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The elements of ad hoc rational action

20 January, 2016 - 15:59

Let us consider the possibilities implicit in the following expression: A\rightarrow X+Y (Imagine that there is a large capital C surrounding the letter A in this expression. To simplify transmitting this book via the World Wide Web, it is not explicitly stated here.) The elements of the expression are (shown in Table 1.1):

Table 1.1 Key for elements in expression


a goal


an action


the circumstances of the action


side effects produced by the action

causation or expected causation


In plain English, the expression says: Action A, taken within circumstances C in pursuit of goal X, also causes side effects Y.

For example, when US President Gerald Ford took the action of pardoning US President Richard Nixon, during the post-Watergate witch hunt, to try to get public attention back on serious issues, a side effect of his action was to decrease his own chances for winning in 1976. (There are, of course, other possible interpretations of Mr Ford's reasons for the pardon.)

As the C in our expression indicates, all actions take place within specific circumstances. But initially we can ignore circumstances, since the situation at any one point in time is a given and therefore cannot be manipulated. A simplified version of our expression is therefore

A\rightarrow X+Y

leaving the circumstances within which action A is taken implicit.

Clearly there are exactly three elements which can be manipulated: the action A, the goal X, and the side effects

Y. Postulate an actor whose goal X can be attained via action A, but who strongly dislikes the side effects of taking action A. What are her options?

The first possibility is to seek a different action, A1, which will also produce goal X but with different side effects Y1:

A_{1}\rightarrow X+Y_{1}

Perhaps the new side effects are less unsatisfactory to the actor. The cost-benefit ratio Y_{1}/X of action A1 may be acceptable where that of the original proposal A was not.

For example, US President, Andrew Jackson, discovered that John McLean, his inherited Postmaster General, did not approve of the spoils system. Yet the US Post Office was a principal location of patronage jobs in those days. One solution would be to fire McLean, but the political side effects would have been considerable. So Jackson instead appointed McLean to the Supreme Court!

The second possibility is to modify goal X to X1. The somewhat different goal may be achievable by actions which would not deliver the original goal, and at an acceptable price:

A_{2}\rightarrow X_{1}+Y_{2}

Compromise of course is a pervasive political phenomenon in its own right, and examples are not hard to find. Take Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, say, who wanted to get rid of slavery but could not figure out how to do so without committing political suicide since slave holders were a social bulwark of the monarchy. Instead of forthrightly abolishing slavery, he therefore took steps to destroy it bit by bit, buying up and freeing some slaves, banning future importation, and making children born to slaves free at birth. (But in 1889 Pedro II went to Europe for medical treatment. His daughter, Princess Isabel, a militant abolitionist, took advantage of her regency to seek the unmodified goal: freedom now! Sure enough, the monarchy was immediately overthrown.)

Another apparent possibility is to take the original action A, without unacceptable side effects Y, and also take some other action A3, one of the results of which is to cancel out the disliked parts of side effects Y:

A\rightarrow X+Y

A_{3}\rightarrow -Y+Y_{3}

A+A_{3}\rightarrow X+Y_{3}

For example, buy a desired Cadillac even though it wipes out your bank account, but then put your spouse to work to build it back up. But the combination of actions A and A3 can be regarded as two components of a single, compound action. Rather than a third possibility, therefore, this is just another example of the first (e.g. find an action which produces the same goal but different side effects).

Still another possible manipulation allowed by expression A\rightarrow X+Y is not just to modify the goal X but to abandon it completely. In a way this too is just a variation on a previously noted possibility: the ultimate possible modification of the goal, X0.

The third basic option is to stick to the original project: A\rightarrow X+Y. If no alternative actions A1 can be found which will produce goal X with more acceptable side effects, and if goal X cannot be usefully modified, it does not necessarily follow that goal X must be abandoned. If the actor prefers X + Y to (not X) + (not Y) then she can hold her nose, make her "bargain with the devil", and take action A. Regret that such a price as Y must be paid to achieve X does not necessarily imply unwillingness to do so if necessary. (As King Henry IV put it: "Paris is worth a mass.")

One final possible manipulation of the basic expression requires explicit consideration of the circumstances C within which action A takes place (remember to visualize the implicit capital C around the letter A here):

A\rightarrow X+Y

Achievement of goal X always lies in the future, compared to the time of action A, though it need not be very far into that future. Although action must always take place within present circumstances, one possible goal that one can pursue via present actions is to secure improvements in future circumstances. C1 is a possible X:

A\rightarrow C_{1}+Y

Circumstances are important for two reasons. First, they make some conceivable actions possible and others impossible. Second, they affect the specific consequences which those actions which are possible will produce. Action in the present aimed at improving the future circumstances within which one will be acting is therefore an investment in the profoundest and most general sense of the term.

Perhaps US President Taft was investing when he promoted an aging, conservative southern Democrat, Edward Douglass White, to be Chief Justice in 1910, rather than appointing a younger person with views closer to his own. Taft ultimately wanted the job for himself, and this appointment created the possibility of an early future vacancy. If this was Taft's game, his investment paid off brilliantly!

Present actions can also change the future circumstances within which other people act, making some actions possible and others impossible for them. Indeed, as we will see in *** Chapter 2 of this book, a concept of social causation which is fully compatible with free will lies precisely in this: such causation consists of causing possibilities and impossibilities for others, within which they can freely choose, rather than causing their actions.