Think Out Loud

An invitation to debate ecology, art, human development and enlightenment

Beyond rationalism: the moral dimension of state motivation


Rationalism, or the idea that agents guide their behaviors based on an understanding of fundamentally material self-interest, dominates most theoretical and applied treatments of topics in political economy.  In other words, most scholars think that individuals, groups, institutions, states, and even regional and international bodies make decisions based on a calculus of perceived material benefits; “what’s in it for me?”

To some extent, constructivist theories strive to incorporate more cultural and historical factors into the equation of human motivation.  These ideas consider the fact that individuals and the groups they comprise may, in many instances, be merely acting out social norms ingrained in them through historical processes of socialization, rather than applying a rigorous, contextual cost-benefit analysis.  For instance, resilient features of Japan’s lifetime employment structures in industry may be an outgrowth of unchallenged traditional notions of social organization and interaction.  This argument may be especially compelling to the extent that existing patterns of social and industrial organization work against a community or nation’s material interests.

Most constructivist theories, however, open themselves up to criticism when the origins of cultural norms come under speculation.  I think it is nearly impossible to argue convincingly that traditional social constructs emerged independent of their material implications.  In other words, the value of lifetime employment, mutual obligations in a Confucian hierarchy, or even the relegation of women to domestic sectors of productivity may be understood as old configurations conceived to maximize the material good.  Thus, rationalism creeps back into our constructivist framework.

Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago proposes an even less complicated grounds than constructivism for challenging rationalist assumptions.  In her compelling critique of Rawl’s social contract theory under the banner of the “Capabilities Approach” to human rights (Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, 2006) she suggests that agents may also have moral incentives to action.

I think support for the idea of moral incentives to action includes any situation in which a clear material advantage is forsaken in pursuit of a values-based imperative.  “Righteous war” seems to be a suitable example.  Also, states might also be construed as morally-motivated when they fail to enact certain policies (especially liberalizing economic reform in contemporary times) when they believe that these policies will endanger fundamental values of social stability, equality, or democratic governance.

Of course, a myriad of complex forces (including economic considerations) penetrates every key state decision.  A more thoroughgoing test of the moral motivation hypothesis demands a nuanced look at historical and current policy-making procedures to ensure that, at last, economic considerations are not universally the deciding factor for politicians and bureaucrats.  For instance, although the United States government repeatedly maintains that its involvement in Iraq is solely as an executor of justice and a safe transition to democracy, plenty of credible evidence has emerged to support the deciding influence of economic considerations (Vice President Cheney’s military contractor connections, oil security maneuvers, etc.).  This analysis is beyond my current purposes, but I believe that Nussbaum’s moral motivation hypothesis poses a serious challenge worthy of this level of consideration.  Comprehensive national systems of social policy in welfare states may be low-hanging fruit in the effort to prove a complex of human motivations beyond rationalism.


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