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A Typology Of Rationales

For my dissertation, I'm interested in how collective action to manage the environment is coordinated. Thinking about it, it seems that there are three major rationales for action (within the range of possible choices of action) -- incentives, authority, and understanding -- each of which has two sub-types. Each type suggests different means for coordinating action among people.

Incentives are situations that make it in a person's interest (given their not-necessarily-selfish goals and desires) to do a certain thing. They come in two varieties -- sanctions (such as legal punishments) and rewards (such as economic incentives). By altering another person's incentives, one can bring that person's conduct in line with one's plan. This can be done by one scheming mastermind, or by a central authority. In certain cases the central authority can (using a second-order set of incentives, or authority or understanding) set ground rules under which individual actors wind up producing a collectively beneficial pattern of incentives -- as in the classical view of the market.

Authority is the case of a course of action being accepted by a person on the say-so of another. This other can gain legitimacy either procedurally (as in the case of a democratically elected leader) or through competence (as in the case of a trusted expert). The source of collective coordination here is simple -- if a large group considers the same person's pronouncements to be authoritative, their actions in response will be consonant.

Understanding is when a person accepts a course of action as rationally justified -- in a sense, accepting it on one's own authority. Understanding can be arrived at individually, or collectively through discussion and argumentation with others. For purely individual understanding to create coordinated action, the individual methodologies of inquiry of the people involved must be the same, a condition often promoted through second-order uses of the other types of action coordination (e.g., through instilling the same moral system or the same concept of the scientific method in all members of the group). Collective understanding by its nature creates coordinated action, because achieving collective understanding means coming to an agreement about what should be done.


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