[Scobie, G. E. W. (1992), Review of Solomonic Judgements, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 33 (1-2): 130-131]

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Review of Solomonic Judgements

G. E. W. Scobie

[start of page 130]

Jon Elster, Solomonic Judgements: Studies in the Limitations of Rationality. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 232, $ 39.50 (cloth), $ 12.95 (paper).

This volume continues Jon Elster's investigation of the topic of rationality. The author, who is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Research Director of the Institute for Social Research, Oslo, has already produced two books on the subject (Ulysses and the Sirens, 1979, and Sour Grapes, 1983) so this work is very much a sequel. The main focus of this work is the limits of rationality, and Elster explores this theme from the perspective of both individual and social choice and decision.

The book is divided into four sections; the first two examine the theoretical arguments, the remaining two focus on some practical applications. Section I considers the various situations where a consistent rational approach seems to be inadequate for an appropriate solution to a given problem. The second section deals with the subject of randomization and reviews the arguments for and against the use of lotteries in the allocation of scarce resources and undesirable responsibilities. The vexing question of custody of children in divorce cases forms the substance of Section III while Section IV looks at social choice in the political arena.

I found Section I very "heavy going". The style was turgid, lacking in clarity, and the language was occasionally archaic It did not sustain one's interest and seems to be over dependent on the reader already having a fairly extensive knowledge of the subject. It is possible that one of the consequences oflooking at the subject from a strict theoretical and abstract perspective produces a singularly ponderous presentation. That it is the content which produces this unfortunate effect is confirmed by the fact that when Elster moves from the theoretical to more practical applications his writing seems to burst into life.

Section I is a necessary introduction to the rest of the book. It deals with vital topics, such as the nature of rational action, indeterminacy, irrationality, and perhaps most importantly, the alternative to rationality. Elster does attempt to lighten this intellectual load by using examples throughout the section, but unfortunately all too often these fail to bring the desired clarity.

Elster argues that if rational argument fails or is inappropriate or undesirable, then one alternative is the application of randomization. The discussion of different forms of randomization and their application to individual decision-making forms the basis of Section II. Lottery is the form of randomization favoured by Elster, and he spends the remainder of this section examining how lotteries have been used in the past in such areas as the allocation of scarce resources, the selection of individuals to face unpleasant or even fatal experiences, their use in politics and in the legal profession as an alternative to elections or other forms of selection. He argues that despite the emotional reservations that many people express about making an important decision on the basis of chance, e.g., the flip of a coin or the operation of a lottery, this may prove to be the most effective basis for decision-making where rational action is not possible. Elster extols the virtue of the lottery process by claiming that it is intellectually honest:

"The basic reason for using lotteries to make decisions is honesty. Honesty requires us to recognise the persuasiveness of uncertainty and incommensurability,

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rather than deny or avoid it. Some decisions are going to be arbitrary and epistemically random no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try to base them on reasons."

Section III, from a personal standpoint, proved to be the high point of the book. It deals with the problem that the judiciary has in deciding custody between parents in divorce cases. The whole issue is complicated not only by the conflicting interests of the parents and the child/children but by the fact that delaying the decision inevitably favours the parent already in possession and makes it more and more difficult to come to a decision on the basis of what would have been best for the child at the moment of breakuown of the marriage. In such situations there is the danger of rewarding a parent by granting custody on the grounds that this may now be what is best for the child, when they may have gained initial care of the child by an illegal or immoral act. Elster explores the arguments for and against the use of randomization to help in the decision process associated with this emotive area.

In the final section (Section IV) Elster looks at the area of social choice, in particular the area of politics. He concentrates his examination upon the fields of social engineering and economic planning to determine whether randomization might produce a better quality of decision than that pertaining at the moment. It provides some very interesting suggestions and is certainly worth a read.

The book in general will be of considerable interest to professionals and students in this specialist area of philosophy/sociology. In addition those involved in social work, politics and legal proceedings may find the alternatives proposed quite intriguing.

Department of Psychology
University of Glasgow
Glasgow, Scotland, UK

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[Scobie, G. E. W. (1992), Review of Solomonic Judgements, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 33 (1-2): 130-131]

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