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The Politics of Rational Choice

The Politics of Rational Choice

(p.71) Chapter 3 The Politics of Rational Choice
The Philosophy Scare
John McCumber
University of Chicago Press

This chapter traces the rise of rational choice theory and discusses some of its philosophical implications. First formulated by Kenneth Arrow in 1951 as a theory of market and voting behavior, rational choice theory was useful in the Cold War of ideas because its emphasis on individual choice presented a point-for-point counter to Marxism. Taken up by the RAND Corporation and other prestigious venues, it became a highly influential paradigm without much critical discussion. Though advanced as an exercise in economics, it presents a sophisticated and systematic philosophical overview, and the chapter identifies ten of its philosophically salient theses. Epistemologically, it restricted knowledge to the kinds that go into making market decisions, and so underwrote empiricism. Since a rational chooser must be able to predict the future, it posited law-governed causal chains as constituting the most important dimension of reality. Its doctrine of consumer sovereignty, holding that the individual alone is responsible for her preferences and that these must be accepted as data rather than subjected to moral criticism, meant that traditional ethics was impossible.

Keywords:   Kenneth Arrow, rational choice, causality, consumer sovereignty, ethics, prediction, preferences, rationality

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