Against Rational Choice

I recently wrote two posts, “Four Types of Anti-Science” and “Academia, Science, and Anti-Science,” which took Patrick Thaddeus Jackson to task for his post, “The Society of Individuals.” I even criticized Phil Arena for not being sufficiently critical of Jackon’s writing in his post, “Should We Keep Hidden the Way People Behave When their Actions are Hidden?

But here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of “Rational Choice.” It’s a useful tool, but Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory.

For emphasis: Rational Choice Theory itself is not a scientific theory — it’s a tautology that’s used for creating theories, but it’s based on a basically absurd premise that is as protected from refutation as the worst nonsense from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

The core foundation of Rational Choice Theory is that individuals have a discoverable complete transitive preference schedule. This is a ridiculous assumption. It’s also unfalsifiable in terms of the theory that generated it.

  • Discoverable means it is possible for researchers to uncover this. A list of desired possibilities, which occurs entirely in the mind and doesn’t consistently direct action, is irrelevant to Rational Choice Theory.
  • Complete means it contains all possible actions and choices. Some of these may be unknown at the time that a decision is made, but once it is known, it does not change the order of preferences.
  • Transitive means the order is consistent, that there are no loops or self-referential cycles. For instance, if you would rather have money than a job, and would rather be comfortable than have money, therefore you would rather be comfortable than have a job.
  • Preference Schedule means that this is the list that controls actions. It’s important to note that Rational Choice Theory is not a psychological theory. There is no need, whatsoever, for Rational Choice to explain the “reasons” for choices, or the subjective experience of the chooser.

It is the transitive requirement which prevents Rational Choice Theory from being a scientific theory. For instance, in the example above, even if we could discover that the subject who prefers a job to comfort, then the Rational Choice Theorist would say there must really be some other elements we hadn’t considered — say a desire to be useful and a desire not to be worthless, which are the real preferences.

Rational Choice Theory is the No True Scotsman fallacy writ large.

All that said, Rational Choice is a method for generating theories. Some are falsified. Others are not and are found to be useful. Like Evolutionary Psychology with its mythical “Era of Evolutionary Adaptation,” Rational Choice’s discoverable complete transitive preference schedule is a tool that enables scientists to create scientific theories about the world, rather than a scientific theory in itself.

Dr. Jackson’s attack on Rational Choice Theory was anti-science, because it privileged his idiosyncratic idealistic prejudices against the scientific method.

He would have been far more useful if he had merely stated it was not a scientific theory at all.

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