Rationality and the compatibility of preferences


in Politics, Psychology

In political science, there are a huge number of models of individual and group behaviour that are predicated on the assumption of rationality: basically, that people have a set of preferences about how the world and their lives should be and they make choices that raise the odds of outcomes they favour while reducing the odds of outcomes they oppose.

There is probably an even larger literature pointing out the flaws in this categorization. People don’t know everything, and even the information they do have is costly to acquire. It can be empirically demonstrated that people sometimes have sets of preferences that are not neatly ordered (they may prefer A to B and B to C, yet somehow prefer C to A). Many quirks of human psychology have been demonstrated, in which small or irrelevant details affect the choices people make.

Another important challenge to rational accounts is uncertainty about the compatibility of objectives. Wanting to live an open and flamboyantly homosexual lifestyle may be obviously incompatible with wanting to run for office as a conservative Republican in some jurisdictions, but there are many possible preferences for which it isn’t clear if achieving objective X necessarily requires sacrificing objective Y. That uncertainty is overlaid upon uncertainty about which objectives you actually can achieve (you may be unable to become an international swimming champion, even if you do sacrifice your aspiration to go the medical school in order to raise the odds). In many cases, outcomes could go either way. Maybe implementing an ambitious climate change agenda will doom your odds of re-election… or maybe it will improve them.

None of this is to say that rational models of decision-making are necessarily useless, or that they have no place in political analysis. Nonetheless, bearing these limitations in mind may contribute to a useful form of humility.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Milan August 5, 2014 at 3:02 pm

As a further note, there are many such possible contradictions within the environmentalist and climate change movements:

  • Does the genetic modification of food help or hinder food security, particularly in front of a backdrop of climate change? What about organic food? Local / urban agriculture?
  • Is nuclear energy an important climate solution, or a costly dead end? What about carbon capture and storage?
  • Can a properly-structured capitalism system solve or control environmental problems, or does dealing with the largest ones require abandoning capitalism?
  • Can a properly-structured democratic system solve or control environmental problems, or does dealing with the largest ones require abandoning democracy?
  • Is poverty-reduction in developing countries generally compatible with increased environmental sustainability, or does it add to the challenge of building a sustainable global society?
  • Is geoengineering an absolute necessity, given how much warming we have already committed ourselves to, or is it unacceptably dangerous (to carry out, or even to talk about?)?
  • Should efforts at discouraging population growth (or encouraging the voluntary reduction of population) be part of a strategy for addressing climate change?

Etc, etc, etc.

It’s not clear which actions are absolutely needed for dealing with climate change, which have the greatest risk of being counterproductive, and which are ultimately incompatible with each other.

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