An aggregate of lone individual reasoners

Ultimately, social theory comes down to core questions about the nature of mankind. One such question is whether people are inherently self-interested or inherently altruistic. Rational choice theory tends to dominate this discussion, pointing generally to self-interest as a core human motivator.

This issue comes up frequently in the work of Elinor Ostrom, a pioneer in commons research who showed that people can work together to successfully sustain limited, shared resources. As Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul Stern write in Drama of the Commons:

All of the analyses just sketched presume that self-interest is the only motivator and that social mechanisms to control self-interest, such as communication, trust, and the ability to make binding agreements, are lacking or ineffective. These conditions certainly describe some interactions. People, sometimes do, however, move beyond individual self-interest. Communication, trust, the anticipation of future interactions, and the ability to build agreements and rules sometimes control behavior well enough to prevent tragedy. So the drama of the commons does not always play out as tragedy.

I find this passage intriguingly skeptical.

Ostrom traveled the world, finding communities where groups of people successfully self-governed resources for centuries. She of course also found many examples of unsuccessful governance, but somehow those stories seem less surprising.

So dominate is the narrative of rational self-interest, that – with good reason – people often refer to Ostrom’s work with a sense of renewed hope in humanity. Collaboration can work!

Compared to this tone, it seems almost pessimistic to say that certain factors “control behavior well enough to prevent tragedy.” As if tragedy is indeed the norm, but carefully constructed contexts and prevent it.

Jurgan Habermas, on the other hand, is exceeding optimistic about people’s capacity. As James Finlayson describes, to Habermas the model of self-interest results in

A false picture of society as an aggregate of lone individual reasoners, each calculating the best way of pursuing their own ends…In Habermas’ eyes, such approaches neglect the crucial role of communication and discourse in forming social bonds between agents, and consequently have an inadequate conception of human association.

To Habermas, communication was a moral imperative. It wasn’t just a tool that could “control behavior” and keep people in line. It was a way of learning, of growing, of deeply changing who you are.

If you enter a conversation intentionally committed to not being self-interested, if you are genuinely interested in learning about others and understanding their points of view, then the act of communication changes you.

And if we all entered conversations open-minded and intentionally not self-interested, then we’d all change together. Not in a creepy, Borg collective, we’re all the same person kind of way, but in a deeply bonded fellowship kind of way.

We’d all still be ourselves, all individual and unique, but the sum of our collective reasoning would be greater then an aggregate of each of us alone.


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