Rationality, Norms and Institutions: In Search of a Realistic Utopia

Bart Engelen 1
  • 1 Centre for Economics and Ethics, K. U. Leuven, Naamsestraat 69, 3000 Leuven, Belgium

Rationality, Norms and Institutions: In Search of a Realistic Utopia

The main goal of political philosophers is to search for a realistic utopia by taking individuals as they are and institutions, rules and laws as they might be. Instead of trying to change either individuals or institutions in order to improve society, this article argues that both strategies should be combined, since there are causal connections running both ways. Because individuals ultimately devise and uphold institutions, one should be optimistic about the possibilities of deliberately improving society through institutional reforms. However, one should adequately model the influences that these reforms have on individuals, their identities and their motivations. From the fact that individuals can actually turn into egoists if they are treated as such, this article stresses the need to detect and maintain non-egoistic motivations. Since informal norms, for example, motivate individuals to socially desirable action, it is important to devise formal institutions that support rather than erode norm-guided behavior.

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