A philosophical puzzle: morality with complex rationality
by Sebastian Benthall
There’s a recurring philosophical puzzle that keeps coming up as one drills into the foundational issues at the heart of technology policy. The more complete articulation of it that I know of is in a draft I’ve written with Jake Goldenfein whose publication was COVID delayed. But here is an abbreviated version of the philosophical problem, distilled perhaps from the tech policy context.
For some reason it all comes back to Kant. The categorical imperative has two versions that are supposed to imply each other:
- Follow rules that would be agreed on as universal by rational beings.
- Treat others as ends and not means.
This is elegant and worked quite well while the definitions of ‘rationality’ in play were simple enough that Man could stand at the top of the hierarchy.
Kant is outdated now of course but we can see the influence of this theory in Rawls’s account of liberal ethics (the ‘veil of ignorance’ being a proxy for the reasoning being who has transcended their empirical body), in Habermas’s account of democracy (communicative rationality involving the setting aside of individual interests), and so on. Social contract theories are more or less along these lines. This paradigm is still more or less the gold standard.
There’s a few serious challenges to this moral paradigm. They both relate to how the original model of rationality that it is based on is perhaps naive or so rarefied to be unrealistic. What happens if you deny that people are rational in any disinterested sense, or allow for different levels of rationality? It all breaks down.
On the one hand, there’s various forms of egoism. Sloterdijk argues that Nietzsche stood out partly because he argued for an ethics of self-advancement, which rejected deontological duty. Scandalous. The contemporary equivalent is the reputation of Ayn Rand and those inspired by her. The general idea here is the rejection of social contract. This is frustrating to those who see the social contract as serious and valuable. A key feature of this view is that reason is not, as it is for Kant, disinterested. Rather, it is self-interested. It’s instrumental reason with attendant Humean passions to steer it. The passions need not be too intellectually refined. Romanticism, blah blah.
On the other hand, the 20th century discovers scientifically the idea of bounded rationality. Herbert Simon is the pivotal figure here. Individuals, being bounded, form organizations to transcend their limits. Simon is the grand theorist of managerialism. As far as I know, Simon’s theories are amoral, strictly about the execution of instrumental reason.
Nevertheless, Simon poses a challenge to the universalist paradigm because he reveals the inadequacy of individual humans to self-determine anything of significance. It’s humbling; it also threatens the anthropocentrism that provided the grounds for humanity’s mutual self-respect.
So where does one go from here?
It’s a tough question. Some spitballing:
- One option is to relocate the philosophical subject from the armchair (Kant) to the public sphere (Habermas) into a new kind of institution that was better equipped to support their cogitation about norms. A public sphere equipped with Bloomberg terminals? But then who provides the terminals? And what about actually existing disparities of access?
- One implication of this option, following Habermas, is that the communications within it, which would have to include data collection and the application of machine learning, would be disciplined in ways that would prevent defections.
- Another implication, which is the most difficult one, is that the institution that supports this kind of reasoning would have to acknowledge different roles. These roles would constitute each other relationally–there would need to be a division of labor. But those roles would need to each be able to legitimize their participation on the whole and trust the overall process. This seems most difficult to theorize let alone execute.
- A different option, sort of the unfinished Nietzschean project, is to develop the individual’s choice to defect into something more magnanimous. Simone de Beauvoir’s widely underrated Ethics of Ambiguity is perhaps the best accomplishment along these lines. The individual, once they overcome their own solipsism and consider their true self-interests at an existential level, come to understand how the success of their projects depends on society because society will outlive them. In a way, this point echoes Simon’s in that it begins from an acknowledgment of human finitude. It reasons from there to a theory of how finite human projects can become infinite (achieving the goal of immortality to the one who initiates them) by being sufficiently prosocial.
Either of these approaches might be superior to “liberalism”, which arguably is stuck in the first paradigm (though I suppose there are many liberal theorists who would defend their position). As a thought experiment, I wonder what public policies motivated by either of these positions would look like.