Simone de Beauvoir versus rational choice theory
from Edward Fullbrook
I publish also in philosophy, and yesterday evening it occurred to me that a passage I wrote as part of a philosophy book a few years ago might be of interest to economists open to reconsidering their metaphysics. So here it is.
[Beauvoir’s] view of desire and value begs to be compared, (and Beauvoir herself makes this comparison), to the one which underpins the stylized notion of rationality, tendentiously called ‘rational choice theory.’ Although indigenous to economics, in recent decades this doctrine has colonized large parts of the social sciences and–as it is usually deployed–is a major sub-species of methodological individualism. On two separate accounts, Beauvoir’s conception of desire and value reverses this currently influential mini-system of metaphysics. The latter conceives of the individual as possessed of an ordered set of desires or values, called ‘preferences’, and it labels an individual ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ if her or his choices confirm or disconfirm this presumed ordering. Under this metaphysic, ‘rational consumer choice’, for example, is a euphemism for a kind of obedience to one’s supposed essence, so that a person who takes this ‘rational’ approach to their self is an example of someone caught up in the bad faith of immanence. Beauvoir’s view of humankind does not admit a distinction between preferences and choices. One can be ‘irrational’ in the sense of not choosing what people in authority would like other people to choose, or in the sense of miscalculating or misremembering the most efficient way to a goal, or in the sense of exercising one’s freedom to make different choices at different points in time, but not in the sense of not choosing what one prefers. For Beauvoir, the last is both an ontological impossibility and a contradiction in terms.
Beauvoir’s view of the nature of individual desires also reverses that of rational choice theory. The latter conceives of human beings primarily as objects, as receptors of sensations. Men and women are inclined to rise above this passive state only in so far as they hope to increase their pleasurable sensations and decrease their painful ones. In consequence, the universal goal is ‘to have everything one wants’, to exist in a state where every desire is satisfied, to abide in contented, heaven-like repose. Beauvoir takes the opposite view. She conceives of the human as active, as a spontaneity engaged ceaselessly in a project, as a being whose consciousness endlessly casts itself into the world toward something, as ‘a transcendence which throws itself toward the future.’ The sensations of pleasure are not experienced separately from a person’s projected existence. Persons do not become radically different kinds of being when they experience enjoyment. For Beauvoir, ‘All pleasure is project.’8 She illustrates this principle as follows:
. . . the pause is relaxation after the fatiguing exercise; from the summit of the hill I view the path travelled and it is present in its entirety in the joy of my success, it is the walk which gives value to this rest, and my thirst which gives value to this glass of water.9
This argument leads to a more general point: it is not possible ‘to separate the end from the project that defines it and recognize in it an inherent value.’10 Against conventional belief, in her analysis of the structure of human consciousness, Beauvoir finds that: ‘It is desire which creates the desirable, and the project which sets up the end.’11 She accuses those who pretend that values exist in the world before and without human beings, as if values were there to be gathered like pebbles on the beach, of the bad faith of immanence, of being guilty of a ‘false objectivity.’ Similarly, she labels the opposite practice of trying ‘to separate the project from the end and reduce it to a simple game’ as ‘false subjectivity.’12
Beauvoir emphasizes the significance her theory of desire holds for the conduct of political affairs, where the separation of ends from means, as postulated, for example, by the economist’s sensationalist theory of desire, provides the rationalization in whose name most modern crimes against humanity have been and continue to be committed. In ‘Idéalisme moral et réalisme politique’, an essay from 1945, Beauvoir writes:
. . . that which it is necessary to understand is that end and means form an indissoluble totality; the end is defined by the means which receive from it their meaning, an action is a significant whole which deploys itself through the world, through time, and of which the unity can not be broken. It is this singular totality that it is a matter at each instant of constructing and choosing.13 [my translation]
For Beauvoir, although the projective nature of the human being is ontologically determined, the form the project takes is not. The goals and sub-goals by which lack of being is to be filled are neither given nor fixed. Out of consciousness’s freedom, people create and choose their goals minute after minute, and it is through these choices, Beauvoir argues, that values are injected into the world. They are generated inexorably by the intentional structure of consciousness, by the way consciousness engages with the world, so that, in this sense, values are, like the lack or non-being which gives rise to them, objective and ever present. Values are not an optional extra to be added to human existence. They are as much a part of the fabric of the world one lives in as the sun and the earth. This is the ‘ambiguity’ of the human condition: we exist simultaneously in the objective and the subjective, the one inseparable from the other.
Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, Sex and Philosophy: Rethinking de Beauvoir and Sartre, Continuum, London, 2008, pp. 187-9