Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, July 13, 2009

19. Morals By Agreement

Note: This post is the nineteenth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

This is the first of what should be a few posts on the book Morals by Agreement, by David Gauthier. Basically, it is a 'contractarian' attempt to show how rational self-interested utility maximizers in the standard economic mould would find it rational to agree to set of morals, or impartial constraints upon their actions.

Chapter 1 of Morals By Agreement by David Gauthier is an overview, which I'm going to skip. Instead, I'll start with chapter 2: 'Choice: Reason and Value', in which Gauthier sets out the basics of the view of the world that he is using for this book, a view that goes by the name 'rational choice theory'.

As Gauthier says,
"the theory of rational choice takes as primary a conception even more clearly subjective and behavioural than interest, the relation of individual preference"


The theory centres on individuals (as opposed to groups, or society as a whole) who take actions in order to achieve a certain outcome.

"the theory of rational choice defines a precise measure of preference, utility, and identifies rationality with the maximization of utility. ... "the theory of rational choice implicitly identifies value with utility"

"we shall develop a set of conditions for considered preference, which must be satisfied if utility, as a measure of preference, it to be identified with value, and the maximization of utility with rationality."


Utility is defined such that if a person prefers one outcome to another, the preferred outcome has greater utility. In this theory, the causation runs form preference to utility, meaning that you don't prefer one action to another because it has greater utility, one action has greater utility than another because it is preferred by you.


Gauthier spends the rest of the chapter on three notions:
1)What it means for a person's preferences to be 'considered'
2) What is means for a person's preferences to by 'coherent'
3) Why it is right to consider value as a subjective, relative measure.

1) Considered preference

Gauthier argues that a person's preferences are not rational if they say one thing and do another because their values are confused. As long as they do what say they want to do, we can assume that their preferences as revealed by their behaviour (the way that economists measure preference, typically) and their preferences as revealed by what they say, are in alignment, and rational (where rational means maximizing utility, and utility is maximized by doing what you prefer to do).

He then notes some of the ways that people's choices may fail to maximize their utility:
a) They might be misinformed. Someone might intend to drink a glass of wine but end up killing themselves because they didn't know the glass was poisoned.
b) They might be uninformed. Someone might choose a poor wine to go with his dinner because he has not experienced the more preferable combination of wine and food before.
c) Someone might agree to a proposal, only to instantly regret their impetuous agreement.

Gauthier then argues that if a preference is such that is is correctly informed and considered and that the action taken aligns with a person's stated intentions, then we can treat their actions as showing a 'considered preference' and meeting the demands of rational choice.

He then discusses and rejects three counter-arguments to this notion of rational choice as expressed via preference:

1) People may have preferences that contradict their interests
2) People may have preferences that cause them unhappiness
3) People may have preferences that cause them to maximize their present utility at the cost of their future utility.

Really, in my mind, these are all really the same objection, expressed in different ways, with the third expression being the clearest and most general. With that in mind, I will just repeat Gauthier's counter-argument to the consideration of prudence (i.e. not doing things you know you're going to regret later - the third point above).

"To maximize on the basis of one's present preferences need not be to ignore one's future preferences; one may take an interest in one's future well-being now, preferring a satisfying life to immediate gratification. But also, one may not. Our view is that prudence is rational for those who have a considered preference for being prudent, but not for those who on full reflection do not.

Our disagreement with the defender of prudence does not turn on whether future preferences are to be taken into account, but on how they are to be considered. We both agree that the unreflectively heedless person, who takes no thought about the morrow, chooses irrationally. One's considered preferences for possible outcome's of one's choices must take into account the expected outcomes on oneself. But one may choose to ignore those effects in what one does; one may choose to take no thought for the morrow. And this reflective heedlessness is not irrational on our view. The defender of prudence insists that rational choice must be directed to the maximal fulfillment of all our preferences, present and future, in so far as we are able to determine what they are. On our view, rational choice must be directed to the maximal fulfillment of our present considered preferences, where consideration extends to all future effects in so far as we may now foresee them."




The requirements for a person's preferences to be coherent in the sense that they will support a person's attempt to maximize their utility via their preferences are well-known and fairly prosaic. Wikipedia explains:

"Rational choice theory makes two assumptions about individuals' preferences for actions:

* Completeness – all actions can be ranked in an order of preference (indifference between two or more is possible).
* Transitivity – if action a1 is preferred to a2, and action a2 is preferred to a3, then a1 is preferred to a3.

Together these assumptions form the result that given a set of exhaustive and exclusive actions to choose from, an individual can rank them in terms of his preferences, and that his preferences are consistent."


Once we allow uncertainty into the results of our actions, there are some more requirements for coherent preference, the most questionable of which is that people are indifferent to uncertainty. i.e. if you offer me $10 for sure, or alternatively you will flip a coin and if its heads, you'll give me $21, and if its tails I get nothing, the theory assumes that people will always take the coin-flip, since the expected return (on average) is $10.50, which beats $10.

Finally, Gauthier defends his relative, subjective viewpoint.

There are two contrasts here:

1) A relative view in which what is 'good' or 'right' varies from person to person vs. an absolutist point of view in which what is 'good' or 'right' is the same for every person.

2) A subjective view in which the idea of 'rightness' or 'goodness' only exists in the presence of sentient beings vs. an objective view in which 'rightness' and 'goodness' are concepts that exist independently of whether there are any people around to actually act in a 'good' or 'right' way. In the objective view, the independent 'goodness' notion acts as a constraint upon the actions of the sentient beings (or ought to) whereas the subjective view sees no such independent constraint as existing.

Gauthier spends a few pages defending his contention that the 'true' viewpoint is the subjective and relative one, but to be honest, it's a bit too abstract for me to grasp, let alone summarize in a blog post.

Taking all this together, Gauthier note that under this rational choice framework, as long as a person's preferences are coherent (i.e. they don't prefer apples to pears, pears to peaches, and peaches to apples) and considered then we can't say that a person's preference is irrational. Even if a person preferred destroying the world to getting a bruise on their finger, that preference is still considered rational in this theory.

He concludes as follows,
"Value then, we take to be a measure of individual preference - subjective because it is a measure of preference and relative because it is a measure of individual preference. What is good is good ultimately because it is preferred, and it is good from the standpoint of those and only those who prefer it. ... Our concern is to demonstrate the possibility and the characteristics of a rational morality, given that value is itself subjective and relative."

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2 Comments:

  • Very interesting. I am very happy to finally see a blog about Gauthier, whose work seem to be very underestimated.
    It seems to me that his second chapter is a description of how he understand rationality. This is very important for the rest of the book as it will affect the core of the theory.

    By Blogger Sissyphus, at 6:01 AM  

  • Yeah, this chapter and the next one on game theory are just set up and then he gets into his theory after that...

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:58 PM  

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