Rational Choice Theory Essay

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The rational choice theory is structured around the belief that humans make decisions based on complex equations weighing the costs, benefits, and opportunities presented  by varying situations. This theory became popular following the publishing of Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke’s Rational Choice Theory. Ethics involves a person’s moral principles and thus, inherently plays a role in every person’s decision-making process. Although ethics is considered a variable in everybody’s decision-making equation, the weight of the variable  changes constantly depending  on the person, place, and action at the time of the decision.

To grasp fully how ethics is involved in the rational choice theory, one must first realize that no decision is considered irrational at the time of choice by the person making the decision. One will not knowingly make a decision that is perceived less beneficial than another at the time of the judgment. This does not necessarily mean the choice brings the most advancement to the person making the decision. Rather, the choice may benefit whatever the person making the decision considers most important at the time of choice, such as religion or occupation. These rewards (for the decision made or the action taken) are determined by the individual  and may include any number of benefits to him or herself. These benefits may be “hard” (e.g., money or advancement) or “soft” (e.g., a good feeling or the right thing to do). Regardless,  they are determined solely by the individual in making their choice to act or not act.

These items,  including  ethics,  are all considered independent variables that constantly change in the equation that is processed through a person’s mind during a decision-making opportunity. Although a decision might seem irrational in hindsight, every decision is considered rational at the time it was made by the person who made it.

An individual’s rationality, that is, rational choice, is determined not only by the circumstances  involved  in the decision  (making  the choice) but also in their own self-concept. Who do they see themselves to be? Who do they want to be? Is there pressure upon them? What are their  traits,  competencies, and  values? All of these go into the decision-making system of the individual  and  the choice taken  encompasses their assessment of all these factors. Thus, based on their answers to these often complex questions, they make a decision. That is, they make a choice—a choice they believe to be correct at the time.

These decisions play themselves out daily in criminal justice. Actors in policing, courts, and corrections confront multiple situations in which the need to make a choice can oftentimes affect someone for the rest of his or her life. While hindsight often suggests a poor decision was made, the same concept applies.

Policing is widely viewed as the most important and definitely the most publicly scrutinized sector in the field of criminal justice. On a daily basis,  law  enforcement  officers are  presented with many different scenarios that require a certain amount of discretion, and they must make decisions using their own judgment.  To make these decisions, according to the rational choice theory, law enforcement  officers first weigh the potential costs against the benefits of the certain situation. For example, an officer comes upon a group of teenagers using marijuana in a remote location. The officer has many different options in this scenario, but two will be used for the sake of demonstration: The officer could immediately arrest all individuals involved and charge accordingly, or the officer could notify the parents of each individual involved and let the teenagers off with a warning.  If departmental policy allows either option, both choices are viable. The choice of how to proceed is the officer’s, and how he or she acts depends on how the officer weighs different variables of the situation at the time.

Use of force is another area in which law enforcement officers use ethics when making split-second decisions. Although there are guidelines in place to ensure proper use of force, it would be easy for an officer to justify exceeding the level of force necessary in a situation if not morally obligated  to do otherwise.  Discretion  in policing allows for many variables, including ethics, to be involved in how a certain officer handles a particular situation. Weighing different variables quickly and effectively is extremely significant in the policing sector of criminal justice because law enforcement officers are expected by the public to make correct decisions while not abusing their given power. This is a very high expectation considering how fast a decision may have to be made in a potentially life-threatening situation.

For the criminal (or those contemplating crime) the crime serves a purpose. As such they, too, weigh the same variables that noncriminals weigh in their decision making. It is fair to say, however, that those who engage in crime give less weight to ethics or moral values. While most criminals most likely commit  crimes for self-satisfaction or advancement, others may commit crimes for various other reasons depending on how every variable is weighed at the time of the decision. As one could assume, the higher ethics is valued by a person in a situation of potentially committing a crime, the lower the chances are that he or she will commit that particular crime. However, this is all subject to how every other variable besides ethics is also valued.

In corrections as well, rational choice occurs. Correctional officers have  a large amount of power over incarcerated individuals, which presents many opportunities to abuse the level of given authority. Correctional officers are faced with a multitude of ethical choices every day, including whether to bring in contraband, mistreat inmates, or conduct  sexual  relationships with  inmates. When presented with these opportunities, correctional officers must make a decision as to how to handle each situation. These situations may be exacerbated by the correctional officer’s view of the inmate, the threats the inmate may pose or make, and, of course, the correctional officer’s own self-concept.

These circumstances represent why it is so imperative to employ people who weigh ethics extremely  high  in their  decision-making processes. Another reason that ethics is so vital in the conduct of guards is that inmates are constantly  watching  and  observing  the  behavior of the guards  monitoring them.  Guards  who are perceived as dishonest or dishonorable by inmates  may be more likely to be considered targets by inmates. It is also important for correctional officers to keep their negative opinions regarding fellow guards and supervisors to themselves. In order to teach inmates to have respect for themselves and for others, inmates must first see the same type of behavior from the people with authority over them.

The court system has long been on trial itself by the public regarding ethics in its decisions. Prosecutors and judges hold so much power and discretion in their duties that they are held to a high standard of ethical conduct. Many of the decisions made by members of the courtroom work group require tremendous thought as to what variables hold the most weight in deciding the costs and benefits of each unique situation. The rational choice theory clearly states that a person will make the most rational choice presented at the time. Within the courtroom work group, most of the decisions made are not what brings the most benefit to themselves, but rather what brings the most benefit to the person or people they are representing. The prosecutor must consider the costs and benefits of the person or entity he or she is representing, while the defense attorney must consider the cost and benefits of the defendant. On the other hand, the judge must consider the costs and benefits of all. The jury objectively examines the evidence and renders its best decision based thereon. In all four instances, the same elements are at play.

What  has been identified  as the rationality of the instant is what is at work here. That is, the individual makes the best decision they can under the current circumstances. While that decision might be considered irrational upon further (and future) examination, for that individual in that situation, it was a rational decision that was judged to be most likely to bring what he or she needed at the time.


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