, Volume 74, Issue 3, pp 383-409
Date: 26 Jun 2012

Norms and rationality. Is moral behavior a form of rational action?

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This article addresses major arguments in the controversy about the “rationality” of moral behavior: can moral behavior be explained by rational choice theory (RCT)? The two positions discussed are the incentives thesis (norms are incentives as any other costs and benefits) and the autonomy thesis claiming that moral behavior has nothing to do with utility. The article analyses arguments for the autonomy thesis by J. Elster, A. Etzioni, and J. G. March and J. P. Olsen. Finally, the general claim is discussed whether norm following and norm emergence are utility maximizing. The conclusion is that the autonomy thesis is not tenable if one applies a wide subjectivist, social psychological version of RCT that includes the assumption of “bounded rationality.” The autonomy thesis is only compatible with a narrow version of RCT that excludes internal outcomes and that refers to norms that do not have external outcomes. It is argued that such a narrow version is not capable of explaining many forms of behavior social scientists are interested in.