Critique paper of Jon Elster’s The Nature and Scope of Rational Choice Explanation

Aaron Laylo

Rational choice is regarded as an important approach in political science theories and methods. For researchers whose aim is to understand and eventually explain the behavior of actors insofar as interests (and gains) are concerned, this approach seems to be most pertinent choice. Jon Elster’s article, though complex and technical in form and content due to some mathematical equations presented, gives the reader a relatively sufficient overview of the nature and scope of rational choice explanation. Here, he first presented two questions from and around which the whole article evolves:

a. how do rational-choice explanations explain?

b. what are the limits and limitations?

And these two questions were discussed in three parts:

a. a general category of intentional explanation of how actors behave

b. components needed to generate rational-choice explanation; and

c. power of rational choice theory to yield unique deductions.

I wish to make the author’s complex and highly technical article easier to understand by dividing seven main points (some I borrowed from others, and a few based on reading analysis) into three clusters, as initially designed by Elster. In my understanding of the article, it appears that four elements may be considered important when analyzing rational-choice explanations: desire, cognition, evidence, and action. Elster says that the rational action is “the best way of satisfying agent’s desires, given the best believes he could form, relative to the optimum amount of evidence”. Now, let me give a more specific and personal example to expound it.

            When I was in my last years in college, I began to dream of joining the foreign service (desire). But my foundational knowledge on diplomacy and analysis of international affairs may not be enough so I decided to enroll in the Master in International Studies program at the UP. I learned about theories (cognition), and did a lot of research, analysis, and participated in various conferences (evidence), in order to enrich my knowledge on the nitty-gritties of the career that I desire to pursue. I keep on doing my best to do well in my studies (action) and when I receive the go-signal, I will enter the foreign service.

The example stated above shows the four essential components that comprise the structure of rational-choice explanation. In Elster’s article, he expanded these four (these components were not discussed one by one in his article), into many points through mathematical equations and models yet to make it more organized, he clustered them into three: intentionality, rationality, and optimality.

Intentionality. According to Elster, “to explain a piece of behavior intentionally is to show that it derives from an intention of the individual.”[1] Here, I present three statements and brief explanation based on the example I gave above. These can more or less provide an interpretation of what the author meant by intentionality.

1.) Given an actor’s beliefs (C), some behavior (B) is the best way to achieve his/ her desire (D). Clearly, beliefs affect a person’s behavior, and this behavior therefore affects how he takes action to achieve his desires. In the example, my belief that I will become a diplomat one day is expressed by how I “behave” as a student – study, participate, and learn more. This “scholarly” behavior exemplifies my actions to achieve my dream (desire). Another condition would be that:

2.) the actor’s beliefs (C) and desires (D) cause his behavior (B). Using the example again, we assume that my belief that I will be a diplomat and my desire to become to diplomat both cause my behavior as a graduate student now.

And lastly, another equation proposed that 3.) the beliefs (C) and causal desires (D) cause one’s behavior (B) due to his personal reasons. This is not far from the previous case. My belief of becoming a diplomat and the desire to become a diplomat cause me to keep on studying well. I never give up on trying to understand unfamiliar concepts and challenging lessons. I have to do these and continue to hold on to my dream because I have good reasons (R) to pursue it.

Briefly, to apply these models on the case of states as actors, let me provide this short example: The Philippines believe that the Kalayaan Group of Islands are part of the archipelago, a territory of the country (C). Having made this clear, the country’s behavior (quite realist) towards China (B) is what the government believes (as one of the) best ways to uphold and (D) its territorial claim and eventually take complete and undisputed possession of the Kalayaan.

Another model would show that the Philippines’ belief (that Kalayaan belongs to the Filipinos) (B) and the desire to uphold this claim and take possession of the islands (D) cause the country to buy “warships” from the US and modernize its military to for “image.”

Lastly, we still follow the previous condition but we add reasons (r) to why the Philippines continues to display “military capabilities” – for China not to belittle it. Honestly, I find it quite pathetic for the Philippines but national interest should be upheld no matter what, and regardless of what stronger states think of us.

Rationality. Rational-choice explanation goes beyond intentionality in several respects.  According to Elster,

a.) the set of beliefs C is internally consistent, and

b.) the set of desires D is internally consistent.

To make this simpler, we just say: 4.) beliefs and desires must be consistent. Indeed, there is no easier way to attain one’s desire except through a constant belief and desire that can fuel one’s intention to realize and attain his goal. But definitely, in order to make this possible, an important premise to this would be: 5.) beliefs must be well-grounded – inductively justified by providing evidence. According to Elster, the analysis of rational belief then closely parallels that of intentional action. Again, there are three conditions to be satisfied:

a.) the belief must be best relief, given the available evidence.

b.) the belief must be caused by the available evidence.

c.) the evidence must cause the relief “in the right way.”

Nonetheless, 6.) as Davidson (quoted in Elster’s) argues, there might always be faulty causal wiring between desire and action. He implies that the weaker reason may win out because it blocks the stronger ones from operating; or the stronger reasons might lose because they cause another behavior than that for which they are reasons. In either case, condition x fails to hold for the full set of desires. The action is intentional, but irrational.[2] Simply put, one may desire something; but because of weak reasons, his behavior tends to favor that something that he does not really wants. Indeed, the action is intentional, but irrational.

Optimality. Lastly, in the article, Elster wanted to consider some difficulties with (the view that the best can always be achieved) when applied to the social sciences. In economics and political science, and in international relations, actors would always want the best to benefit them, although they also recognize the fact that they cannot always get what they want. Therefore, they find other options. This is the difficulty of rational-choice explanation – to examine and eventually choose the best option – the optimal choice. In sum, (7) the concept of rationality implies that we always have options but it is for us to decide well in order to gain optimal results.

*Elster says that the rational action is “the best way of satisfying agent’s desires, given the best believes he could form, relative to the optimum amount of evidence”.


[1] Elster, Jon. “The Nature and Scope of Rational-Choice Explanation.” In Readings in the Philosophies of Social Science. Martin and McIntyre (eds). 311.

[2] Ibid, 315.

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