OPR III.9: The Rationality of Rules

Human beings are social and rule-following creatures.  Gaus has been arguing that our status as rule-followers is central to explaining our social character – that the development of cheater detection and punishment was necessary for the evolution of complex social orders.

The preceding chapter closed with the claim that the relevant evolutionary and psychological literatures have disclosed a kind of pluralism to our rule-following: we operate with many kinds of rules, acquired at different points in our ethical and social formation, which interact with our affective and cognitive equipment in different ways.  This is something which, he claimed, philosophy must take into account.

This accounting begins with how we understand the rationality of rule-following behavior.  Here Gaus puts a new spin on an old philosophical problem, that of the insight of Hobbes’ Fool: “that reason can only tell us how to achieve our own goals and, so, reason can never instruct us to set aside our concerns to conform to social rules” (OPR, 132).  The family of responses to this problem with which Gaus takes issue are those that explain the rationality of social rules through reference to their modally instrumental and morally consequentialist character: the rationality of rules inheres in their instrumentality to the achievement of our preferred outcomes.  Gaus’ concern is that such strategies cannot account for specifically deontic forms of rule-following that are both necessary for social cooperation and resistant to explication in instrumentalist and consequentialist terms.  Hobbes’ old problem now serves as the starting point for a new one: how we can understand a plurality of moral rule-following behaviors (comprising both instrumental/consequentialist and deontic forms) as rational.

Gaus approaches the problem in four steps:

First, an argument that specifically deontic rules are indeed resistant to explanation in insturmentalist and consequentialist terms;

Second, an argument that deontic rules provide us, in nonmysterious ways, with reasons to act;

Third, an argument that the rationality of both instrumental/consequentialist and deontic/nonconsequentialist rules can be encompassed within one over-arching account of rule-following (although this is not Gaus’ preferred view); and

Fourth, a claim that (I thru III) tell us something important about the social character of morality.

(I) Here Gaus considers three strategies that seek to explain deontic rules in instrumental terms, i.e. in terms of their relationship to an individual’s goals, ends and purposes.  The first casts rules as rational conditional policies that agents might adopt as a means to goal pursuit over the long-term.  For Gaus, such policies are “weak rules” that can override short-term goals within the context of an agent’s deliberations.  But they do not require an agent to abandon an agent’s best, long-term, all-things-considered reasons to do what one thinks best.  The “weak” status of such conditional policies, he claims, fail to capture the roles played by social rules in a “stronger” sense that demand compliance even when this does not promote an agent’s goals.

The second strategy claims that social rules are abstract summaries of collections of normative reasons that bear on various situations.  The problem with this view, Gaus believes, is that while such rules-as-generalizations might serve a valuable hortatory and expressive purpose, an agent is bound to encounter token situations of which the rule is meant to apply, but in which the relevant reasons are better tracked by noncompliance with the rule.  The concern here seems to be that such rational noncompliance would undermine the resilience across contexts of application that Gaus believes “strong” social rules require.

The third strategy involves arguing that widespread rule-following is necessary to a group’s securing common goods, and that success in this enterprise requires compliance on the part of all concerned.  Gaus detects an implicit appeal to a notion of “fair play” in this argument.  The problem here is that such a notion is itself plausibly tied to what is need of explanation: why it is rational to follow rules in the first place.

(II) We need then, an account of “strong” rules (that command compliance even when doing so fails to promote our goals, all-things-considered) that nonetheless track in some way to the host of normative reasons we consider when acting in various situations.  Gaus believes that the way to satisfying these two conditions is to explicate a sense in which such rules themselves provide us with reasons to act.  The concern here, in turn, is that such accounts of reason-generating-rules are “mysterious.”  One non-mysterious explanation involves the idea that rules generate reasons about appropriate response to values that are not straightforwardly consequentialist in character.  Such responses include respecting, honoring, and bearing witness.  Yet this view is ultimately unsatisfying, because the rules lack the specificity required for instantiation in various circumstances.  Another, which Gaus considers more promising, is that normally socialized agents care about, and place value on, the rules of social morality as such.  We are socialized to do so, he argues, and do so without reference to goal-promotion.

(III) Suppose we grant an account that falls along Gaus’ preferred lines.  We now have a view of “strong” social rules as rational – insofar as they are reason-generating – that is not reducible to instrumental considerations.  Now we have a new problem: does this irreducibility undermine a unitary account of social morality in which instrumental and “strong” rules are captured by the same fundamental explanatory account?  Gaus himself seems to believe that this is not as serious a problem as it looks, and favors a plurality of accounts (148), an option whose explication and defense is deferred to an appendix.

However, Gaus also commits himself to showing that the irreducibility of strong rules to instrumental explanation does not undermine the possibility of a monistic account.  Insofar as strong rules generate reasons, the possibility of a monistic account that appeals to non-consequentialist unifying principles (such as “act on one’s best reasons”) remains.  The introduction of “strong” rules into one’s deliberations can, Gaus concedes, generate complex decision problems; but he believes that such problems are not fundamentally more complex or likely than those that attend any account of rule-following.  More ambitiously, and in a more technical register, he argues that it is, in principle, even possible to devise a utility function in which both values and rule-based reasons are entered as inputs.

(IV) If “strong” rules generate reasons in ways that: (a) are not reducible to instrumental explanations of how values generate other kinds of normative reasons, (b) generally overriding with respect to such other reasons, and yet (c) also tracking these latter in some way, Gaus needs to explain how account (a) can satisfy both (b) and (c).  In other words, he needs to explain how rule-based reasons can generally override, and yet be somehow responsive to, the other kinds of normative reasons we consider in our deliberations.   Gaus believes that requirement (b) rules out rigorist and austere forms of deontological ethics.  The explanation he casts as more promising at the chapter’s conclusion is one that involves appeal to each agent’s rule-based and value-based reasons regarding what rules ought to be treated as overriding.  This explanation, which begins to unfold in Chapter 10, thus turns on the social character of morality as an enterprise emphasizing the justificatory activities of giving and asking for reasons.  I will turn to Chapter 10, and provide some critical thoughts about Chapters 9&10 together, in my second posting for this week.

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in Books, Posts, Reading Group. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to OPR III.9: The Rationality of Rules

  1. “What reason cannot achieve on its own, cultural (and biological) evolution has: normal humans have evolved into social creatures who care about following moral rules.” (147) The page that follows seems right. But I don’t see agents of the kind that we find ourselves to be, thanks to Mothers Nature and Culture, may not find themselves in situations where the value we ascribe to rules, expressed in our rankings, is insufficient to move us to abide by rules which address new situations. Expressed more simply, we find ourselves in host of PDs and Centipede Games every day. We have rules to deal with them and we care about these rules. When we factor in the value of these rules into our rankings of outcomes, these PDs and other dilemmas are tames, transformed into Assurance Games. But now we face new PDs, structured by our revised utility functions, encapsuling information about the value of rules. How we reason in these new dilemmas? It would be “rule-worship” to act counter-preferentially with regard to our revised utility functions.

  2. “However, Gaus also commits himself to showing that the irreducibility of strong rules to instrumental explanation does not undermine the possibility of a monistic account… he argues that it is, in principle, even possible to devise a utility function in which both values and rule-based reasons are entered as inputs.”

    In developing his particular revisionist account, at times Ned McClennen has argued that “preferences” — in the technical sense (see Gaus, 151n119) — can be “context-sensitive”. Rational agents are understood to be able to change their “preferences” (or rankings of complex “outcomes”) for reasons having to do with the structure of their interactions. Formally this seems very much like Gerry’s move in this chapter.

    Gerry rightly argues that the formal representation of “a rational agent [as] always possess[ing] a utility function such that her rational action can be represented as maximizing it — is fully consistent with rules as a basic desideratum for choices” (p. 158). Yes. But given the modularity assumption which Gerry does not want to give up, unless these agents are understood to have something like McClennen’s context-sensitive preferences, they will find themselves unable to cooperate in lots of PDs, Centipede games, and the like. We can always say ‘that’s life”, of course. But then that’s what lots of people say at an earlier stage in the debate.

    A note on this response (“that’s life”): if one’s concerns are as a theorist importantly practical, as Gaus’ are (rightly I think), then it does not matter that much that not everyone has reason to comply with the appropriate norms all the time. What’s needed for our practical purposes is that most people comply most of the time.

Leave a Reply