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Satisficing and MaximizingReview - Satisficing and Maximizing
Moral Theorists on Practical Reason
by Michael Byron (Editor)
Cambridge University Press, 2004
Review by Alexandra Couto
Feb 4th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 5)

This edited volume discusses the legitimacy of satisficing as a rational model for practical reason and for ethical deliberation. The idea of satisficing was first conceived by Herbert Simon, who argued that the maximization of expected utility in our choices was an ideal of rationality not generally possible for us, because we lack the cognitive abilities and information relevant for an accurate identification of the best alternative. Instead of maximization, Simon suggests that rationality requires of us only to choose among the alternatives that guarantee a satisfactory outcome.

To illustrate this, consider the following example. Kate is offered chocolates by a friend, after having had a nice meal and desert. She declines the chocolate offer, because she 'has had enough'. One might think that she is satisficing, to the extent that she refuses an opportunity to maximize her enjoyment. But this conclusion would be too quick. Kate might actually be optimizing from a larger perspective. This would be the case if refusing the chocolates, 'locally satisficing', would be a way of maximizing other goods, that is, for the sake of a 'global optimum' (this expression comes from David Schmidtz's chapter on 'Satisficing as a Humanly Rational Strategy'). For instance, she may not want to take time off her work or she may be watching her weight. This is the view that Michael Slote, in his chapter 'Two Views of Satisficing', labels 'instrumentally rational satisficing'. On the instrumentally rational version of satisficing, satisficing locally is done so as to optimize on a broader scale. Kate is thus here using an instrumentally rational satisficing strategy.

For Kate to be using an intrinsically rational satisficing strategy, two necessary conditions have to obtain. First, there should be no other expected loss of utility with respect to another aspect of her life that is caused by her eating the chocolates--i.e. Kate does not believe that eating chocolates is unhealthy, she is not worried about her weight, her teeth are in a good state, her work would not suffer from this break, etc. Second, Kate believes that she would enjoy eating the chocolates, that is, there would be a gain in her utility by eating the chocolates despite having eaten already enough. If these two conditions are met, Kate is employing what Slote has coined an 'intrinsically rational satisficing' strategy. Proponents of the satisficing model of practical reason would claim that she is perfectly rational in employing an intrinsically rational satisficing strategy.

A slightly different example is Kate's search for toothpaste. Here Kate has to consider each toothpaste successively. There are thus here two dimensions along which Kate can satisfice: she may satisfice by choosing the second-best toothpaste or she can satisfice by deciding to stop considering further alternative toothpastes. It is the latter dimension on which the authors of the volume focus on. If Kate takes one of the first satisfactory toothpaste she finds, is she acting rationally? After all, she fails to maximize to the extent that she is not aiming at finding the best toothpaste. But again, Kate's behavior can be interpreted as an optimizing strategy, since by choosing the first satisfactory alternative she is saving time and energy that she wants to use for more worthwhile activities. For her to really satisfice, Kate must aim at finding a satisfactory rather than the best toothpaste given her time constraints. Kate may even take more time to satisfice, since there is no guarantee that a satisfactory toothpaste would be easily found. Kate may have very demanding criteria of what a satisfactory toothpaste is and may need to go to another shop in order to find a toothpaste that is satisfactory for her. This highlights the fact that satisficing and maximizing in cases in which the alternatives are presented successively have different stopping rules. This is a point that Schmidtz make in his contribution 'Satisficing as a Humanly Rational Strategy'. Schmidtz opposes optimizing and satisficing on the basis of the kind of stopping rules they use. Optimizing entails ending one's search for alternatives when the best alternative has been found. Satisficing entails terminating one's search when a satisfactory alternative has been found. Schmidtz argues that if one stops searching before having surveyed all the alternatives one may still be optimizing by taking into account time constraints. A real satisficer does not stop because looking for a better alternative would take off some time, but because the alternative currently considered is 'good enough'.

In this collection, Michael Byron, James Dreyer, David Schmidtz and Jan Naveson deny the possibility of 'intrinsic rational satisficing'. These authors would claim that, for Kate's choice to be rational, it must be done for the sake of a global optimum. There are different ways in which some of the authors of this contribution have nevertheless tried to make sense of Kate's satisficing strategy. In order to justify why satisficing is rational, one can start by mentioning that it is an appropriate way of taking quick rational decisions, given that to take the best decision would often be out of our reach. But the question remains why satisficing would be superior to an optimizing strategy that takes into account time constraints. The three main ways to make sense of such satisficing strategies are to interpret these cases as cases of incommensurability, cases in which satisficing is virtuous, and cases that apply the notion of supererogation to rationality.

First, there are cases of incommensurability. Once it has been granted that two alternatives are really incommensurable, that is, that we cannot compare them using a single currency, there is no way we can maximize, since there is no best alternative. Satisficing can make sense of this situation, to the extent that it presents the two alternatives as satisfactory and allow to randomly pick one of the two. Schmidtz describes this situation as lacking any global optimum. Some alternatives may be so different in kind that, although we could compare them, we could not say of any that it is superior or inferior to the other. Moreover, incommensurability is also a feature of cases in which different alternatives are roughly on a par, that is, neither of the options is significantly better than the other. This seems to be the case for most of us when we are looking for toothpastes.

Henry S. Richardson, in his chapter 'Satisficing: Not Good Enough' claims that satisficing is plagued with the same problem as maximization, since it also relies too confidently on the use of a metric in order to understand practical reason. Whereas maximizing converts everything into utility, satisficing converts everything into preference satisfaction. Richardson suggests that a better way of thinking about practical reasoning is to look at how practical commitments function in deliberation. Richardson believes satisficing is wrong-headed because it converts alternatives into a metric, although a simple one (satisfactory/ unsatisfactory).

In 'A New Defense of Satisficing', Michael Weber claims that incommensurability enters the picture at another level. He introduces a distinction between the broad perspective of the whole life and the narrower momentary perspective. From the momentary perspective, one can act in a way that would produce satisfactory but not optimal outcomes in the broader perspective of one's life as a whole. One is rationally permitted to have a satisfactory life instead of the best life if it is done for the sake of the momentary perspective. However, this line of argument does not persuade me. I do not take the temporal perspective to be incommensurable with life as a whole, since different temporal perspectives constitute life as a whole. It would not be rational for me to act so as to favor the temporal perspective I am in, given that I will be in another temporal perspective later on. Some individuals are motivated to actually favor the temporal perspective they are in, but they are not rational in doing so, given that life as a whole is composed of all the different temporal perspectives. I take these forms of satisficing to be cases in which one aims at optimizing from the momentary temporal perspective and one fails to be fully rational in doing so (this view has been mainly defended by Parfit and Nagel among others).

Second, satisficing has as well been interpreted by Slote as a plausible strategy to the extent that it is an expression of the virtue of moderation. In his paper 'Could Aristotle Satisfice?', however, Byron claims legitimately that it would be begging the question to require that theorizing about practical reason be responsive to moral virtues like moderation. Moreover, he argues that to satisfice is not necessarily to exemplify the virtue of moderation. As we saw in the toothpaste example, satisficing may be immoderate, as Kate may have very high standards for a satisfactory toothpaste. Byron compares the notion of satisficing with the notion of temperateness in Aristotle and claims that temperateness in Aristotle is not an instance of satisficing, because it is an optimal behavior–just the right amount of emotion in the appropriate circumstances.

Interpreting satisficing as a virtue may be problematic for another reason that has not been raised in this collection. We can test our intuitions by introducing some science fiction. Let us imagine that there are knowledge pills that can be swallowed by individuals to effortlessly acquire knowledge. Instead of turning down some additional gustatory pleasure, imagine that Kate is turning down a pill containing 12 units of geographical knowledge and ingests instead one with only 6 units of geographical knowledge in it. Assuming that Kate highly prizes geographical knowledge, it seems to me that we could not plausibly say that it is virtuous of her to choose to ingest the pill that has only 6 units of knowledge. Hurka's chapter on 'Satisficing and Substantive Values' points to a related problem. Hurka argues that, although a satisficing view can be adopted independently from any substantive view about the good, it would not be plausible for someone holding an objectivist conception of the good to endorse satisficing.

Third, another strategy is to compare the role satisficing has in practical deliberation with the role supererogation has in ethical thought. In ethics, supererogation is taken to imply that individuals are not morally required to act perfectly, but only to act in the right way. There is a distinction between what you are morally required to do and what it would be praiseworthy for you to do without being required of you. This is not usually taken to be the case in rational decision-making processes, but Slote argues that the same applies to rationality.

In his chapter 'Why Ethical Satisficing Makes Sense and Rational Satisficing Doesn't', James Dreier claims that supererogation is possible in the ethical domain only because it involves two competing perspectives: that of the saint and that of the dutiful individual. However, Dreier denies that rationality can be similarly divided into two perspectives, since rationality is about appreciating whatever reasons one actually has. Moreover, in decision theory, if an agent prefers one alternative, this choice attributes higher utility to the alternative in question, so an individual can't fail to maximize his expected utility. No case of rational satisficing can make sense on Dreier's view. Christine Swanton, in her paper on 'Satisficing and Perfectionism in Virtue Ethics', seems to deny the importance of ethical satisficing. She interprets satisficing in moral terms as referring to the satisfactorily right as opposed to the maximally right action. She aims to demonstrate the possibility of an undemanding virtue ethics that doesn't require a commitment to a satisficing criterion of the right.

This edited collection is intended for an academic audience but is accessible without background knowledge in the topic. A distinctive quality of this collection is the care shown by the contributors in responding to each other. This, however, also tends to create a sense of repetition and overlap, although one does end up having a more definite sense of the problems raised by the satisficing strategy. Unfortunately, the last chapter, by Tyler Cowen, stands out as having little to do with the debate on satisficing, but it does give a useful overview of various economic conceptions of rationality.

Moreover, some terminological vagueness about satisficing makes the debate unnecessarily complicated. As mentioned above, most authors hold that cases of what Slote labels instrumental satisficing are actually instances of optimization. I also think that it is not helpful to describe these cases as instances of satisficing, given that these are cases in which 'satisficing' locally is best for the person overall. Similarly, James Dreyer and Christine Swanton start from a different understanding of ethical satisficing. It is not even clear to what extent the notion of satisficing adds anything to the ethical distinction between the right and the supererogatory.

In the end, the case for the rationality of satisficing as a model of practical reason isn't altogether convincing. Cases of incommensurability in which two alternatives are on a par or roughly equal seem to be cases that are most likely to justify a rational satisficing strategy. However, cases of incommensurability are cases in which optimization is impossible and both alternatives considered are satisfactory. So a satisficing principle of rationality doesn't really have any work to do.

In cases in which one alternative is superior to another, it seems rational to go for it and irrational not to. To take the example of the person who believes that her career is good enough as it is. It seems reasonable to think that she could indeed be satisfied with it, but that this may be due to the implicit assumption that she actually does not want to bear the negative consequences associated with having a better career, or that she is suffering from a weak will and is not able to resist it. Let us thus imagine that this person is able to choose between having either life A with a good career, or life B with an excellent career. If all things remain equal, there is a strong intuition behind the claim that it would not be rational for her to prefer life A. But maybe the whole collection did not put enough emphasis on the original reason for introducing the notion of satisficing: the discrepancy between real life decision-making and abstract models of practical reason. No one faces neatly ranked alternative lives and that is what makes the idea of satisficing plausible. Satisficing is a rational strategy only to the extent that there is uncertainty about what would be the best alternative in real-life situations. If this is correct, satisficing is best seen as a strategy for increasing one's chances of ending up with the best alternative and would thus not be an alternative to maximization but an attempt to maximize in conditions of uncertainty.

 

2006 Alexandra Couto

Alexandra Couto is a PhD candidate at Oxford University.


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