, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 521-540

Rational Choice and Moral Theory

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Abstract

Contemporary discussions of the positive relation between rational choice and moral theory are a special case of a much older tradition that seeks to show that mutual agreement upon certain moral rules works to the mutual advantage, or in the interests, of those who so agree. I make a few remarks about the history of discussions of the connection between morality and self-interest, after which I argue that the modern theory of rational choice can be naturally understood as a continuation of this older tradition. I then go on to argue for a controversial three-fold thesis: (1) that grounding a theory of morality in terms of rational self-interest is the only epistemologically respectable way to proceed with the justification of moral principles; (2) that despite this, most of the contemporary explorations of rational choice foundations for moral principles do not work—that the models of rational choice to which they appeal yield less than the substantial results that they are intended to yield; but (3) that if one rethinks just what it means to be rational, one can find in fact a promising way to connect the two—specifically through the development of a theory of genuinely cooperative activity.