be an extremely good read - between the text and the footnotes, the reader gets something between a conversation at a briskly well-read dinner party and a seminar at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, and very invigorating it is.

Elster begins by offering a "thin" theory of rationality, and follows it up with a "broad" theory - a distinction and a strategy familiar to Rawls's readers. The thin theory requires only that our beliefs and desires should be consistent, and that our actions should he caused by our beliefs and desires in "the right way", as Davidson once put it. Thin though these requirements are, they are not easy to spell out in detail, and Elster has to leave some loose ends dangling about whether, for instance, rational behaviour demands that we select the best means to an end or merely an effective means to that end, and whether and where we can rely on there being unique solutions. But this still leaves us with a pretty thin theory; for it says nothing about the rationality of having the beliefs and desires in the first place. As Martin Hollis once remarked, a man who is trying to find a large piece of buttered toast to sit on is not usually thought to be rational if his action is "rationalized" by being shown to be consistent with his belief that he is a poached egg. The question then turns on what it is to have rational beliefs and desires.

In the case of beliefs, we are not in too much trouble; the thought that beliefs are rational when they are based on a sound judgment of the evidence seems the right one. This allows a belief to be true but irrational and false but rational, and leaves for further scrutiny only such questions as how much evidence a man ought to look at before forming his beliefs. Desires are trickier; Elster does not want to say that desires are rational only when they are moral - he flinches a little at the thought of parting company with Kant, but he is surely quite right to do so; as he says "between the thin theory of the rational and the full theory of the true and the good there is room and need for a broad theory of the rational". The man who has wicked desires need not hold them heteronomously - they need not be compulsive, nor compensatory, and the Platonic picture of the wicked man as suffering from civil war in the soul is surely not an accurate portrait of all wicked men.

As this suggests, the obvious analogue to beliefs held on the basis of sound judgment is autonomous desires. This is why so much of Elster's book is devoted to "sour grapes"; the thought is that some ways of acquiring desires are autonomy-preserving or autonomy-displaying, while others are not. But what they are is here left "as a residual" - autonomy-preserving ways of acquiring desires are those ways which are left after the heteronomous ways have been eliminated.

I am not sure that this is the best way to get a theory of autonomy going. It looks much too vulnerable to attrition - desires may arise in us in all sorts of ways, and it is hard to believe that one particular way is going to emerge as acceptable when all the unacceptable ways have gone; and, in any case, what Elster's long and engrossing account of "states that are essentially by-products" suggests is that desires which are highly valued when we have them may only be required by processes which aim overtly at something altogether else.

For instance, the desire to acquit myself bravely in battle may only arise as the by-product of childish games of derring-do; it's not a desire I could simply summon up from old, nor is it a desire I could come to have when I saw the implications of my other desires - it's the wrong sort of desire for that process to explain it. It seems to me that one either has to say that it is neither an autonomous nor a non- autonomous desire, or do something rather different from Elster and say that autonomy is primarily a feature of persons rather than their desires, and that my desire to acquit myself bravely in battle is autonomous, not in virtue of how I acquired it, but in virtue of how I could treat it now.

If I could suppress acting on it for the sake of preserving the whole army, say, it would be an autonomous desire and thus far rational. The same thing holds for wicked desires; Plato's tyrant cannot control his cruelty and treachery: the autonomous tyrant can. None of this detracts from the interest of Elster's discussion of "by-products" and "sour grapes". These discussions are quite largely self-contained reflections on particular issues, and are full of uncommon common sense. So, for instance, he suggests that "participatory" theories of democracy are self-defeating to the extent that they suppose that the overt end of politics can be the enhancement of the political virtue of the citizen; politics has to be about something else before there can be any point in participation. Mill's enthusiasm for participation looks perfectly sensible on this view, since Mill supposes that people will participate to protect their interests and inform their rulers of what they want, even though what the eventually values about the process is the type of character it produces. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, who goes on at length about virtuosity and appearing in the public space, leaves it much less clear what the practical basis of politics is - especially since she treats most practical matters with a curious snobbish contempt.

Again, Elster smartly demolishes all forms of social theory which treat by-products as if they explain what the whole social system is organized to do. Leibniz and Malebranche are revealed as the two patron saints of what Elster dismisses as "the obsessional search for meaning" - more vulgarly known as the "it's no accident that" school. Leibniz thought that everything was part of God's strategy for making this the best of all possible worlds - so that deformed children are a way of teaching midwives the beauties of normality; Malebranche more mildly argued that they were the minimal price God had to pay for the quality of the whole system. On either view, their meaning lay in their place in the whole order.

The modern version of Leibniz - or Leibniz inverted - appears in Foucault's Discipline and Punish, where he asks "what is served by the failure of the prison?" Having supposed that it must serve a purpose, he leads us (by the nose) to the supposition that "the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that it is not so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection." What is wrong with this is that it supposes that once we've asked "cui bono? " - whom does it suit for society to be like this? - we've explained why society is like this. And this commits the worst of all sins in Elster's eyes, which is to assume a causal process without taking any trouble to suggest what causal mechanism is at work to produce it.

The same argument disposes of large parts of the Marxist theory of ideology. But readers who want to see a really meticulous demonstration of the claim that Marxism must, to be credible, produce an account of the causal mechanisms which ensure that people will believe what's good for their rulers, will enjoy Elster's demonstration that beliefs shaped by people's situations do not necessarily serve their interests' or their rulers' interests, and that beliefs shaped by interests do not necessarily serve the interests that shape them either - from all of which, and awkwardly for Marxism, it follows that the fact that beliefs do serve certain interests does nothing to explain people's holding those beliefs. The seminar is an open-ended one, and it will be interesting to see whether anyone manages much of a reply to this; but one thing which we can all be grateful for is the way Jon Elster raises the level of all the arguments he is involved in.

[end of page 1112]

[Ryan, Alan, Reasoning with the unreasonable, The Times Literary Supplement, October 14, no. 4202, p. 1112-1112]

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