Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Don't Explain

Kevin Quinn

—Kevin Quinn

“[Dostoevsky’s] concern was always with what it is to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.”

—David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster

Paul Lewis has written a very interesting and wide-ranging paper. One of its concerns, and the one I will focus on here, is to enrich and flesh out Sen’s notion of commitment by using insights from recent philosophical work on collective intentionality and identity. The context, of course, is the application to philanthropic action, which Lewis sees, plausibly, as exemplary of Senian commitment.

The pithiest characterization Sen gives of commitment—one that might have been calculated to maximally raise the hackles of the garden variety economist—is that it consists of “counter-preferential choice” (Sen, 1977).  He thereby disables the first line of defense against assaults, in the name of the possibility of genuinely disinterested action, on the citadel of rational choice theory: the defense that consists of expanding agents’ objective functions to allow sympathetic motives, allowing them to derive utility not just from their own consumption but also from the utility of others. Commitment, says Sen, is different from “sympathy,” where the latter term stands for action motivated by such extended preferences. It amounts to choosing what is not preferred. To defuse Sen’s challenge, it behooves a proponent of rational choice theory to explain committed choices in the theory’s own terms, where an explanation would amount to taking what looks like disinterested action and arguing that it is, after all, interested. When I discuss Sen’s article, “Rational Fools,” with my students, I find that this is something that comes naturally to them, this debunking of examples of apparent commitment along the lines of Ben Franklin’s “honesty is the best policy.”

They grasp instinctively the cynical logic of repeated Prisoner’s Dilemmas and reputationbuilding that is the stuff of what I will call economic alchemy: the longstanding series of attempts to turn the base lead of self-interest into the gold of cooperation.

Thus we repeat a prisoner’s dilemma (PD)—infinitely. There are many equilibria in which the players cooperate—as well as one in which they always defect. In the cooperative equilibria, cooperation is enforced by the threat of future noncooperation. Given people who are sufficiently patient—who do not discount future payoffs too greatly because they are future, not present—there are all kinds of strategy pairs that yield Nash equilibria in which cooperation occurs in every period. Whether or not you find this persuasive, the requirement of infinite repetition would seem to give it only limited application. It turns out that we can get cooperation in finitely repeated games, too, but only if each of our narrowly selfish agents places some prior probability—it need not be a large number if the game is repeated a sufficient number of times (the required probability falls rapidly with the number of repetitions)—that the opponent is an unconditional cooperator. Here the tables are turned on the alchemical strategy: in a world populated exclusively by narrowly self-interested agents, and known to be such, there could never be cooperation in finitely repeated prisoner’s dilemmas.

Now we might not be invested in the truth of rational choice theory, and thus not be tempted by such debunking explanations of (apparent) commitment, and yet still think that some kind of explanation is in order. The trouble is, due in part surely to the baleful influence of economists, nothing will count as an explanation of choice in the social sciences that doesn’t in some fashion—not necessarily as crudely as in the alchemist’s account—find an interest lurking behind apparent disinterest.

In other words, given what explanation has come to mean, I wonder whether we can explain the phenomenon of commitment without explaining it away. For example, here is an explanation that doesn’t explain away, but that may not fit the canons of scientific explanation—and so much the worse for them, if so. Sometimes we do what is morally called for because it is morally called for. Of course we often deceive ourselves, convincing ourselves that what we in fact do because it is expedient is done for disinterested reasons, “because it is the right thing to do,” but a world where such a self-description would always be mistaken is not a world I would want to inhabit, and surely is not the one we do inhabit.

In light of all this, to what extent do explanations of commitment that appeal to collective intentionality and identity preserve the phenomenon to be explained?

First, as a kind of baseline, I want to take a route that Lewis doesn’t take explicitly but that may be the most obvious way in which collective agency can “explain” commitment and one which most obviously fails to preserve the phenomenon. Let’s take a non-repeated PD. The game is set up so that the choice is either to cooperate or defect, and rational agents will defect. The payoffs are such that defecting is better for each no matter what the other does; but each is better off when both cooperate than when both defect. If the agents are able to form a plural subject, in Gilbert’s terms, they are able each to deliberate from the standpoint of the group, and they will then form the collective intention to cooperate. We would each then be acting counter-preferentially (relative to our individual preferences). But note that We are not acting counter-preferentially. We choose precisely what it is in our interest. So here disinterested action at the level of the individual is a function of interested action on the part of the group.2

In Elizabeth Anderson’s contribution to the symposium on Sen in Economics and Philosophy(2001), which Lewis cites, she considers the way in which cooperation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma can come about as a result of collective agency, and thus the way in which the latter can underpin Senian commitment. However, her characterization of collective agency is importantly different from what I have just given above: it is “thicker” in ways which would seem to make it immune to the charge of explaining by explaining away. “The argument,” she says, “does not turn on the members of the group having a common aim prior to deliberation. It turns on the fact that they accept as reasons for action only those considerations that each person would be willing to accept as reasons for everyone to act” (29, emphasis added). The problem with this is that it succeeds in not being an “explaining-away explanation” only because the thicker notion of collective agency employed is itself predicated on Senian commitment: the individual who participates in collective agency in the sense given in the italicized passage must already be able to act counter-preferentially. Collective agency in this sense is an example of Senian commitment, not an explanation of it. What makes collective intentionality seem to be able to explain commitment without explaining it away is the equivocation on the thick and thin senses of collective intentionality: the thin (“common aim”) explains, but only by explaining away, whereas the thick (Anderson’s) doesn’t explain away, but doesn’t explain, either.

A similar dialectic arises with Lewis’s suggestion that committed action stems inter alia from our striving to identify with a group, membership in which is partly constituted by adherence to certain non-instrumental norms. The most straightforward reading of this makes it a classic example of explaining apparent disinterest by identifying an interest. We have an interest in being part of this group, and this more encompassing interest underlies the more narrowly disinterested adherence to the norms in question. Lewis obviously intends a deeper sense of identity than this, and I think he is right. To do what he wants it to do, however, and to be true to the phenomenon, I think it will turn out that identity with the group is an expression of one’s commitment to the non-instrumental principles that define the group. In that case, as withAnderson, the commitment is the explanandum, not the explanans: the identity and the collective intent follow from the commitment. For example, my commitment to the norms of scientific inquiry is bound up with my identification with the community of scientists, but the latter is just as plausibly grounded on the former as the reverse: I identify with those who share my commitment to the pursuit of truth. I certainly don’t identify with those who call themselves scientists but who breach these norms. The community I identify with is constituted by the shared commitment to these norms; the identity is parasitic on the commitment.

Identity, like collective agency, has thick and thin characterizations. The thickening comes from building in normativity, which is why identity in this thicker sense can’t explain commitment: it presupposes it. In addition, with thin versions of identity, besides the explaining-away problem already noted, there is the danger of explaining not commitment but sympathy. Some of Boulding’s formulations on philanthropy cited by Lewis seem to exemplify this.

I gave an example above of an explanation of commitment which doesn’t explain away, but I said it probably wouldn’t pass muster as a “scientific” explanation. And there, indeed, is the rub. Jean Hampton (1992, 1998) and Charles Larmore (2008) have each argued that we are crippled in understanding normativity insofar as we accept a metaphysical naturalism which can make no sense of the objectivity of reasons. Naturalist explanations of what we have reason to do, of what we ought to do, can only make sense of what Kant called hypothetical imperatives: if you desire the end x, then you ought to do y. The authority of the norm is contingent on the existence of the desire. But what could possibly explain the authority of a categorical imperative, such as “Do x, whatever your desires happen to be?” What fact about the world naturalistically conceived could establish that I ought to do x in a categorical sense? Kant himself thought that he could ground the authority of categorical imperatives on the nature of human reason itself, that we act on “laws that we give to ourselves.” The thick formulations of identity and collective agency that Lewis’s paper uses are variations on this Kantian theme.3  I am persuaded by Larmore that the Kantian project cannot make sense of the fact that, as he puts it, “reason just is our responsiveness to reasons” (135), that we find that we have reasons to x and are thereby motivated to x.

Only if we are willing, with Hampton and Larmore, to be realists about reasons, to allow that the world is not limited to matter in motion, will we be able to explain commitment without explaining it away.



1This is the title of a song recorded by Billie Holiday. The narrator is addressing her lover, who has been cheating on her. When he starts to make up a story about where he has been, she responds, “Hush now, don’t explain./You’re my joy and pain.” She knows the “explanation” won’t explain at all.

²Besides being infected with interest, this way of proceeding seems to invite a regress argument. We make individual disinterest a function of group interest. But surely the group, just like the individual, may sometimes act in committed ways, counter-preferentially. Then we would seem to need a more encompassing group, the interest of which can make sense of the first group’s disinterest. Perhaps then the group of groups, the Kingdom of Humanity, can stop the regress? But even here, can’t we humans act counter-preferentially, for example,  taking measures to preserve an endangered species that reduce our welfare?

³See Larmore’s (2008, 112-122) critique of Christine Korsgaard’s very influential Kantian project of basing reasons on “practical identities.”





Anderson, Elizabeth.  2001.  “Unstrapping the Straitjacket of ‘Preference’: A Comment on Amartya Sen’s Contributions to Philosophy and Economics.”  Economics and Philosophy, 17: 21-38.

Hampton, Jean.  1992.  “Rethinking Reason.”  American Philosophical Quarterly, 29.

———.  1998.  The Authority of Reason.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larmore, Charles.  2008.  The Autonomy of Morality.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, Paul.  2009.  “Commitment, Identity and Collective Intentionality: The Basis of Philanthropy.”  Conversations on Philanthropy VI: 47-64. ©2009 DonorsTrust.

Sen, Amartya.  1997.  “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory.” Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6.

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