The Concept of Rationality for a City


The central aim of this paper is to argue that there is a meaningful sense in which a concept of rationality can apply to a city. The idea will be that a city is rational to the extent that the collective practices of its people enable diverse inhabitants to simultaneously live the kinds of life they are each trying to live. This has significant implications for the varieties of social practices (including social customs, physical infrastructure, and laws) that constitute being more or less rational. Some of these implications may be welcome to a theorist that wants to identify collective rationality with a notion of justice, while others are unwelcome. There are some significant challenges to this use of the concept of rationality, but I claim that these challenges at the city level have parallels at the individual level, and may thus help deepen our understanding of rationality at all levels.

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  1. 1.

    Although I have been unable to find empirical studies on the prevalence of these behaviors, the Los Angeles left has been described as “part of driving culture” in the Los Angeles Times (Bernstein 2003), and a writer for LA Weekly says “many Angelenos, this reporter included, were raised to believe in the so-called “third car rule,” which states that the third car can turn left on a red pretty much no matter what, unless the driver of the second car falls asleep or something.” (Aron 2017) The “Pittsburgh left” even has its own wikipedia page. Online discussions (for example: have suggested that each of these practices occurs in other cities as well, but they appear to be most commonly attributed to these two cities.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pressing me to find citations for these practices.

  2. 2.

    While some conceptions of collective attitude allow for a group desire to exist even without the members of the group sharing it, they usually require some greater degree of structure or self-conception for the group than I do. [For instance, Searle (1990); Gilbert (1990), and other accounts described as “non-summative” by Tollefsen (2002).] Thus, I consider my condition more minimal than these others, even if the requirement that the individuals share the desires seems strong from another point of view.

    Given the particular desires that I will discuss, about the basic functioning of the infrastructure of everyday life, like air, water, and transportation, it really is plausible that most or all residents of a city share them. But as I will discuss in Sect. 5.2, there may be some sub-communities that are excluded from membership on this account of the group, because they don’t share these desires.

    Some might worry that even though each particular desire I discuss is common, it might be the case that most residents lack at least one of the whole set that I use to characterize the city. In that case, it might be important to modify my condition for membership to be one in which each individual shares most of the desires, or to consider membership in the group as coming in degrees proportional to the extent of shared desire, so that it is plausible that my group corresponds closely to the set of residents of an urban area.

    I thank an anonymous referee for suggesting this more detailed discussion of the sense in which my requirement is “minimal”.

  3. 3.

    As a referee notes, there are many other relevant accounts to contrast mine with beyond that of Gilbert, but I focus on her as one convenient foil. For more detailed discussion of several such accounts, see Tollefsen (2002).

  4. 4.

    Kant says that dinner parties are the “highest ethicophysical good” (Cohen 2008).


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Correspondence to Kenny Easwaran.

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Kenny Easwaran declares that he has no conflicts of interest.

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Versions of this paper were delivered as talks at the Philosophy and the City conference in San Francisco, as the Patrick Suppes Lecture at Columbia University, and at the Chapel Hill Colloquium. I’d like to thank reviewers for this journal, audiences at all venues for questions and comments, and especially Ryan Muldoon, who was the commentator at Chapel Hill, for many challenges that have improved the paper greatly.

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Easwaran, K. The Concept of Rationality for a City. Topoi (2019).

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  • Cities
  • Rationality
  • Decision theory
  • Collective agency
  • Rational choice