Re: Sanderson on individuals and systems

Tue, 22 Apr 1997 17:15:44 -0400 (EDT)
Andrew Wayne Austin (

Dear List,

There are several problems with Professor Sanderson's argument. First I
will make a general argument, then point-by-point demonstrate Sanderson's

First, I assert three axioms. (1) Individuals are born and socialized into
preexisting social systems that are real. (2) These social systems place
structural and processual constraints on the range of alternatives among
which individuals may choose. Sanderson has stated as much in his post. We
are in agreement. (3) The inculcation of values (choice) systems in
individuals is the matter upon which individual behaviors are determined.
Sanderson disagrees with this axiom. Rather he assumes that individuals
are inherently rational actors.

In my view, and I think the weight of the evidence supports me on this, it
is incorrect to argue that the individual's ideational system, in which
rational behavior must be embedded, is formed prior to socialization.

But Sanderson has claimed precisely this. On what theoretical and
empirical grounds is this assertion made? None are given. Sanderson
defends inherent selfishness and rationality (he conflates the two) as
assumptions regarding human nature. But these aren't really even
assumptions. They are, like all ideological props, rhetorical devices used
to legitimate what is easily revealed as circular reasoning. There is no
real argument in his post.

First, the "argument" combines assertions of well-understood social
processes with assertions of untenable "assumptions" (actually ideological
idioms) found in classical (and neoclassical) economic ideology. Look at
the logic. The hedonistic calculus is complete out of place. The
conclusion does not follow from the premises, no matter how you arrange
them. Indeed, the structure of the argument is associational, almost
random (ironic, if human beings are naturally rational!).

Social systems are real and a priori.
Individuals are self-seeking rational choosers.
Social structures place constraints on individual's range of
Therefore, society is the aggregation of individuals making
rational choices.

Second, rational choice theory is about as wrong a theory as there is in
the social sciences. It assumes that individuals are inherently rational,
which is self-evidently false and empirically refuted. Rationality is a
particular and very rigid and formalized mode of thinking that must be
learned. It does not come naturally. Research into cognition has clearly
demonstrated that human beings are not typically rational thinkers. "The
most general finding is the extremely limited reasoning power of the
experimental subjects tested. Subject persistently scored very low on
reasoning tasks, fell into several errors, and often were unable to
correct their mistakes even when they were pointed out to them" (Diesing
1991:245). For example, Evans (1982) found that subjects in one set of
experiments got the correct answer in a simple reasoning test only 4
percent of the time (159). That result is typical. Human subjects are
virtually incapable of using simple falsification logic (modus tollens), a
major logical component of any rational system of thought. Many subjects,
even after shown that their hypothesis was false, continued trying to
confirm it. Studies have found that scientists taking these test score no
differently (Diesing 1991). Negative propositions give humans fits. Faust
(1984) found that humans attempting to employ probabilistic reasoning did
worse that mechanical repetition of base rate probabilities. Availability
bias and false attribution error reign. Research by Nisbett and Ross
(1980) and Evans (1982; 1980) demonstrate that subjects are not even aware
of their own cognitive processes. When asked to explain what they did and
why they did it subjects produce an ad hoc rationalization.

I ask a very basic question: How can individuals be inherently rational
actors when they are practically incapable of acting rationally?

If Sanderson insists on using individual behavior as the basis for his
theorizing on social systems then he ought to at least understand what is
known about individual behavior.

Human beings, if anything, are practical thinkers. They learn schemes and
proceed heuristically. Human cognition is more dialectical processual. It
is least of all rational. More importantly, individual behavior can only
be understood in social contexts, and this means starting with the social
system first. This is the opposite of where Sanderson claims we should

Third, I am, frankly, surprised to see rational choice theory advanced on
this channel. Rational choice lies at the core of reactionary criminology,
neoclassical liberalism, and neoconservative moral philosophy. If somebody
wishes to hold this ideology, they are certainly entitled to do so. But it
isn't science. Ideology should be distinguished from science. This is a
polemical point, obviously.

Fourth, the assumption of inherent selfishness falls by the same sword.
Like rationality, selfishness is a form of behavior that is learned.
Selfishness is learned just as is altruism.

The assumptions Sanderson starts off with with have little correspondence
to the actual world.

Just so I don't miss Sanderson's argument, I present below a point by
point refutation of the argument that Sanderson has advanced. In this
exercise more problems of logic arise. If it is the case that Sanderson
wrote the initial post in haste, then I am prepared to re-examine his

Sanderson writes: "I assume that social systems are creations of
individuals and thus aggregate effects of individual action."

Social systems are created by both past and present individuals and
collectivities. Social systems are the aggregated effects of both past and
present individual and collective action. Present and future social
production is the output of the combined inputs of individual action,
collective action, and past social structures, and the interactions
between and among all of these. Individual and group behavior must be
differentiated. It is true that aggregated individual behavior must be
present for social systems to exist (tautological). But social systems
cannot be reduced to aggregates of individuals (methodological

"I think that the basic assumption of rational choice theory--that it is
the selfishly rational behavior of individuals that creates the basic
features of societies and larger system--is correct and a proper starting

Since social systems are prior to individuals, it is impossible for
individual behavior, "selfishly rational" or otherwise, to be the "correct
and proper starting point." This follows necessarily from this next

"Social creations, once created, are powerful constraints that establish
the contingencies that determine the direction of individually rational

Since social systems are prior to individuals, and since they impose
"powerful constraints that establish the contingencies that determine the
direction of individually rational behavior," the logical causal ordering
must be social systems as the starting point for analysis, since they
"determine the direction of individually rational behavior." Indeed,
individual behavior can only be judged rational by comparing it to an
externally existing and a priori rational cognitive structure, which since
it is shared by more than one human is a social structure by definition!

"Social systems are real, and they certainly influence behavior, but only
because of the way they act on rational individuals."

Yes, social systems are real. And they certainly influence behavior. But
what in the world does it mean to say that social systems are real and
influence behavior "only because of the way they act on rational
individuals"? Is the following supposed to illustrate Sanderson's point?

"In regard to social evolution, take a simple example, the Neolithic
Revolution. Why did humans all over the world beginning around 10,000
years ago start domesticating plants and animals and shifting from hunting
and gathering to agriculture? As many archaeologists have argued, it was
growing population pressure against resources. Hunting and gathering was
a rational way to make a living so long as population density was low and
resources were widely available."

Because this doesn't help at all. First, that gatherers and hunters were
the way they were has nothing to do with rationality. Rationality is a
particular system of thinking (linear logical ordering of axioms,
propositions, etc.) that is rare among human beings (as already
demonstrated). And social behavior can be described as rational in so far
as it fits within the parameters of rational logic; and such fittings are
post hoc rationalizations; any behavior can be rationalized.

But there are more pressing problems with Sanderson's argument. By the
logic used here any social system that ever existed anywhere would be
rational. And if every social system is rational then *no* social system
is rational, because the term does not discriminate among possibilities
(since there is only one). So in the example above, hunters and gatherers
were they way they were, i.e., their society stayed hunter and gatherer,
because it was the rational thing to be.

"Eventually a point was reached at which investing more time and energy in
planting came to be necessary to maintain a certain standard of living.
The reward-cost contingencies changed, and new forms of subsistence and
social life began to emerge as a result."

Here the *transformation* occurred because of rationality. It was only
rational for gatherers and hunters to change their behavior given the
changing set of contingencies (reward-cost, the hedonistic calculus). So
when gatherers and hunters were doing what they were doing they were doing
it because it was the rational thing to do. When gatherers and hunters
changed what they were doing, they did so because changing what they were
doing was the rational thing to do. Of course it was only rational.
Whether they stayed the same or changed, it was rational. Since all social
systems are the aggregation of individual rationality then any change in
the social system must be because of individual rational processes. How
does this explain anything at all?! It is completely tautological! This is
a classic example of a self-sealing argument. Professor Sanderson cannot
go wrong with this argument because it is circular. It is not an valid

And this spiral of ever rationalizing behavior, which creates for itself
new contingencies, about which rational behavior makes rational
adjustments, spirals rationally ever onward. The individual hunters and
gatherers, who because of selfish-rational choices, based on rationally
calculated cost-benefit analysis, changed themselves from hunters and
gatherers into agricultural communities. And "the new agricultural
communities established a new set of circumstances with new constraints on
later action. And so on and so forth."

"Can macroevolutionary events be explained simply in terms of micro-level
actions? No, not completely. Macroevolutionary events are to some extent
emergent phenomena. But to understand them, one has to ask questions
about what is going on at the micro level, i.e., what individuals are
trying to do within the range of circumstances they confront."

Social forms are emergent. But it is wrong to begin with microlevel
processes, particularly with the assumptions set forth by Sanderson. If,
as he writes here, individuals are trying to do things "within the range
of circumstances they confront," then these circumstances must be a
priori. This means that individual behavior can only be understood *in
relation* to the context in which that individual is behaving. With the
way in which rationality is being used here, all behavior within that
situation can be potentially defined as rational depending on not only
how the individual defines the situation, but how the observer defines
that situation. How in the world can such an ambiguous situation be a
useful starting point? It isn't. An individual errs because they do not
perceive objective social relations and because they do not think
rationally. But society is constructed and reconstructed daily with false
consciousness and irrational behavior abounding. Social production is not
dependent on individual rationally because it emerges out of a collective
process that is qualitatively different from individual behavior and
logically different from the system of rationality. For this reason,
methodological individualism is hopeless, and therefore should be
rejected. It isn't scientific. It is pure subjectivism.

"What applies to social evolution also applies to revolutions. Take, for
example, Jack Goldstone's demographically-based theory of state
breakdowns. This theory certainly makes use of macro variables, but these
are explicable only in terms of what rationally selfish individuals are
doing to satisfy their interests."

Again, if all behavior is rational, whether evolutionary or revolutionary,
then how is any behavior rational at all? This is the same error that Ayn
Rand supporters make in their assertion, which incredibly Sanderson has
adopted in his arguments, that all behavior is selfish. If all behavior is
selfish then no behavior is selfish. This is like saying that all reality
is socially constructed, or that all reality is subjective, or that human
beings are naturally altruistic. Selfishness only means anything at all if
there is behavior that is not selfish. The Ayn Rand fan will say that even
altruistic behavior is selfish! Social reality is only meaningful if their
is physical reality. To say something is subjective discriminates only if
it is possible to say that something is objective.

> World-system theory assumes a rationally selfish actor but assumes that such
> selfish behavior is socially created rather than an innate tendency. This is
> where I part company with WST. If capitalism created selfish individuals, then
> what created capitalism? Gunder Frank argues that it has been slowly evolving
> for some 5,000 years, and I agree with him. Why then are the rudiments of
> capitalism so old? To find out, read my book.

Capitalism was forced on the world's majority. It slowly evolved because
people resisted it for centuries. And they still do. People seek to go
past capitalism. If Sanderson is suggesting that human beings have been on
a teleological path towards capitalism, and that this progression has been
unfolding because of the ever rational planning of human beings at the
individual level, then he is suggesting that capitalism is the to-date
fulfillment of human nature, since it reflects the state of the art in
selfishness. And why would there be any reason to transcend capitalism if
capitalism is the result of rational behavior? Does this mean that
transcending capitalism will lead to irrationalism? No, because Sanderson
may just define whatever we have then as rational, since social forms
are the result of the rational behavior of individuals.

Therefore, since human nature is selfish, all societies must be selfish,
since they reflect human nature. Hunter and gatherer, horticulturalist,
capitalist, socialist--all selfish and rational systems of social
organization. Necessarily so.

I don't think I need to read Sanderson's book. I will just go back and
reread Fukuyama, Rostow, or Huntington.

Andrew Austin

PS--This is the problem with human nature arguments. Not only are they
potentially reactionary, but they are generally unscientific and
logically fallacious.

Interesting paradox in all of this (lots of them, actually, but I am in a
rush). To say that rationally is inherent in the human actor is to suggest
that rationality is a part of physical nature. This means that other
animals could be rational actors. How is it possible for a cat to act
rationally? And if we mark humans off from other animals because humans
are rational actors, then to what extent can our rationality be said to be
naturally arising?