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The Perennial Question and Challenge of Rationality: A Critical Analysis of Dagfinn Føllesdal’s, ‘The Status of Rationality Assumptions in Interpretation and in the Explanation of Action’

The Perennial Question and Challenge of Rationality: A Critical Analysis of Dagfinn Føllesdal’s, ‘The Status of Rationality Assumptions in Interpretation and in the Explanation of Action’
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  1   The Perennial Question and Challenge of Rationality: A Critical Analysis of Dagfinn Føllesdal’s, ‘The Status of Rationality  Assumptions in Interpretation and in the Explanation of Action’Brett Michael Carmouché University of Manchester  2012  Abstract: The assumption that man is rational is an assumption long held through the annals of time. However, this assumption does not stand when assessed with strict scrutiny.Føllesdal, whose work is herein carefully analysed, argues that rationality bestows uponus, a pragmatic method by which we can come to understand and assess humanbehaviour, in matters political or other. This essay seeks to provide a brief summary of the arguments proposed by Føllesdal before setting out several criticisms of thearguments made therein, paying special attention to how the arguments proposed affectrational choice theory (RCT) and those who use it. The essay concludes by looking at thepotential effect rationality assumptions and RCT could have for the social sciences.  2  The assumption that man is rational is an assumption long held through the annals of time, In fact, rationality itself was thought to be definitive of what it meant to be ahuman being for Aristotle. 1 However, the very notion of rationality has and continues tobe a subject of great debate across many schools of thought; questions concerning thetheoretical basis of rationality, whether humanity itself is rational, and to what extent wecan measure it remain only a few questions that engender this debate. And while thisdebate is worthy of our respect and time, for the purposes of this essay, attention shall be wholly directed to the notion of rationality as it is viewed through the lenses of the socialsciences, and more specifically, through the lenses of Dagfinn Føllesdal.Føllesdal begins his work by assessing what could perhaps be the key component of his entire argument by asking whether man is rational. It is taken by assumption thatman is, in fact, rational. However, this claim alone is not sufficient for understandingFøllesdal’s conception of rationality itself, and this claim remains for the duration of thearticle, a mere assumption. The debate surrounding notions of rationality is briefly mentioned but quickly forgotten before progressing onward. It is proposed thereafter thatthere are four types of rationality that remain crucial for the analysing of individualbehaviour: 1) rationality as logical consistency which requires a person’s beliefs belogically consistent with one another, 2) rationality as well-foundedness of beliefs whichrequires our beliefs be supported by available evidence, 3) rationality as well-foundednessof values which requires that our beliefs coincide with one another, and 4) rationality of action which requires that one always chooses the best option available to them and which serves the maximum utility.Each of these various types of rationality is subsequently broken down and analysed inlight of what it is we take rationality to mean. In an attempt to highlight the importanceof why we study rationality, the article progresses to evaluate the very role whichrationality plays in interpreting behaviour. This particular section argues that our ultimate  1 D.Føllesdal,‘TheStatusofRationalityAssumptionsintheInterpretationandintheExplanationofAction’, dialectia, Vol.36,No.4,p.302,Retrieved6January2012fromWileyOnlineLibrary,availablefromUniversityofManchesterLibraryWebsite< >.  3 goal in studying man alone is to reach an understanding of individuals’ beliefs and values. This, it is argued, is an absolute must and a precursor to evaluating an individuals’ specificbehaviour. Føllesdal refers to our doing so as the ‘rationality assumption’. Thisassumption charges that in our attempt to understand the beliefs and values of others, weassume by default that they are rational. 2 Whether or not they are, in fact, rational, iseither confirmed or denied by our observing their action(s) and then subsequently usingthose observations gathered to form a hypothesis concerning a person’s beliefs and valuesas these play a crucial role in examining the actions of an individual.Once we have observed a person’s action, and assumed that s/he is rational, it isargued that we then attempt to associate values and beliefs to the person that seemcompatible with his or her being rational. This is held to be the ‘paradigm of rationality,’that is, ‘the model of rational decision making.’ Ultimately, one always chooses that which is best for him or herself, and perhaps crucial for Føllesdal, that which one believes   to be best for him or herself. In the final part of his work, Føllesdal questions the status of the assumption that man is rational and does so by offering four theses. The first of these theses asserts that rationality is ‘constructive of belief, desire, action,and not just needed in order to find out what desires a person has and what actions heperforms’ as our ability to interpret the actions of an individual requires that we hold theindividual in question to be rational. Therefore, it is argued that our assumptionsregarding an individual as rational are inextricable to the very thoughts and beliefs wehold about the individual in question, and moreover, our assumptions concerning the factof whether or not the individual does, in fact, possess values and beliefs, and subsequently acts in accordance to those very values and beliefs in question. However, one need notassume that man is perfectly rational as it is suggested that rationality comes in degrees,but this raises a question, namely, how much rationality do we require in order to talk meaningfully about desires and other intentional notions?If we accept that rationality, as it is often viewed in the social sciences, is a chiefly normative function, then we can assume that we ought to be able to know how we are tomeasure the desires and intentions of others, but this fails to take a key component into  2 Ibid.p.304-306.  4 account, that is, our inability to objectively know what it is an individual desires andintends to do, and why s/he holds that specific stance. It is purported by Føllesdal, andsome RCT theorists that we need simply to require ‘enough rationality to let our patternof explanation be reason explanation rather than merely causal explanation.’ 3 In order todo this, we must be able to view rationality as one of the four kinds mentioned earlier,and be able to measure rationality; something that may or may not be measurable, thoughthis is not mentioned in the body of the text being analysed. The second of these theses asserts that as we cannot ‘expect perfect rationality,’ therationality assumption itself must be viewed as a ‘normative methodological hypothesis,’ which charges that, ‘in attempting to understand man, we should always try to make himcome out as rational as possible,’ being careful to ‘always emphasise reasons for an action,and only as a last resort when we cannot make the agent come out completely rational,should we appeal to causes in our explanation of actions.’ The reasoning for this assertionrests within the fact that ‘to give reasons for beliefs and actions is to be concerned with justification and truth, autonomy and responsibility. To set such reasons aside may beoppressive and it may lead us to miss the point of what’s going on.’In doing all of this, we find room for the third thesis which argues that we should useall of our knowledge we have about how beliefs and attitudes are formed, as well as of allour knowledge about the individual in question as this will allow us to ‘ascribe beliefs andattitudes we would expect an individual to possess. The final thesis reasserts the claimthat man is not always rational, but that we should still, however, ‘regard man as inclinedto mend his ways towards rationality in terms he can understand.’Rationality itself, and our assumption of man’s possession of it, under this ‘normativemethodological hypothesis’ underpins rationality in man as a ‘norm’ or ‘second orderdisposition’, which posits that ‘once one becomes aware that one has fallen intoirrationality, one will tend to adjust one’s beliefs, attitudes and actions such as to makethem more rational.’ This, it is argued, allows us to assume that man is rational ‘unless hecannot help being irrational,’ though any conception of what it is to be wholly rational orirrational is never offered up by Føllesdal. Føllesdal concludes his paper by suggesting,  3 Ibid.p.312.  5 perhaps ironically, that men are ‘far from rational,’ and by alluding to Aristotle’sdefinition of man as a rational animal thereby suggesting that we rather ‘strive’ to berational.In short, and according to Føllesdal, ‘man is a rational animal in the sense that manhas rationality as a norm.’ 4 Whether or not the arguments raised by Føllesdal carry significant weight and implications, as well as potential problems those arguments mighthave, as well as the conclusions reached by the author of this essay shall now become thefocus of this essay.Rationality or being rational, which this article shall understand as being endowed with the capacity to reason 5 , is, of course, crucial to RCT; a theory embraced by many inthe social sciences in an attempt to understand human behaviour, specifically in matterspolitical or economical. RCT is composed of six postulates (P) that remain crucial to theexistence of the theory. P1 states that any social phenomenon is the effect of individualdecisions, actions and attitudes. P2 suggests that any action taken can be understood. P3posits that any action is the result of individual reasoning. P4 argues that the actionchosen is derived from consideration of an action of the consequences of an individual’sactions, P5 forwards the idea that individuals are concerned chiefly with the consequencesof their individual action, and P6 states individuals are able to distinguish the costs andbenefits of alternative lines of action and they choose the line of action with the mostfavourable balance. 6  If these postulates are to be accepted, as they have traditionally been by those whoembrace RCT, the arguments made by Føllesdal will be subsequently weakened at themost fundamental of levels. Rationality in the eyes of Føllesdal is characterised by deductive methodology, that is, his construction is based upon a set of  a priori     4 Ibid.p.314-316. 5 OxfordDictionariesOnline,retrieved7January2012from<>. 6 R.Boudon,‘BeyondRationalChoiceTheory’,  AnnualReviewofSociology  ,Vol.29,2003,pp.3-4,retrieved7January2012fromAnnualReviews,availablefromUniversityofManchesterLibraryWebsite<>.
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