As a follow-up to Steve's post on how Mises can be read to have anticipated Smith's concept of "ecological rationality", and also to counter a current prevailing trend to trash rationality and embrace irrationality, I would like to point to a sentence of the philosopher David Schmidtz discussing his essay "Choosing Strategies". "To identify genuine, substantive connections between being rational and being moral, I now believe, we will have to work with humanly rational choice and humanly moral agency as they really are, not with the mathematically tractable idealizations of them."*
Schmidtz's book Rational Choice and Moral Agency is brilliant, and in fact one of my favorite books in philosophy. The fact that Schmidtz has always seemed to carve out the intellectual niche in his profession that moral theorizing and political theorizing is impotent unless it takes seriously the world in which we live both in terms of social relations and the constraints of the natural world has always struck this political economist as the most level headed in the genre.
I am fond of saying that "praxeology puts parameters on people's utopias" and David's use of humanly rational choosers in his approach to moral and political philosophy is consistent with this understanding of praxeology even though David would not necessarily draw that same conclusion. The basic point is that study of purposive human action need not entail maximizing agents, but cannot make use of such a stripped down model of man, if an accurate picture of man and society is to come out of the analysis. Why else do you think Mises spends so much time and mental effort in the first 100 pages of Human Action, trying to establish for the reader the uncertainty of the environment, the ignorance of the future, and the open-ended nature of the human choice problem?** Mises is a rational choice theorist, but one that focused on "humanly rational choice" and not "mathematically tractable idealizations" of choice. And his entire analysis from the logic of human action to the dynamics of the entrepeneurial market process is dependent on this human, as opposed to mechanical, perspective.
If this is so, then what does this have to say to those critics of the excessive ambitions of rational choice theorizing in the social sciences and how would the social sciences be reconstituted given both the critique and this avenue for reconstruction?
*Schmidtz, Person, Polis, Planet (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2008), p. 5.
** William Jaffe in his classic paper on the marginal revolutionaries argued that Menger differed from Jevons and Walras and was not vulnerable to the Veblen-type criticism of the "lightening calculator" because to Menger man was forever caught between alluring hopes and haunting fears. The poetry of Jaffe aside, he hit the nail on the head with respect to the Austrian tradition of economic theorizing --- undestanding "humanly rational choice" not "mathematical tractability" has always been the goal of the enterprise, and sees its most complete defenses in the works of Mises and Hayek.