Rationality and Self-Interest in Pettit’s Model of Virtual Reality

Dissertation, London School of Economics and Political Science (2013)
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Abstract

Economists usually assume that rational actions are the ones motivated by a self-interested agent. However in our daily life we often see people doing altruistic actions which we praise and which we do not call irrational. How can we account for this paradox? This question and the tension underlying it, is at the heart of Philip Pettit’s classic essay, “The Virtual Reality of Homo Economicus” (1995). This dissertation constitutes a detailed analysis and evaluation of the claims that Pettit makes there, in particular his original proposal of reconciliation between economic science and common sense, and the role that self-interest occupies in his model. Despite its importance, there are still few written commentaries or critiques of Pettit’s essay (1995). Among the few, most concentrate on the thesis of resilience explanation that Pettit presents at the end of the essay. What is lacking in the literature is a thorough examination of the central claim that Pettit makes there, and which gives the title to his essay: namely, the thesis of the "virtual self-interested control". In my view, this constitutes one of the most sophisticated defences of the assumption of self-interest in rational choice theory and economics. Therefore, it is surprising that it has not been subjected to more discussion, and published research. In section 1, present some of the central concepts of rational choice theory and economics, namely the homo economicus. In section 2, I introduce Pettit’s model, and then evaluate in which sense it is a plausible model to explain the behaviour in non-market contexts. Section 3 presents my criticism of the shortcomings of the model.

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Pedro McDade
Saint Louis University

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