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Published termly by the Club of PEP at the University of York

Issue XV - Summer 2011

The Rational Animal




VOX | The Student Journal of Politics, Economics and Philosophy

Editorial Much of Western philosophy and the social sciences are premised on the idea of man being the ‘rational animal’. It is through Aristotle that this phrase has been passed down to us, and few have doubted the special status that this grants to mankind. In Plato’s analogy, we are able to leave the shadowy cave of ignorance and see the truth clearly and brightly. Today the ideas that shape our world rest on the Enlightenment’s affirmation of such ancient optimism. It is thought that reason can guide our ends and our desires, our economies and institutions; through our rationality we can create an ordered and harmonious world. Such thinking, however, has occasionally been doubted - be it Nietzsche’s denunciation: “‘Reason’ in language: oh, what a deceptive old woman this is!”, or Hume claiming that reason “is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. This issue of VOX begins with such scepticism. The authority of reason is first questioned (p.5), followed by an account of Hume’s (supposed) inductive scepticism (p.9). The tool of reason is also assessed in the context of life’s narrative (p.27) and aiming at ideals (p.31). Yet Aristotle also said that man is a ‘political animal’, and rationality’s implications and uses in politics is also considered: its role in debates about game theory (p.13), nationalism (p.17), and voting behaviour (p.22). Additional articles relating to reason and conflict, our conception of ‘Homo economicus’, reason’s role in morality, and ‘preferring the rational alternative’ can be found on our website, This is the new committee’s first issue of VOX and we would like to thank all those who have contributed and helped in the editing process. If would you would like to be involved with VOX email us at

Editorial Team Editor: Dan Iley-Williamson Co-Editor: Firdaus Kader Layout Editors: Kathrin Eichinger & Tørris Rasmussen Events Coordinator: Tørris Rasmussen Webmaster: Clement Wee


Dan Iley-Williamson & Firdaus Kader Editors Sub-Editors: Abir Ahmmed Arina Bairbarac Clementine Brooks Rupert Callingham Risga Carson Dominic Falcao Alastair Gordon Mira Wolf-Bauwens

Peer Reviewers and Proofreaders: Charlene Cranny Beth Donkin Philipp Dreyer Nikolay Ieiev Aisana Nurusheua Vicnan K. Pannirselvam Jennie Warner




The Rational Animal ESSAYS
















VOX is a student academic journal that aims to provide a platform for the exchange of ideas and insight into the debates relating to Politics, Economics and Philosophy (PEP). The Club of

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VOX is published triannually by the Club of PEP at the University of York and distributed on York’s campus as well as other universities world-wide.


VOX | The Student Journal of Politics, Economics and Philosophy

‘It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.’’ 44

- Bertrand Russell

Issue XV - Summer 2011

Does the future belong to reason? A Genealogy of Rationality By Sam Tunnicliffe No doubt the Greeks “first liberated man from the tyranny of myth and breathed the bracing air of reason” (Gay, 1967: p.72), but after reason’s lamp was almost extinguished during the Middle Ages, we owe our current reasonable rejuvenation to the Enlightenment. As is popularly held, the dogmas of Christian authority, “obey your superior as a father”, (Augustine, 1984: p.23) were questioned, even perhaps overturned. Blind “faith in things which are not seen” and the principle of obedience to authority (Augustine, 1947: p.451) were challenged by the Philosophes and freethinkers of the age. “Sapere Aude, have the courage to use your own understanding!” (Kant, 2006: p.17): this sentiment marks the culmination of a great achievement; the separation of the individual’s faculty to reason from the constrictive influence of arbitrary authority. The symptoms of this shift can be traced from antiquity, through Baconian method, Emile’s mantra: “[n]ever substitute... authority for reason” (Rousseau, 1979: p.168) to the philosophy of Kant and modern thought. Given reason’s long heritage, it might seem unlikely that the reign of reason should be overthrown in the future, unthinkable to believe that it ought to be. In order to rest assured in the

knowledge that the future belongs to reason, we must know what reason is. The definition is problematic. Using one’s reason involves adopting a “rational belief: [one] held in an open-minded critical manner” (Jarvie, 1984: p.61). Since Hume’s assertion that “reason is... the slave of the passions” (Hume, 2007: p.266), the possibility of human beings possessive of equal reason coming to two distinct and contradictory conclusions over the same decision has often been (either grudgingly or enthusiastically) accepted. Reason is just a method of deciding between several paths to an unreasoned goal. Jean-Paul Sartre is amongst those who assert that humans create their own goals, plucking them from “nothingness” (Sartre, 2010: p.103), not just the decision to eat or play chess for the pleasure it gives you, but even the decision to desire pleasure as an end itself is decided arbitrarily by the individual. Reason here is relegated to the simple task of discovering how best to procure the object of a pre-existing passion, which is not and cannot be called reasonable or unreasonable. One might consider this picture of reason as accurate and acceptable. After all, with valid ‘reason’, it appears that Khrushchev can be hero to one nation, yet hated by another. 5

VOX | The Student Journal of Politics, Economics and Philosophy

This subjectivity appears acceptable, but similar logic allows that the commitment of atrocities for pleasure could be just as reasonable as reading P. G. Wodehouse to attain that same goal. Surely this is not a reasonable future any of us wants to live in. Arguments attempting to reinstate the possibility of some desires (such as the desire to kill) being discounted as ‘unreasonable’ fail necessarily – their logic is circular. Nicholas Rescher shows sincerity in attempting to resuscitate reason. He defines a rational desire as “not just something that [person] X wants, but something that any and every reasonable person would want” (Rescher,

Instead of blindly following the precepts of the church of God, we now blindly follow the dictates of the church of Reason. 1988: p.101). But how does one define a reasonable person? – one who makes reasoned decisions, but also has reasonable desires. What is a reasonable desire? – one which is held by a reasonable person... and so the circle continues. The problem with reason is that it provides sparse grounds for criticising moral injustice: one’s desires are not subject to reason. One may only employ reason to appraise or attack another’s means of doing whatever they decide is right. If taken to its extreme, 6

reason provides a dangerous backdrop for any future. The two German optimists – Kant and Hegel, one positing perpetual peace as the ultimate rational goal, “one which is already in sight” (Kant, 2006: p.163), the other believing “all the events of the past have been leading up to the goal of freedom”, achieved through the creation of a rationally organised community (Singer, 1983: p.24) – have been silenced. The 20th century can hardly boast glittering examples of rationally constructed communities. Fascism - a self-conscious revolt against Enlightenment principles - threatened to subvert reason to authority, thus imitating past clerical suppressions of reason. The reconstitution of myth, acceptance of authority, reversion to a bizarre state religion, identification with the ideal of a return to nature – of “Blood and Soil” (Heywood, 2007: p.225) was more than the project of one man – it was the ideological spell under which nations fell. Who can criticise Nazism on rational grounds? That fascism was irrational, on the grounds that the holocaust was unjustifiable given the Nazis’ need for a huge population in order to accomplish the project of dominance, cannot be a valid criticism. If extermination and dominance can be identified as two separate goals, and then the Nazis were reasonable in their pursuit of both. It is dangerous to emphasise the significance of ‘being reasonable’. What is of crucial importance for our future

Issue XV - Summer 2011

is that the very desires that motivated such atrocities as have been witnessed throughout history can somehow be invalidated and censured, and reason is consigned to a supporting role in this endeavour. It is difficult to write-off reversion to such desires as anomalous however, especially since the dropped baton of the zeal and xenophobia of that age has been recovered and renamed by some of the political parties of ours. “The Philosophes threw out the baby of objective reason with the bathwater of clerical oppression, for which the twentieth century has paid a terrible price” (Garrard, 2006: p.83). Perhaps they needed to consider a reformation rather than a revolution. Perhaps however, we can salvage Hegel’s method, if not his conclusion, to show that Enlightenment reason’s thesis led directly to the creation of fascism’s deadly antithesis. A synthesis of these two ideals however, appears neither inevitable nor alluring. It is here that we ought to assert that the future cannot belong to reason. The concept of reason is limited; merely an instrumental process serving as a means to decide how best to go about obtaining the objects of pre-existing non-reasonable desire. Historically, there are few examples to show that reasonable methods of decision making are growing in abundance. But furthermore, even the way we reason to make decisions is inherently flawed. One need only examine the example of the nuclear arms race to discover that,

though in theory, both rational states ought to conserve their resources to spend on domestic matters – schools and hospitals, for instances – the so called ‘rational’ option which is invariably taken is to conserve their international power, spending on weapons rather than abiding by an armistice, showing that even when we know our goals, reason can fail to obtain them (Olin, 2003: pp.140-41). During the cold war this colossal misuse of resources contributed largely to the economic and political decline of the Soviet Union. This behaviour epitomises the irrationality of state activity even today. Similarly, states disagree over what constitutes the correct method to reduce carbon emissions. Each individual state is disinclined to take an economic hit, when the impending result of their collective inaction signifies a far greater loss for all involved. “Rational action in some circumstances [constantly and predictably] leads to worse outcomes than other [irrational] courses of action” (Sainsbury, 1988: p.65). How could we say that the state we are in now belongs to reason? The paradoxes of the present do not establish a hopeful dynamic for the future. Perhaps the truth is that the Enlightenment set the dynamic of reason askew to begin with. The future could never belong to reason - we are still under the haze of authority. The illuminating truth of the Enlightenment is that, far from announcing the coronation of 7

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reason, newly freed from the influence of authority, it simply set up a new authority of reason. Instead of blindly following the precepts of the church of God, we now blindly follow the dictates of the church of Reason. ‘Obey Authority’ has been transfigured into ‘Sapere Aude’ – don’t follow others simply because you are told to... we are told. Nietzsche captures this irony of modernity in a joke he makes at his readers’ expense: Zarathustra exhorts his followers: ‘overcome my influence!’ – But even when they do, they merely follow in his very footsteps (Nietzsche, 1961: p.103). Just as we, even when we think we have broken free of authority’s rule, are only slavishly obeying another... this other authority, reason, occupies a false throne in post-Enlightenment European thought. Hopefully those in the future will depose it, substituting in its place an authority truly worthy of its crown. Bibliography Augustine (1984), The Rule of Augustine (London, Darton Longman and Todd) Augustine (1947), Concerning Faith of Things not Seen in The Fathers of the Church (New York, Fathers of The Church inc.) Garrard, Graeme (2006), Counter Enlightenments (London, Routledge) Gay, Peter (1967), The Enlightenment; an interpretation (New York, Knopf ) Heywood, Andrew (2007), Political Ideologies, 4th Edition (Basingstoke, Palgrave-Macmillan) Hume, David (2007), A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford, Oxford University Press) Jarvie, Ian C. (1984), Rationality and Relativism (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul)


Kant, Immanuel (2006), Toward Perpetual Peace & other writings (New Haven, Yale University Press) Nietzsche, Friedrich (1961), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Harmondsworth, Penguin) Olin, Doris (2003), Paradox (Guildford, Acumen Press) Rescher, Nicholas (1988), Rationality (Oxford, Clarendon Press) Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1979), Emile (New York, Basic Books) Sainsbury, Mark (1988), Paradoxes (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) Sartre, Jean-Paul (2010), Being and Nothingness (London, Routledge) Singer, Peter (1983), Hegel: A very short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press) ____________________________________

Sam Tunnicliffe is a third year undergraduate reading Philosophy at the University of York.

Issue XV - Summer 2011

Is Hume an Inductive Sceptic? By Dr Peter Millican “Is Hume a sceptic about induction?” This may seem to be a fairly straightforward question, but its appearance is misleading, and the proper response is not to give a direct answer, but instead to move to a more fundamental question which is suggested by Hume himself at the beginning of his definitive discussion of scepticism in Enquiry Section 12: “What is meant by a sceptic?” (E 12.2). His point here is that “sceptic” can mean many things, and what counts as “sceptical” will often depend on the relevant contrast. Someone who is sceptical about morality or the existence of God, for example, need not be sceptical about the external world. And someone who is sceptical about the rational basis of inductive inference need not be sceptical at all – in the sense of dismissive or critical – about the practice itself. This crucial point about the varieties of scepticism is often overlooked in discussions of Hume on induction, generating a great deal of misunderstanding. Commonly the debate will be framed in terms of a simple contest between “sceptical” and “non-sceptical” interpretations. Then on the one side, a case is made drawing on Hume’s famous negative argument which apparently denies induction any basis in

“reason”.1 Meanwhile, on the other side, appeal is made to the wealth of evidence from Hume’s writings as a whole (including the Treatise, Essays, Enquiries, Dissertations, History, and Dialogues) that evince a clear commitment to induction, and even reveal their author to be a fervent advocate of inductive science. The evidence on each side is then judiciously weighed, and an appropriate conclusion drawn depending on which way the balance falls. But this whole procedure is misdirected, because once we recognise the varieties of scepticism, it becomes clear that these two bodies of evidence are not in conflict. Hume’s argument concerning induction is indeed a sceptical argument – in the sense of showing that inductive extrapolation from observed to unobserved lacks any independent rational warrant – but this is entirely compatible with his wholehearted endorsement of such extrapolation as the only legitimate method for reaching conclusions about “any matter of fact, which lies beyond the testimony of sense or memory” (E 12.22). The two may initially seem incompatible, but if so, this is because we are taking for granted that a method of inference is 1 The argument appears in Treatise 1.3.6, Abstract 8‑16, and Enquiry 4.


VOX | The Student Journal of Politics, Economics and Philosophy all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail. All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence.” (E 12.23)

to be relied upon only if it can be given an independent rational warrant. And one of the central messages of Hume’s philosophy is that this assumption is itself a rationalist prejudice that we should discard, even though it is shared by both the Cartesian dogmatist and the extreme “Pyrrhonian” sceptic. In the contest between those two extremes, the Pyrrhonist “seems to have ample matter of triumph” while he “justly” urges Hume’s own “sceptical doubts” of Enquiry 4 (the famous argument which is then summarised at E 12.22). However the appropriate response, as Hume himself explains, is not to follow the dogmatist in vainly attempting to challenge the argument that yields these doubts, but rather to ask the Pyrrhonist: “What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches?” What, after all, does he really expect us to do in response to this sceptical argument, even if we fully accept it? Is he seriously proposing that we should stop drawing inferences about the unobserved? That would be obviously absurd: “a Pyrrhonian … must acknowledge, if he will acknowledge any thing, that 10

Theoretically the Pyrrhonist might try to deny any such disastrous consequences, on the ground that if induction is unwarranted, then we have no good reason for supposing that human life will indeed perish in these circumstances. But Hume suggests that even the Pyrrhonist – whatever his theoretical commitments – will be quite unable to insulate himself from such common-sense beliefs: “Nature is always too strong for principle. … the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation” with the rest of us. Hume cannot, of course, prove that putting total scepticism into practice will lead inevitably to disaster, at least not to the satisfaction of the Pyrrhonist who consistently refrains from induction. Nor can he prove that common life will always trump sceptical principle. But if in fact Hume’s inductive conclusions about human psychology are correct, then he does not need to prove these points to any such opponent: “Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin’d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel; nor

Issue XV - Summer 2011 can we any more forbear [making inductive inferences], than we can hinder ourselves from thinking, as long as we are awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes towards them in broad sunshine. Whoever has taken the pains to refute the cavils of this total scepticism, has really disputed without an antagonist, and endeavour’d by arguments to establish a faculty, which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind, and render’d unavoidable.” (T

So if in fact the sceptic’s doubts will be spontaneously “put to flight” as soon as common life intrudes, then Hume’s point is practically successful even if theoretically unproved. And recall again that Hume himself need not be committed to accepting only what is theoretically provable – that is the very prejudice which he is aiming to undermine. Hume’s subtle approach to scepticism is made harder to appreciate by the vigour and rhetoric of some of his negative arguments and conclusions (especially in the Treatise, where his ultimate position on scepticism remains relatively obscure), but also, I suspect, by the widespread tradition of approaching scepticism initially through Descartes’ Meditations. Descartes sees the sceptic as an opponent to be refuted outright, through rational argument of such overwhelming force as to be immune to any possible doubt. He thus takes on the onus of providing an ultimate justification of human reason, with any ineradicable doubt

telling in favour of his sceptical opponent. Hume succinctly points out the fundamental flaw in this approach immediately after having raised the question “What is meant by a sceptic?” at the beginning of Enquiry Section 12: “There is a species of scepticism, antecedent to all study and philosophy, which is much inculcated by Des Cartes … It recommends an universal doubt … of our very faculties; of whose veracity … we must assure ourselves, by a chain of reasoning, deduced from some original principle, which cannot possibly be fallacious or deceitful. But neither is there any such original principle, which has a prerogative above others, that are selfevident and convincing: Or if there were, could we advance a step beyond it, but by the use of those very faculties, of which we are supposed to be already diffident. The Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be entirely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance and conviction upon any subject.” (E 12.3)

Such antecedent scepticism is utterly unworkable, because in refusing to trust


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our faculties from the start, we are denying ourselves the only tools that could possibly provide any solution. The proper alternative, Hume seems to be saying, is to accord our faculties some initial default authority, and to resort to practical scepticism about them only “consequent to science and enquiry”, in the event that those investigations reveal their “fallaciousness” or “unfitness” (E 12.5). Thus the onus is shifted onto the sceptic to give reasons for mistrusting our faculties, and in the case of induction, that onus is at best only partially fulfilled. Admittedly, “The sceptic … seems to have ample matter of triumph; while he justly insists, that all our evidence for any matter of fact, which lies beyond the testimony of sense or memory, is derived entirely from the relation of cause and effect; that we have no other idea of this relation than that of two objects, which have been frequently conjoined together;2 that we have no argument to convince us, that objects, which have, in our experience, been frequently conjoined, will likewise, in other instances, be conjoined in the same manner; and that nothing leads us to this inference but custom or a certain instinct of our nature; which it is indeed difficult to resist, but which, like other instincts, may be fallacious and deceitful.” (E 12.22)

But this result gives no practical ba2 This is the summary of the Section 4 argument alluded to earlier. Note, however, that the previous clause brings in a point from the Section 7 discussion of the idea of necessary connexion, which does not feature in Section 4 itself.


sis for scepticism. Certainly it raises a ground for theoretical concern, and highlights “the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations” (E 12.23). But unless we are in the grip of the rationalist prejudice that Hume rejects, we should not see this lack of theoretical satisfaction as sufficient reason to abandon our only respectable method of inference about the unobserved. That would be – as we have seen – to take the sceptical considerations to a ridiculous (and anyway unachievable) extreme. Instead, the appropriate response is less dramatic but far more valuable: to recognise our “whimsical condition” as a ground for modesty about the depth and extent of our powers, and to adopt a “mitigated scepticism” which is correspondingly diffident and cautious (E  12.24), and which confines our attention to the subjects of common life, “avoiding distant and high enquiries”: “While we cannot give a satisfactory reason, why we believe, after a thousand experiments, that a stone will fall, or fire burn; can we ever satisfy ourselves concerning any determination, which we may form, with regard to the origin of worlds, and the situation of nature, from, and to eternity?” (E 12.25)

This sentence is Hume’s last word on the question of inductive scepticism, and as we have seen, it represents

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the conclusion of a coherent line of thought which can be traced from the beginning of Enquiry Section 12, his most clear and explicit – and repeatedly refined – treatment of scepticism. Bibliography Hume, David (1739-40), A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition, vol. 1, eds David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2007) (“Treatise”, references indicated by “T”)

Hume, David (1740), Abstract of the Treatise, included with both the Treatise and Enquiry editions listed here (“Abstract”, references indicated by “A”) Hume, David (1748), An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Millican (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007) (“Enquiry”, references indicated by “E”) ____________________________________

Dr Peter Millican is the Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

Rationality and Evolution By Vangelis Chiotis The evolution of human societies can be seen as analogous to biological evolution. However, human societies consist of rational individuals who influence social evolution and evolutionary game theory assumes agents of limited rationality. This is the main problem with incorporating evolutionary game theory into a rational choice theory. Also, the traditional rational choice paradigm applies to individuals and evolutionary game theory studies populations. Nevertheless, rationality is seen as utility maximisation and individuals can maximise their utility through interaction within a population in the following ways: 1) learning through a trial and error process and imitating more successful strategies, 2) reflecting on the outcomes of different evolutionary processes and selecting the best based on rational calculations,

and 3) selecting to participate in an evolutionary process should it seem to maximise their long-term utility. Therefore, it seems possible to use the evolutionary paradigm without abolishing rationality. The rational animal is an individual and a member of a population at the same time. A realistic account of human behaviour has to examine both a holistic and an individualistic perspective to create a more powerful tool for analysing human behaviour. The rational choice paradigm could be used in an evolutionary context to achieve this. A rational individual is one who has a consistent order of preferences over a set of alternatives. In addition, the rational individual will always look to maximise her utility. “We do not know what [the rational man] wants... but we know his indifference curves 13

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are concave to the origin.” (Hollis, 2007: p.75). Put differently, all we can know is that ‘the rational man’ is a utility maximiser given a set of preferences and limitations. This is a very broad definition of rationality. However, it is more realistic and plausible than narrower ‘economic’ accounts of rationality that assumes full information and infinite predictive power. Various other understandings of rationality also exist. In Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement (1986) rational agents are expected to constrain their maximisation in order to participate in cooperative ventures. The assumption for constrained maximisers is that cooperative agents will constrain their immediate maximisation for a greater future pay-off. Constrained maximisation is therefore a way of transferring maximisation into the future. Given that the future pay-off for a constrained maximiser is higher than the present pay-off for a straightforward maximiser, constrained maximisation is still justifiable from a rational choice theory perspective. In this sense, constrained maximisation does not have to be considered a non-rational principle or a moral constraint. Embedded in the concept of constrained maximisation is the idea of a small future discount factor. Constrained maximisers have a small discount factor in order to prefer future to present maximisation. A rational agent will cooperate with someone who is also disposed to cooperate in order to share 14

a cooperative surplus. The dividend of this surplus has to be greater than the outcome of strictly non-cooperative behaviour. When two agents expect to interact again in the future, cooperation becomes more likely and future maximisation ia rational.

Game theory cannot explain everything. Social behaviour is determined by a plethora of factors and it seems unlikely that there will ever be a formal model to include them all. All interactions are infinitely repeated or, more realistically, players perceive them as infinitely repeated. When A interacts with B, and at the same time interacts with C, her experience from one interaction is ‘transferred’ to the other. Therefore A’s strategies are a link among all the games she plays at any given time and the strategies employed in these games. Her behaviour is affected by the outcome of each interaction and by the behaviour of all other agents she interacts with. If A and B are strangers and they do not expect to meet again, their interaction history will affect their behaviour in their interaction. Hence, their strategies in their interactions are affected by the games they had played before they met. In other words, the game played between A and B is a sub-game of all

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the games they play and their choices are affected by their history. A and B never interact in a one-off game, as they perceive every game they play part of one single super game. Interacting agents behave rationally when the outcome for each agent is the best they could achieve. The Nash equilibrium point, in a static environment, is therefore deterministic. Human interaction will reach a stable equilibrium as long as there are enough iterations. Thus, once we accept that the interacting agents are rational actors within the same environment, the outcome of their interactions is known. The environment of an agent is first and foremost the agent she interacts with. If she is surrounded with constrained maximisers, it is rational to be a constrained maximiser. If she is surrounded with straightforward maximisers then she has to be a straightforward maximiser. Individual rationality is defined by the existing behavioural norms. “In a world of Fooles, it would not pay to be a constrained maximiser� (Gauthier, 1986: p.183). Rational deliberation is costly and time consuming. Unless it is possible for one to have access to all available information, it is rational to imitate successful strategies, i.e. to follow social norms. That does not imply loss of rationality, but a selective use of rational deliberation. This understanding of rationality emphasizes instrumental rationality without departing from traditional

definitions. Rational individuals deliberate on how to maximise. However, they also follow the established conventions in most of the decision nodes. Since this maximises their utility and they have the rational capability to adhere to the predefined rules or not, they are still rational maximisers. Furthermore, rational agents have the capacity to reflect on their strategies and their behaviour in relation to social conventions. They can compare the outcome of conventional and nonconventional behaviour at the end of a set of interactions. Evolutionary game theory describes repeated games played in large populations. There are three distinct, but not conflicting, mechanisms within the evolutionary paradigm: (i) the most effective individuals (and strategies) are more likely to survive, (ii) agents learn by trial and error, and (iii) the best strategies are imitated (Axelrod, 1986). One of the main advantages of evolutionary game theory is that it is dynamic - successful strategies selfreplicate given the dynamics of the population. Rational agents within a population follow the established evolutionary stable strategy as this maximises their individual utility. They reserve their rationality in that they can learn by past interactions and change their individual strategies. Since rational behaviour is determined by an agent’s environment, it is sensible to examine collective behaviour without having to assume that 15

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agents do not deliberate rationally. Rational deliberation does take place but not for every single decision an agent makes. Rational agents deliberate about changing their strategy when they encounter a more successful strategy or gain information about Pareto superior equilibria in other groups. If this information cannot be ‘absorbed’ by an agent’s environment, then a rational agent will have an incentive to change his environment by interacting with new individuals. Rational agents remember their past interactions, or rather they have a general conception of the outcomes of their past interactions (Sugden, 2004). And so they learn by trial and error. In this sense


an agent’s utility does not improve at every strategy change. Error is part of the learning process and moving to a lower Pareto equilibrium point can be rational. Instrumental bounded rationality can be reconciled with evolutionary explanations of behaviour. This could be a step towards greater integration between the two branches of game theory, providing us with valuable insights into both individual and social behaviour. Humans are rational and social. So when we examine our behaviour we must look at both of these facets. However, many of game theory’s strengths lie in static analysis. In a dynamic environment game

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theory “loses explanatory power, as almost any outcome can be the outcome of a rational play” (Varoufakis, 2008: p.1266). Game theory cannot explain everything. Social behaviour is determined by a plethora of factors and it seems unlikely that there will ever be a formal model to include them all. Human societies have a lot in common with animal societies. This makes the use of evolutionary game theory in the analysis of human behaviour not just possible but also valuable. But the rational animal has little in common with other animals, especially in terms of reasoning. Therefore, game theory can be used as a mathematical model to study controlled interaction or as a philosophical tool to help us think about human rational and normative behaviour.

Bibliography Axelrod, Robert M. (2006), The Evolution of Cooperation (New York, Basic Books) Gauthier, David (1987), Morals by Agreement (Oxford, Oxford University Press) Hollis, Martin (1996), Reason in action: essays in the philosophy of social science (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) Hollis, Martin (1994), The philosophy of social science: an introduction (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) Hollis, Martin (2007), Rational Economic Man (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) Sugden, Robert (2004), The economics of rights, co-operation, and welfare (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan) Varoufakis, Yanis (2008), Game Theory: Can it Unify the Social Sciences? in Organization Studies, 29(8-9), pp.1255-1277 ____________________________________

Vangelis Chiotis is a Ph.D. student in the Shool of PEP at the University of York.

Nationalism and the Rational Human Being By Professor John Breuilly Three major debates in the literature on nationalism concern its modernity, its primordial or instrumental character, and whether one can usefully distinguish two major types: civic and ethnic. These debates are closely related and I will explore those relationships through the notion of nationalism as a rational way of thinking and acting. I define nationalism as a doctrine or discourse employed by political movements, including states, which makes

three core assertions: there is a nation – usually understood to be a “complete group” consisting of a variety of classes and with links to a particular territory; the nation has a special worth which merits and demands allegiance from its members; the nation should have this worth recognised internationally, often in the form of a sovereign state.1 1 For definitions see the useful website `The Nationalism Project’


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The modernist debate concerns whether the nation and/or nationalism has a significant pre-modern existence or whether its centrality to modern politics is a function of modernity itself. The primordial/instrumental debate revolves round whether we should consider national identity and nationalist commitment as emotional - the pre-rational basis for making political choices - or as a discourse used to justify the pursuit of interests. The ethnic/civic debate concerns whether national identity is projected as prepolitical and communal - based on such qualities as (assumed) common descent, language and religion - or as the outcome of choices and forms of life created by political commitments and actions. I cannot consider here the details of these debates, let alone offer “answers”. Instead I will relate them to arguments about human beings as rational creatures.2 Max Weber distinguished between substantive (or value) and instrumental rationality. Substantive rationality, the less clearly defined of his two concepts, involves the positing of and commitment to clear and distinct ends. It is qualities such as clarity, distinctness and the absence of logical contradictions in the end posited which qualifies an end as substantively rational. In this sense, eternal salvation of one’s soul 2 For a recent review and critique of these debates see Umut Özkirimli, Theories of Nationalism (2010).


can be as rational an end as the maximisation of wealth or power; what matters is that the end is specified in a clear, distinct and logical manner which enables a person in turn to choose the best means of realising the end. Weber evaluated forms of the monastic life in medieval Europe as rational because they satisfied these criteria.3 Instrumental rationality is about means, not ends. It is the form of rationality considered in rational choice theory (RCT). All that RCT requires is that people rank their various ends consistently and then, on the basis of the information and the capacities they have in competition with others, choose the best means to maximise their utility. One can ignore persons who do not behave rationally as they will fail in such competitions.4 Again, I have no time to analyse the merits of RCT except to note that it cannot tell us anything about ends pursued other than state what they are, it will not work if people do not consistently rank their ends and it cannot 3 See the translation of the chapter on basic sociological concepts originally published as chapter 1 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft in SamWhimster (ed), The essential Weber: a reader (2004), pp.311-358 (329). 4 For sympathetic and critical treatments of RCT in political analysis see respectively Barry R. Weingast, Political Institutions: Rational Choice Perspectives, in Robert E. Goodin and Hans-Dieter Klingemannn (eds) A New Handbook of Political Science 1996); and Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (1994).

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understand situations where people are unable to make rational choices because they lack the information, interpretative schema or skills required. Such features, singly and in combination, apply to much of the human condition, especially that relating to politics. Returning to the nationalism debates, one intriguing feature is that they never appear to get resolved, whatever the research and evidence brought to bear. Non-modernists point to signs of ethnic and national identity in pre-modern times, extending back as far as claims made about the Israelites whose story is told in the Old Testament. Modernists insist that even if there are such signs, they do not possess the meanings and functions acquired under modern conditions which alone are necessary and sufficient to create the new political discourse and movement we call nationalism. Primordialists argue that the commitments people make to their nation, up to the ultimate one of the

sacrifice of life, cannot be understood in any calculative or instrumental way. Instrumentalists respond by noting that significant nationalist movements only arise when led by elites with very specific interests that nationalism serves, and generating popular support which in turn can be seen to be about non-national interests such as wealth, power and security. Finally, no matter how many times writers demolish the ethnic/civic distinction – usually on the grounds that all cases of nationalism include significant elements of both types – it continues to crop up in academic writing and, even more so, in contemporary accounts of nationalist conflicts, both by observers and participants. This suggests to me that the way forward is through conceptual rather than empirical analysis. One path has been proposed by Henry Hale (2004 and 2008) in a review of theories of ethnic identity and an attempt to apply a particular theory to the analysis of nationalist conflict, especially that 19

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leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union.5 Hale focuses on a third quality of identity claims which is neither primordial nor instrumental. He calls this cognitive. Before we can decide which identity means most to us or how we rank a range of material and ideal interests, we need to decide who we are. At the level of political identity (i.e. leaving aside intimate forms of identity bound up with family and other small groups) this is an abstract process as we do not directly observe or interact with the others with whom we identify. Hale suggests that in the first instance identity choices framed in such terms as ethnicity are attempts to obtain some cognitive hold over an infinitely complex world. Only when we feel that we have a map of the world on which we can plot a route for ourselves can we invest emotional commitment in an identity and make calculations about how the interests related to our identity can best be secured. Some of the psychological experiments Hale reviewed suggest that where this cognitive need conflicts with a “primordial” identity, it is the latter which gives way; as when someone expressing strong racial prejudice finds that it does not make sense of the way the people with whom s/he has been placed are acting and, therefore, actually endangers the capacity to realise interests. 5 A debate on Hale’s work, edited by myself, will be published later in 2011 in Nations and Nationalism.


Taking a modernist approach to nationalism, this suggests that we should inquire into how modernity creates strong incentives to adopt national identities as basic cognitive categories. I can only make some brief assertions. First, modernity involves a functional specialisation which creates distinct “political” institutions (state bureaucracies, elected parliaments with political parties) oriented to people in their distinct capacity as “citizens” and ultimately legitimating the exercise of power in terms of popular sovereignty. One quality of such specialisation is that it enables many strangers to interact with each other – through ballot box, market, mass media, mass education institutions, etc.6 Second, people are under pressure to come up with “rules of thumb” (a term Hale uses) which enable them to map their way through this emergent world. These guidelines must, amongst other things, involve what Reinhart Koselleck (1985) has termed a common conceptual field: that is, people in routine conflict with one another must have a shared sense of the world in which this conflict is worked out.7 6 I outlined the idea in relation to nationalism in Nationalism and the State (1993), `Conclusion’, and have developed the notion of modernisation involved in `Modernisation as Social Evolution: The German Case, c.1800-1880’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series, XV, 2005), pp.117-147. 7 “Without common concepts there is no society, and above all, no political field of action.” Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Begriffsgeschichte and Social History’ in idem., Futures Past: on the semantics

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The concept of the nation can be formed in two basic ways to meet these needs. One is through the adaptation of existing institutions (e.g. the expansion of the parliamentary franchise and of the powers of parliament, where such an institution had a pre-modern existence). The other is through challenging existing institutions, often borrowing models from other places. In either case there is a combination of institutional modelling and reference to some pre-institutional collective identity which justifies such changes, which helps elites to coordinate action in new ways and which can mobilise popular support based on a range of social positions and interests. This is why all nationalist discourse has a civic (political/institutional programme) and an ethnic (pre-political collective identity claims) quality, though the adaptive form is usually more marked by institutional discourse and the challenge form more by ethnic discourse. Obviously, the more one can build on earlier conceptions of identity – whether institutional or ethnic – the more quickly one can formulate effective rules of thumb for collective action. That is how the “pre-modern” roots of nationalism acquire importance. Where one cannot draw on such traditions, where institutions are weak and political change rapid and dangerof historical time (1985), p.76. For one example of how paired concepts make possible particular kinds of conflict, see his essay `The historical-political semantics of asymmetric counter concepts’, ibid., pp.155-191.

ous, that is where one resorts to fluid, non-institutionalised ethnic identities. Once these categories have “worked” (e.g. by helping in the process of successfully replacing a monarchy with a representative constitutional regime or expelling a foreign

Only when we feel that we have a map of the world on which we can plot a route for ourselves can we invest emotional commitment in an identity and make calculations about how the interests related to our identity can best be secured. enemy from a country) they will start to acquire a quality of naturalness as they are institutionalised and come to constitute a common conceptual field. Once “naturalised” in this way they can become objects of emotional attachment, “primordial” identities. That “natural” sentiment will only become mobilised in political conflict if it can move from diffuse sentiment to clear end. This can happen, for example, in the face of an apparent external threat to the state in which this identity has been promoted. In less dangerous times, sentimental national identity is too broad to inform specific actions in pursuit of particular interests. Rather it will underpin a raft of other, more specifically interest-defined objectives, 21

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where one argues that what the nation “really” needs is lower inflation or higher employment, faster growth or more social justice, expansion or peace. However, “natural” national identity helps constitute the common conceptual field on which such disputes take place and it can be quietly cultivated, ready to come into the open when a crisis arises.8 Seen thus nationalism is first and foremost a cognitive category which helped to map the complex modern world of territorial states legitimised on the basis of popular sovereignty. The concept of nation with ideas of homeland (territory), sovereignty (institutional models for securing a particular kind of legitimate rule) and prepolitical community (ethnic and other 8 This links to Michael Billig’s distinction between “banal” and “hot” nationalism in Banal Nationalism (1995).

claims) worked especially well in this regard. Only on that basis could it become an unconditional object of commitment (value or substantive rational) and an identity to which could be attached interests that one could plot to secure (instrumental rational). In this way I suggest we can reconcile features of pre-modernity and modernity, emotional and instrumental, civic and ethnic with ideas of rationality. Bibliography Hale, Henry E. (2004), Explaining Ethnicity in Comparative Political Studies, 37(4), pp458-85 Hale, Henry E. (2008), The Foundations of Ethnic Politics: Separatism of States and Nations in Eurasia and the World (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) Koselleck, Reinhardt (1985), Futures Past (New York, Columbia University Press) ____________________________________

John Breuilly is professor of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics.

Rehabilitating the Downsian Theory of Democratic Behaviour By Ieuan Ferrer A read through much of the academic literature relating to voter theory may lead one to conclude that Anthony Downs, in his seminal 1957 work, “An Economic Theory of Democracy”, argues that the ideologies of political parties in a democracy will converge around the ideology of the median voter. The writings of Adams et al., (2010) and Jessee (2010) are examples 22

of articles that make this assumption. However, close reading of the text reveals something different. He argues that, whilst the situation that converges may be preferred, as it leads to a stable democracy, whether you end up with converging political party ideologies is contingent on a range of factors. This interpretation is backed by Grofman (2004). Grofman, however, does

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not engage with a central portion of Downs’ analysis - which deals with the distribution of voter preferences. I will argue that consideration of Downs’ analysis of the voter preference dis-

intervention in the economy - a fully state-planned economy - and those at 100 prefer no intervention - an economy governed entirely by the free market (Downs, 1957: p.215).

Figure 1: Individual voting preference

tribution destroys the notion that he argues that convergence of party ideology is the natural result of a democratic system. I will make this case by reconstructing the model that Downs develops, and by using it to produce predictions given various situations. The model Downs develops consists of two types of actors - voters and parties - who both act rationally. For voters this means that they would act to bring their political preferences to bear in elections, assuming that the costs of voting are not greater than the benefits of voting. For parties, this means that they attempt to gain as many voters as possible. In the simplest form of the model, preferences relating to the level of government intervention in the economy exhaust political opinions. These views have a numerical value, as you can see in Figure 1.1 Those at 0 prefer complete 1 This simplification might be seen to be an obvious weakness in his theory. However, later

Due to Downs’ conception of rationality, voters A and B would appear to be likely to vote for Party A, and Voter C would vote for Party B (assuming that voters prefer the parties with stances closest to their own).2 However, Downs introduced the assumption that information is costly and incomplete (Downs, 1957: pp.97103). That is, that working out where exactly on the continuum the parties are, through analysis of their policies, may incur a cost, and that that inforon he does alter the model to include much more complexity relating to particular policy positions (Downs, 1957: pp.132-139). Yet, due to constraints, I will not consider this aspect of the model. 2 Downs recognises that this was a simplistic way of representing how humans come to decisions. However, he argues that the small social groups that share relationships that do such influencing, are themselves influenced by the political and economic landscape, and that the peculiarities of such groups cancel one another out. Therefore, he argues, this approach does not distort reality a great deal (Downs, 1957: p.8).


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mation may not be available anyway. Thus, the rational thing for the voters may be to not attempt to discover the positions of the parties, as voting for the preferred party may not be worth the cost of finding out (as best they can) what the parties’ stances are. This is where Downs introduces

Figure 2: Voter preference distribution

the concept of ideology. Parties profess a certain ideology, a certain view as to what government should be like, as a shortcut for voters who do not want to pay the cost of analysing their policies.3 The voters then make their decisions based on this ideology. However, there is still a cost implied in voting, and voters may still consider it not worth voting under certain circumstances. As such, Voter A may not consider it worthwhile voting - both parties being so far from her views that the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, in her 3 Furthermore, Downs argues that there are incentives for rational parties to not change their ideologies significantly, and to practice what they preach. However, due to constraints, I will not give a detailed explanation of his arguments relating to these areas.


mind. According to Downs’ model, the parties’ main goal is to be elected (Downs, 1957: p.96). Therefore, as the assumption is that the parties are rational actors, the parties must attempt to gain the greatest number of votes possible, assuming a single

Figure 3: Voter preference distribution

constituency for the vote, or a system of proportional representation.4 Thus, Downs (1957: pp.117-122) took into consideration the distribution of voters along the voter preference continuum, assuming that parties would position themselves to attempt to gain the largest number of votes. Using the model, Downs makes the prediction that if a constituency’s voter distribution was roughly that of a normal distribution curve, as in Figure 2, then the parties’ positions on the ideology line will converge (Downs, 1957: p.118). 4 Of course, when considering a multi-constituency plurality voting system election (e.g. a general election in the UK), this picture is muddied somewhat.

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Figure 4: Voter preference distribution

Figure 5: Voter preference distribution

This is because the greatest numbers of voters exist in the middle of the distribution, and only small numbers exist outside of the middle. Parties would therefore pick up more votes by converging near the centre of the distribution, attempting to take the votes of the centrists. This is the analysis that many commentators have taken to be Downs’ definitive prediction as to what occurs in democracies. However, Downs also considers other voter preference distributions. For example, he discusses the situation represented by Figure 3 (Downs, 1957: pp.118-9). He predicts that two parties would exist close to the extremes of the political spectrum. He predicts that alternation in government between these two parties would cause huge levels of disruption, and that repeated alternations could lead to a revolution and the downfall of democracy altogether. He also considers a voter distribution similar to that in Figure 4, and concludes that such a distribution would lead to a multi-party system (Downs, 1957: p.122).

Downs does not, however, directly consider the case of Figure 5. This, according to Downs’ model, would almost certainly produce a two-party system where both parties are moderate but do not ever tend towards convergence, as doing so would them lose voters. Such a distribution appears to be what Duverger (1959: p.215) has in mind when he argues that the centre does not exist - that in politics you can only have rightist or leftist solutions. What Downs does have to say that is relevant, however, is that “a two-party democracy cannot provide stable and effective government unless there is a large measure of ideological consensus among its citizens” (Downs, 1957: p.114). This appears to refer to the fact that Figure 3, under Downs’ predictions, would probably lead to a revolution. However, it could be argued that in Figure 4 there is a large measure of ideological consensus among its citizens. Whilst there is a definite split in the opinions of the populous, the transition from the government of one party to the other might not be


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Figure 6: Voter preference distribution

very disruptive at all. Furthermore, a fairly flat distribution such as that in Figure 6, under a plurality voting system (taking into account Duverger’s Law (1959), which states that a plurality voting system is more likely to produce a two-party system), could easily produce a similar, stable, moderate, two-party system to that that the distribution in Figure 5 produces. This is because the voters at each extreme would only consider it rational to pay the cost of voting if the parties are far enough apart from one another, and more voters would be in danger of being lost than might be gained by a move to the centre by each party. Thus, the idea that Downs predicts that democracies produce parties with converging ideologies appears false. He predicts that certain types of voter distribution (e.g. Figure 3 and 4) would not lead to such a convergence, and left open the possibility of, under a voter preference distribution that has been argued to represent the tendency of human nature, a functioning democracy where the parties would definitely 26

not converge. Whilst this might not be the best result - there is still enough difference between the parties’ policies for there to be some disruption in the change-over between them - it would probably not lead to a revolution. This appears to fit the results found in empirical studies such as Jessee (2010) and Adams et al. (2010), which found that candidates in single-constituency elections offered divergent policy positions, and took this to be evidence against Downsian voting theory. Thus, this re-evaluation of Downsian theory, along with other re-evaluations such as those suggested by Grofman (2004), offer a way forward for Downsian analysis of voter and party behaviours. Bibliography Adams, J., Brunell, T. L., Grofman, B., and Merrill, S. (2010), Why candidate divergence should be expected to be just as great (or even greater) in competitive seats as in non-competitive ones in Public Choice, 145:3-4, pp.417-433 Downs, Anthony (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York, Harper & Row) Duverger, Maurice (1959), Political Parties, their Organization and Activity in the Modern State (London, Methuen & Co) Grofman, Bernard (2004), Downs and TwoParty Convergence in Annual Review of Political Science, 7, pp.25-46 Jessee, Stephen A. (2010), Voter Ideology and Candidate Positioning in the 2008 Presidential Election in American Politics Research, 38(2), pp.195-210

_____________________________ Ieuan Ferrer is a second year undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of York.

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Rational Life-Plans By Dr Sam Clark One way in which humans are rational animals is that we make lifeplans. Making plans is not unique to us: Chimpanzees will take some time to find and prepare exactly the right termite-fishing stick, for instance, and my cats set up ambushes. But, so far as I know, humans are distinctive in planning, characterising, and judging our lives as wholes. Chimpanzees don’t apparently plan to get an MBA and a high-paying job before having children, or anything analogous. One difference here is duration. Humans imagine and plan for longer stretches of time than other animals appear to: decades, whole lives, the distant utopian future. But another, equally important difference is that humans apply norms to their planning which go further than ‘will this work?’. Other animals as well as humans have meansend rationality: they choose between strategies for getting what they aim at on the basis of their expected success. Humans—again, so far as I know—are distinctive in that we assert and try to apply further norms of rationality. This piece is about three proposed norms for whole-life plans: the liberal, narrative, and self-discovery accounts. I’ll describe the first two, and then reject them in favour of the third.

The Liberal Account Means-end rationality judges means (strategies, goal-directed actions) as rational or irrational according to whether or not they help me to achieve my end (goal, target), whatever that end is. It doesn’t judge ends at all, but takes them as arational givens: people choose means by which they pursue whatever they desire, and desires are neither rational nor irrational, they just are. But John Rawls (1999, chapter VII) has argued that there are constraints on what counts as a rational life-plan. Some systems of desires are irrational. However, for Rawls, they are not irrational because they don’t live up to some pre-ordained perfect lifeplan: humans make their own plans, constrained by internal norms but not in emulation of an external ideal. The only way to criticise your plan to get an MBA and the rest, according to Rawls, is to show that it’s internally irrational: it might fail, for example, because it values one time in your life over another just because it’s sooner, or because it’s based on factual mistakes, or because it’s internally contradictory. If your plan passes these formal tests, it’s rational: regardless of whether anyone else approves of it or adopts it themselves; and regardless of how it compares with other plans like being a 27

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musician, or working behind a bar to fund travelling, or becoming a priest, or anything else. The MBA life-plan and the musical life-plan are on equal footing as far as their rationality goes. The Narrative Account A second norm for life-plans, and an alternative to the liberal account, is narrative. According to Charles Taylor (1999, Part I), Alasdair MacIntyre (2007), and others1, a whole human life—understood in retrospect or planned in advance—must be a story if it’s to make sense. It must have the particular kind of temporal and structural coherence which is characteristic of stories: an arc with a satisfying and complete shape, perhaps including conflict and its resolution, gradual revelation, victory or defeat. You struggle grimly through your MBA, disregarded by your peers, but triumphantly graduate top of your class, while the golden boy of the smart set looks on enviously... More, our stories must be self-told: you make sense of your life, and I of mine, by telling our own stories. To lack such self-narrated coherence is to lack a fully human life. On this account, Galen Strawson’s self-report that ‘…I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have any great concern for my future’ 1 For example, and with considerable variation: Jerome Bruner, Daniel Dennett, Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, Maryra Schechtman.


(2008: p.194) is a confession of terrible loss or failure. Understanding oneself as the underdog, who triumphs in her MBA through sheer grit and determination, is a proper narrative. But to understand oneself as Strawson does is to lack a rational life-plan, indeed to lack a life over time: it’s to be ‘reduced to a sort of Humean drivel, a mere succession of unrelated impressions and events’2 (Sacks, 1986: p.34). The Self-Discovery Account The liberal and the narrative accounts of rational life-planning have their attractions, but I think they’re both wrong, and for related reasons. One problem with Rawls’s liberal account is that it takes our desires—what we want and what pleases us—as brute givens to be organised into a rational system. But actual desires and pleasures can misdirect us—a fad for table football which distracts you from your MBA—or be provocations to radical change in our life-plans. For example, Edmund Gosse was ten before he read a novel, and its effect on him was overwhelming: “So little did I understand what was allowable in the way of literary invention that I began the story without a doubt that it was true, and I think it was my Father himself who, in answer to an inquiry, explained to me that it was ‘all made up’. He advised 2 Sacks is describing a patient with Korsakov’s syndrome, an inablity to form new memories probably caused by damage to the mammillary bodies in the brain.

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me to read the descriptions of the sea, and of the mountains of Jamaica, and ‘skip’ the pages which gave imaginary adventures and conversations. But I did not take his counsel; these latter were the flower of the book to me. I had never read, never dreamed of anything like them, and they filled my whole horizon with glory and with joy … It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to some one who had never been weaned from a milk diet.” (Gosse, 1983 [1907]: pp.170-171) Gosse’s joy in fiction is a moment of sudden self-revelation: he had wanted to be a Christian missionary, but his delight shows him a buried imaginative part of himself which he must give room to and develop if his life is to go well. The liberal account could accept either the missionary or the imaginative plan as rational, but fails to make the distinction Gosse’s pleasure reveals, that one plan will crush his individual

selfhood, and the other express it. Gosse’s self-revelatory pleasure also suggests what’s wrong with the narrative account: it takes our life-plans to be fictions, subject to the internal constraints of story-telling but not to the unchosen reality of the self. But Gosse is not just inventing a new tale about himself, he’s discovering a vital fact about himself: imaginative literature touches and cultivates deep-rooted parts of his self which had previously been starved. Both the liberal and the narrative accounts miss a central norm of rationality for life-plans: they must respond to our unchosen natures. A plan which has the internal coherence required by the liberal or narrative accounts, but which fails to uncover and develop your nature, is irrational—because it’s bad for you. If the MBA plan leaves your passion for music undeveloped, it’s a mistake, even if it’s both formally


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rational and narratively satisfying. However, such deep passions are not immediately obvious. Their appearance can come as a surprise to us, as for Gosse, and we can make mistakes about them. This has a further consequence for rational life-plans: they had better leave room for experiment. It’s rational to put yourself in the way of being surprised by unsuspected passions. The MBA plan might turn out well for you; but you’ll have to wait to find out, and you may find yourself redirected by startling delight in something new. Conclusion I’ve described three views about the norms of rationality for human life-plans: the liberal view that they are only the internal and largely formal constraints of consistency, time-neutrality, etc.; the narrative view that they are the internal and structural constraints of story-telling; and my preferred answer, the self-discovery view that our unchosen deep natures are an external constraint on the rationality


of our life-plans. To plan rationally— to plan well—we must take that into account, and must therefore leave ourselves open to the self-revelatory joy of unexpected encounters which reveal us to ourselves. Bibliography Goodall, Jane (1988), In The Shadow of Man, revised ed. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1988) Appendix C. See also watch?v=EaEDeRJKN0s (Accessed 2iv11). Gosse, Edmund (1983), Father & Son (ed) Peter Abbs (London, Penguin) MacIntyre, Alasdair (2007), After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press) Rawls, John (1999), A Theory of Justice, revised ed. (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press) Sacks, Oliver (1986), The Lost Mariner in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (London, Picador) Strawson, Galen (2008), Against Narrativity in Real Materialism & Other Essays (Oxford, Clarendon Press) Taylor, Charles (1999), Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)

_____________________________ Dr Sam Clark is a lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University.

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Reasons to Aim for the Stars1 By Dr Kimberley Brownlee Suppose that you would dearly love to be a concert pianist, but you do not know how to play the piano. Can you have a reason to play the piano despite your present inability to play? Can you have a reason to strive to become a world-class pianist despite your present inability to play? These kinds of questions are important ones in debates about practical reasoning on whether there can be reasons either to do what you are presently unable to do or to strive toward doing what you are presently, and perhaps ultimately, unable to do. There are two dominant, opposing positions on these issues, both of which I think are mistaken. 1. The first view is that you cannot have reasons to do what you are unable to do. So, you cannot have a reason to save the man drowning in the sea in front of you when you’re standing atop a cliff and cannot get to him to save him. 2. The second view is that you can have reason to do what you are unable to do if, and only if, you can get closer to success. In brief, you can have reasons to do what

you are unable to do, but you cannot have reasons to try to do what you’re unable to do when trying will get you no closer to success. So, you can have a reason to save the man drowning in the sea because that would be a good thing, but you can have no reason to try to save him when that will be fruitless. Some arguments for the first view are as follows. If you could have reasons to do things that you are unable to do, then, as Bart Streumer (2007) puts it, this would give you ‘crazy’ reasons, such as reasons to travel back in time to avert wars and reasons to jump 30,000 feet in the air to save people from falling planes. And, you would have to take those reasons into account in your deliberations about how to act with the result that your deliberations often would be pointless. By contrast, according to the second view, as defended by Ulrike Heuer (2008), only the presence of reasons to do what you are presently unable to do can explain the presence of derivative reasons a) to learn to do what you are unable to do, b) not to disable yourself so that you cannot do what previously

1 This paper elaborates some ideas in Kimberley Brownlee (2010), ‘Reasons and Ideals’, Philosophical Studies, 151:3, pp.433-444, and in Kimberley Brownlee (2010), ‘Moral Aspirations and Ideals’, Utilitas, 22: 3, pp.241-257


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you could do, and c) to apologise for not doing things like keep your promises when circumstances render you unable to do so. The argument for why, in the second view, you cannot have derivative reason to try to do, or to take the means sufficient to do, what you are unable to do is as follows. Since you cannot succeed, your efforts will be insufficient, and thus there can be no (derivative) reason to make that effort. So, since you cannot presently play the piano, you have no reason to try to play the piano (in any competent sense) and since you cannot save the drowning man, you have no reason to try to save him. In my view, neither the first nor the second view is correct because neither can accommodate the reasons you can have to realise and to try to realise those dimensions of value that lie at the boundary of what is realisable, namely, genuinely valuable ideals. An ideal is an advanced state, excellence, or model of perfection around which you can orient your attention and action. Some commonsense examples of genuinely valuable ideals are musical virtuosity, athletic excellence, world peace, justice, goodness, and global prosperity. Accounting for the place of genuinely valuable ideals within practical reason requires the tools of the second view, which does not limit what you can have reason to do to what you are able to do. But, it also requires less rigid and less demanding conceptions 32

of both trying and success than those employed in the second view. My Objections to the Second View Unlike the first view, the second view seems at first glance to be able to accommodate reasons to realise valuable ideals because it’s enough to have a reason that you be able to ‘get closer’ to your genuinely valuable ideal. And this seems to be something that many persons who cultivate genuinely valuable ideals can do. So, if you can make some progress at playing the piano, then it seems that you can have a reason to play as a virtuoso. But, unfortunately, the second view, as presented by Heuer, is more demanding than this. ‘Getting closer’ actually implies here at least partialsuccess – your efforts at the piano must actually get you closer to true virtuosity. This is a problem not only for you who cannot play at all, but also for any musician. Even a great pianist does not ‘get closer’ to an ideal of virtuosity since, although she can realise fragments of the ideal in her greatest moments of performance and study, there is no fixed end-point to virtuosity. It is limitless progressive and hence there can be no fixed-end sense of success to which one could get closer. The second view also struggles to accommodate reasons to try to realise valuable ideals because, on this view, to have a reason to try, you must satisfy the sufficiency condition, which is

Issue XV - Summer 2011

that you have reason to try to φ just in case trying will ultimately be sufficient for success. But, again, the notion of success invoked in such a condition is a fixed-end notion that cannot accommodate dimensions of value that take the form of never-ending continua. Since, by definition, no amount of trying could bring the pianist to realise fully a genuine ideal of virtuosity, there can be no reason to try to realise such a valuable ideal. Now, this objection may seem to hold only for trying to realise ideals for their own sake. Presumably, the second view can accommodate reasons to try to realise ideals for the sake of achieving mundane ends. In those cases, the thing that you have reason to do is achieve the mundane end – play the piano tolerably well – and the thing that you have reason to try to do as the

means to realising that mundane end is achieve an ideal of virtuosity. So, although your efforts to realise the ideal will in all likelihood fail, your trying satisfies the sufficiency condition when that trying is sufficient to realise your mundane end of playing tolerably well, and that gives you derivative reason to try to realise the ideal. This response on behalf of the second view trades on an ambiguity in the notion of trying. While it may seem that you are trying here to realise the ideal, in fact you are orienting your attention toward the ideal to further your efforts to achieve the mundane end, and hence what you are actually trying to do is achieve the mundane end. (To see this, note that when describing reasons to φ and reasons to try to φ one must plug the same thing in for φ.) Therefore, the objection stands


VOX | The Student Journal of Politics, Economics and Philosophy

that the sufficiency condition is too strong to accommodate reasons to try to realise ideals. Roles for Ideals in Practical Reasoning There are at least three roles that ideals can play in practical reasoning. First, they can play a regulative role in practical reasoning by furthering the practical possibilities for both the cultivation of value in general and the achievement of more specific, modest, and fully realisable goods, which you might otherwise believe to be beyond you. Aiming wholeheartedly for the stars so that you may hit the ceiling often can be helpful and sometimes can be necessary because, as Nicholas Rescher (1987) and C.A.J. Coady (2008) both note, it seems to be a psychological fact about people that they can reach remarkably high levels of performance by aiming at a perfection or advanced state that they know or believe to be beyond them. A second, more central, role for ideals in practical reasoning is in the cultivation and realisation of their constitutive elements. To be genuinely committed to any ideal means, first, that you honour that ideal, in the sense that you act in ways that are in keeping with the spirit of that ideal, and second, that you actively cultivate that ideal even though you do not, and perhaps never will, fully actualise it. When you are wholeheartedly committed to an ideal, you cannot but try to realise 34

it (however inadequate your efforts may be). A pianist’s wholehearted cultivation of the ideal of virtuosity, for example, requires from her, amongst other things, her continual development of her expertise, her contribution to the advancement of her field, and her genius in performance, all of which are components or fragments of the ideal of virtuosity. Similarly, widespread collective cultivation of the ideal of human prosperity requires, amongst other things, general understanding of complex issues, strong collective and individual commitment to the protection and preservation of key human interests, allocation of sufficient resources, and so on, all of which are components or fragments of the public ideal of eliminating poverty. The fact that these activities are constitutive of each of these respective ideals gives the pianist and the global community reason to cultivate their chosen ideals; their conduct realises constitutive aspects of what they have reason to achieve, even though these ideals will in all probability forever elude their pursuers. A third role for ideals in practical reasoning is as objects of expressive value. By adopting a genuinely valuable ideal, such as goodness, courage, or authenticity, you can express your commitment to goodness, courage, or authenticity irrespective of how well you are able to come to embody that ideal. Fourth and finally, it is plausible that

Issue XV - Summer 2011

being deeply committed to genuinely valuable ideals is necessary for, and even constitutive of, personal autonomy. The speculative suggestion here is that, without a deep commitment to the cultivation and embodiment of genuinely valuable ideals, attempted deliberations about how to act will lack a meaningful framework by which to recognise certain actions and objectives as valuable or as appropriate for realising what is valuable. If this is correct, then ideals not only regulate deliberations about how to act, but also are fundamentally necessary to the ability to undertake those deliberations. Ideals are central to practical reason as a practice.

tions and Ideals in Utilitas, 22: 3, pp.241-257 Coady, C. A. J. (2008), Messy Morality (Oxford, Oxford University Press) Heuer, Ulrike (2008), Reasons and Impossibility in Philosophical Studies 147: 2, pp.235-246. Rescher, Nicholas (1987), Ethical Idealism (Berkeley, University of California Press) Streumer, Bart (2007), Reasons and Impossibility in Philosophical Studies, 136: 3, pp.351-384



Brownlee, Kimberley (2010), Reasons and Ideals in Philosophical Studies, 151:3, pp.433-444 Brownlee, Kimberley (2010), Moral Aspira-


Further Reading Berlin, Isaiah (1997), The Pursuit of the Ideal in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (London, Pimlico) Emmet, Dorothy (1994), The Role of the Unrealisable (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan) Kekes, John (2006), The Enlargement of Life: Moral Imagination at Work (Ithaca, Cornell University Press) Wolf, Susan (1982), Moral Saints in Journal of Philosophy, 79: 8, pp.419-439

Dr Kimberley Brownlee is a senior lecturer in Moral and Polictical Philosophy at the University of Manchester.

is proud  to  host  a  series  of  events  dedicated  to  the  legal  profession.    

From the  3  to  the  9th  of  June,  a  range  of  elite  law  firms     &  leading  law  schools  will  be  running  a  chain  of   specialised  workshops  and  conferences.      


This select  group  of  Law  Firms  and  Law  Schools,  which     will  include:  Clifford  Chance,  Freshfields  Bruckhaus     Deringer,  Addleshaw  Goddard,  The  BPP  Law  School,  and   The  College  of  Law,  will  provide  students  with  a     comprehensive  representation  of  the  route  from   Graduate  to  Trainee  Solicitor.     3rd  June  (1.00pm)    Skills  Workshop     6th  June  (5.00pm)    BPP  Law  School  and  College  of  Law  GDL  &  LPC  Conference   7th  June  (6.00pm)    Commercial  Awareness  Workshop   9th  June  (6.00pm)    Applications  Process  Conference    


VOX | The Student Journal of Politics, Economics and Philosophy



VOX Call for Papers VOX is calling for essays to be submitted for the Autumn Issue 2011 on the theme ‘Faith, Conflict and Toleration’. Essays should be between 1,000 and 1,500 words in length and fully referenced using the Harvard style. If you would like to write on this theme, please e-mail your essay to by the 20th July 2011. You may wish to write on a topic from the list below: • • • • • • •

The meaning of faith Conflict areas and faith divisions Class conflict Toleration and the politics of faith Why tolerate? Tolerating the intolerant __________ (your own idea)

Undergraduates, graduates and academics are all welcome to contribute. All undergraduate submissions will be considered for the 2012 VOX Essay Award. Back issues are available at:


The Rational Animal  

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