Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics

Well-Informedness and Rationality: A Philosophical Overview

Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics

Well-Informedness and Rationality: A Philosophical Overview

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: There is a strong tendency in modern moral philosophy to impose restrictions on the range of desires that are to count as genuinely contributive to the desirer's welfare. Perhaps the most frequent among such proposals is that only appropriately "informed" or "rational" desires are to count. I shall argue that the philosophical assumptions that underlie such suggestions suffer from the influence of equilibrium methodology and thus fall prey to the same shortcomings as it does. I shall also point to the similarities between the Austrian approach to rationality and the concept of "satisficing" (under a particular interpretation), which entered moral philosophy from the rational choice literature. Finally, I shall note that one crucial aspect of rationality that is ordinarily taken by the Austrians to be implicit in human action (i.e., the ability to grasp the logical relationship between the concepts that comprise the content of one's aims and desires) should not be considered as such.

According to Ludwig von Mises, "For acting man there exists primarily nothing but various degrees of relevance and urgency with regard to his own well-being" (Mises 1966, p. 119). To paraphrase, every human action is aimed at the attainment of some end and human well-being consists in the satisfaction of chosen ends. Thus, I believe that it is safe to say that the majority of Austrians would not object to endorsing the unrestricted desire-satisfaction account of prudential well-being.1 There is, however, a strong tendency in modern moral philosophy to impose restrictions on the range of desires that are to count as genuinely contributive to the desirer's welfare. Perhaps the most frequent among such proposals is that only appropriately "informed" or "rational" desires are to count.

The terms mentioned above bring in a flurry of issues and interpretations, oftentimes very different from those constitutive of Austrian praxeology: some understand entertaining irrational desires in terms of not being sufficiently informed with regard to broadly empirical matters; some in terms of thinking in a logically defective manner or relying on a muddled conceptual apparatus; some others do not bring in the issue of rationality at all, but simply contend that one's desires are not informed (and hence not conducive to one's well-being) if they are not in an appropriate sense related to one's life.

All these proposals require disentangling and will be analyzed in turn. I shall argue that the philosophical assumptions that underlie them suffer from the influence of equilibrium methodology and thus fall prey to the same shortcomings as it does. I shall also point out that what could have been long learned from the Austrian methodology is only now slowly creeping into moral philosophy in the form of the concept of "satisficing" (under a particular interpretation). Finally, I shall attempt to convince the readers that all of the above considerations reveal that one crucial aspect of rationality that is ordinarily taken by the Austrians to be implicit in human action should not be considered as such; thus, there might be an area in which standard praxeological formulations require some revision.

Let us then start our analysis from examining the suggestion that one's desires are rational only if they are related to one's life in an appropriate manner. First, let us consider how some modern moral philosophers characterize the issue in question. Derek Parfit, for instance, draws the distinction between what he calls the Unrestricted Desire- Fulfillment Theory and the Success Theory. According to the former, one's well-being is best increased by the satisfaction of all of one's desires, regardless of the way in which they are connected to one's life. Parfit dismisses this theory rather quickly and without much substantiation:

Suppose that I meet a stranger who has what is believed to be a fatal disease. My sympathy is aroused, and I strongly want this stranger to be cured. …

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