Reason and Rationality by Jon Elster

A while ago, I read the little book Reason and Rationality (2009) by Jon Elster. Jon Elster is a Norwegian philosopher and social scientist. He has also  authored more than thirty books. A recent and relevant one is Explaining Social Behavior (2007); an older and perhaps less relevant one is Making Sense of Marx (1985).

In Reason and Rationality, Elster ‘proposes a unified conceptual framework for the study of behavior.’ Further, Elster provides ‘a brief, elegant, and accessible introduction to his work’ (both quotes from the back-cover). The latter first; to someone not familiar with Elster’s writings, nor with the writings of moralists and philosophers in general, I do not find Reason and Rationality particularly elegant nor accessible apart from its brevity. Perhaps his language and choice of words are elegant, but his way of arguing and demonstration does not communicate well with me. And perhaps my poor ability to perceive Elster is why Elster’s ‘unified conceptual framework’ eludes me. However, it is necessary to be aware (which I was not) that Reason and Rationality was originally Elster’s inaugural lecture at Collège de France. ‘Given formally in the presence of his colleagues and a large audience, this lecture provides him with an opportunity to situate his work and his teaching in relation to that of his predecessors and to the most recent developments in research’ (pp. 78-79). In other words, Elster’s language and choice of words did have additional tasks to proposing a ‘unified conceptual framework’ (whatever that means, anyway). With that in mind, I find his concluding paragraph less cryptic:

What, finally, are the functions of reason and rationailty in human behaviours? They are the functions, respectively,of the prince’s tutor and his councilor. The tutor teaches the prince to promote the public good in the long term. The councilor tells him how to act in order to achieve his goals, whatever they might be, in the most efficient way. It is not incumbent upon the councilor to impose the demands of reason; but if the tutor has done his job well, the prince will make them his own (p. 68).

It is somewhat unclear to me what the unifying framework consist of, other than that Elster thinks reason (the actual, human, internal reason for an action) and rationality (an analytical concept which demands a system of preferences weigthed against each other) are deeply connected; I cannot disagree. What strikes me as interesting (and perhaps a bit disappointing), is Elster’s extended argumentation through examples. An argument with examples at its core leaves me dissatisfied, although, perhaps, everything is, deep down, nothing but examples. Anyway, I found one of his examples interesting; the voter’s paradox:

Is it true, is it coherent, to say that the common good can be realized only through the pursuit of private goods? Is it true that the more rational actors are, the better reason’s demands are met? Or must we see, inversly, the rationality of individuals as an obstacle to reason? Take, for example, the “voter’s paradox,” which results from the fact that the rational actor has no reason to vote. In fact, the chance of having an influence on the outcome of the election is clearly less than the risk of dying in a traffic accident on the way to the polls. Moreover, those who are in the best position to understand the logic of this line of reasoning-in particular, professional economists-choose the cooperative strategy less often in the “prisoner’s dilemma,” of which voting is a classical example (pp. 6 – 7, footnotes with references are omitted).

Although a bit hard to follow, Reason and Rationality is an interesting book. Among other things, he touches upon hyperbolic discounting, a concept I myself find very interesting. Elster also seems to be a likeable guy. According to this article, (in Norwegian), he cannot small talk, he thinks social scientists must have lesser ambitions than their current ‘grand theories,’ and he has some interesting views on how research is managed and funded in Norway today. Anyway, read Reason and Rationality! It will leave you curious!


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