Herbert Gintis and Dirk Helbing have developed a highly impressive, over-arching theoretical framework, using rational choice theory, general equilibrium theory, and game theory. They extend this to cover “moral, social and other-regarding values,” plus social norms, culture, and institutions. While accepting the value of their contribution, I argue that there is a tension within their work between their depiction of the rational choice framework as a general “expression” of behavior and searching for explanations of, and detailed motivations for, particular phenomena such as punishment, altruism or moral sentiments. There is also a danger of over-generalization where a framework is stretched to cover every possible behavior. Indeed, rational choice theory with “other-regarding” preferences is strictly unfalsifiable. Furthermore, because “other regarding” agents are also depicted as maximizing their own utility, this framework cannot encompass adequate notions of altruism or morality. Instead we should follow Darwin in seeking to explain the evolution of morality as a distinctly human motivation. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of the Gintis-Helbing arguments for the future of sociology as a separate discipline.
- Rational choice theory