The model of the decision-making agent known as homo economicus is a trivial truth, but not a misconception. All agents are supposed to maximize the utility of their resources – that is true in every geography and in every age. But because it is a tautology, it is a mistake to give to the deductions brought about from this sole model the value of a description of a particular reality. As Wittgenstein had pointed out in his Tractatus, the tautologies do not convey any relevant information of any particular world, but of every possible world. The error consists on qualifying a common note to every possible situation as a distinctive characteristic of a particular set of events. To say that every agent acts to maximize his utility is true, but to state that this observation tells us something of a particular world that distinguishes it from every other possible world is the most extended misconception about the use of the model of the rational agent.
In another post, I mentioned the importance of having a body in order to develop a personal identity. In the same line as Hayek’s Sensory Order, the body enables us with the most elementary system of classification that makes our perceptions possible, or – to express it in a more radical empiricist strain – that brings the experience to happen. Upon this system of classification will sediment more abstract layers, or degrees, of systems of classification. Our knowledge is expressed at a level of abstraction that our mind can handle, whereas the law, the market, and the language are examples of phenomena that might achieve increasing degrees of complexity that mark blurred boundaries to our knowledge. The former are named “simple phenomena” and the latter “complex phenomena” in the Hayekian terminology. Our personal identity is continuously developing on that stratus set between the simple and the complex phenomena.
In this sense, we need the conclusions brought about by the rational agent model as the stem upon which lay further strata of increasingly complex analysis. Paradoxically, the more particular the social reality we seek to describe, the more abstract has to be our layer of analysis. Notwithstanding, it would be impossible to us to conceive any image of the social experience if we lack of the fixed point of the rational agent model.
Max Weber’s ideal types could be interpreted as instances of social arrangements based on the rational agent model, which incorporate particular – and abstract – characteristics depending on the historical circumstances under scrutiny. At the bottom of both adventurous capitalism and traditional society, beneath successive strata of different social and institutional designs, we will find an agent who maximizes utility. Perhaps that is why the term “rational capitalism” is so controversial. If rationality concerns subjective reason, then rational capitalism encloses a circular definition.
In this line of ideas, I hope this quick reflection might shed some light upon the old discussion about instrumental rationality and substantive reason. Since the instrumental rationality is common to every possible world, we might look for the substantive reason that gives order to this actual world in the increasing layers of complexity that reach degrees of abstraction that are superior to the subjective reason. Although that does not mean that we will ever be able to find it.