Moral Politics: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory

By Sam Fiske (CMC ’21)

Rational choice theory suggests that people are motivated to maximize utility through self-serving behavior and in recent years, this idea has become increasingly popular in political science.  In An Economic Theory of Political Action in Democracy, Anthony Downs adopted the assumption that “political parties in a democracy formulate policy strictly as a means of gaining votes” and voters cast their vote to gain higher levels of utility through policy. In other words, the rational politician does whatever they can to secure votes and the rational voter uses their vote as a means to secure benefits. However, third-party political actors in the United States stray irreconcilably far from the notion of rationality proposed by political scientists.

Whether it be the Downsian model of rationality or one of its derivative theories, rational choice literature simply cannot explain why third-party candidates would run for office in the United States, or why anyone would vote for them. With the two-party political landscape, a vote for third parties is a vote for a loser. So, how do we explain these peoples’ behavior and motivations? For the actors that are seeking something other than utility, what are they seeking? Because these actors cannot expect the traditional payouts from voting that rational choice theory requires, we must venture (at least partially) out of the constraints of rational choice theory for an answer. 

I contend that rather than being motivated by a desire to maximize utility, these actors are driven by social values. Importantly, they make moral decisions at the direct cost of what yields the most utility. This stems from Amartya Sen’s idea of moral commitment which was laid out in his journal article, Rational Fools. In this notion, Sen’s notion of moral commitment refers to instances where people “choos[e] an action that yields lower expected welfare” because they recognize that it’s the right thing to do. Given two readily available alternatives, an actor chooses the option that makes them worse off because the other option would be morally impermissible. For example, when someone finds money in the street and they know they can keep it with no repercussions, a moral commitment to fairness motivates them to return it. Surely, they would be better off with some more cash in their pockets, but moral commitment “drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare”. In the context of American politics, this is exactly what happens when an actor supports fringe politicians. Although they would be better off supporting a candidate with a legitimate chance of winning, actors are forfeiting utility for moral reasons. 

This becomes especially apparent in the way we talk about politics. When I asked my brother about why he supported Bernie Sanders, he explained that it was “the right thing to do”. Specifically, he referenced universal basic healthcare as the only policy that could help mitigate the unjust effects of poverty in the United States. Similarly, politicians like Bernie Sanders speak in terms of moral duty. Senator Sanders argues that we ought to redistribute the wealth of our nation because it is the righteous thing to do. This resonates with actors like my brother because political issues are elevated to ethical questions. Issues of taxation, education, and healthcare are no longer questions of utility; they are seen as moral issues. Further, it’s clear that other fringe actors can also cling to ideas of righteousness. The Green Party does not seek to protect the environment because it personally benefits them, but rather because they see it as a moral duty: humans have an obligation to preserve the sanctity of the environment.

If you’re still unconvinced, consider a hypothetical voter in the 2020 presidential election, an election in which the two mainstream candidates have been accused of sexual assault. For a survivor of sexual assault, a third-party candidate may be the only morally permissible option, despite the fact that their chances of success are abysmal. Even though the vote would essentially be wasted, such a voter may feel incapable of supporting candidates with a chance of winning. This is also evident in poor evangelicals motivated by an opposition to abortion. Even though 86% of evangelical families have a combined income of less than $100,000, they vehemently oppose social welfare programs presented by Democratic candidates because of their position on abortion, opting to vote Republican instead. Even though some evangelicals would benefit from an increased social safety net, they forgo those benefits for ethical reasons.

The truth is, while rational choice theory is plausible at face value, moral motivations are equally powerful in American politics. This is not to say that rational choice theory is worthless, but so long as exceptions exist, it’s important to consider how rational choice literature may be misled.  In sum, political science has put undue faith in rational choice literature. While political activity can be understood to be deeply tied to one’s utility, it must also be understood in terms of moral obligation. And though this relationship is most clear in the actions of fringe political candidates and their supporters, it’s evident that mainstream political actors also forgo utility to preserve moral commitments. In order to more completely understand the behavior of political actors, we must recognize that moral attachments to ideas, values, and principles are profoundly influential in decision making and move away from the notion that utility rules the political world.

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