Publication Date

October 2009


DOES RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY (RCT) HAVE SOMETHING IMPORTANT to contribute to the humanities? Usually the arguments for answering “yes” to this question go something like the following: The application of RCT has proved to be a powerful tool in economics and the social sciences, leading to clear and rigorous insights unattainable from less precise methods. Therefore, by also harnessing this power, the disciplines in the humanities could advance toward becoming more elegant, rational, and forceful in their explorations of human behavior. As an economist, I’d like to address this argument on its home ground. Has the use of RCT advanced economics in good and useful ways? More precisely, what are the disciplinary values adopted in economics according to which the application of RCT has been judged a “success”? Is this system of values one we want to continue to endorse even in economics, not to mention more generally? This essay argues that the advantages of RCT have been much overrated within economics. Meanwhile, due in part to unconscious gender-related biases, the ways in which RCT can tempt a scholar toward inadequate forms of analysis have been insufficiently examined. To the extent that the argument for adopting RCT in the humanities rests on the idea of emulating the discipline of economics, then, this essay sounds a note of warning.



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