Edward L. Rubin


For about 2,500 years, the term rationality has been used in the Western world to describe the application of human reason to a wide range of problems or issues. In the past thirty years, however, the term has been appropriated by microeconomists and microeconomically-oriented social scientists to mean something quite different—the application of instrumental rationality to the particular problem of material self-interest maximization. This Article will attempt to recapture the original meaning of the term rationality, and explain the place of the microeconomic model within it. Using Weber's distinction between instrumental rationality and values rationality, it will argue that all theories of rationality incorporate instrumental rationality, but that most theories also insist that reason be applied to the choice of human goals, that is the purposes to which instrumental rationality are directed. Material self-interest maximization is only one particular human goal, and it is not one that, on either philosophical or empirical grounds, would be chosen by most people when they use reason to select the goals that guide their lives. Instead, it is the goal that would be instinctively chosen by the sort of person who would be described, in colloquial discourse, as a "rat." Having established this distinction, the Article will elaborate it by discussing two examples: academic scholarship and elections for public office. It will argue that the rat choice goal of material self-interest maximization is not a choice that a rational person may make in either of these contexts.

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