Rational Actor vs Devoted Actor

Scott Atran, terrorism expert, suggests that there is more to ideological frameworks than that of the “rational actor.” There is also the “devoted actor.” This model aims to address some of the issues of the rational actor model. What are the differences you say?

The Rational Actor:

  • Is dedicated to self – self-interest is the nature of business. This self-interest can manifest into exerting a large amount of effort into the terrorist organisation, if that organisation is seen as beneficial to self or own interests. Protecting one’s own life, political ambitions and state of affairs is the orientation of these actors.
  • Acts may relate to financial gain, social status, power and control, and other self-orientated motivations.
  • Acts on his or her own rationalism and morality, this is known as Rational Choice Theory (RCT) or the Rational Choice Model (RCM).

Problems with the Rational Actor Model:

  • It does not explain suicide terrorism. There is no reward for all the punishment imaginable, therefore self-interest – and thus being rational –  cannot be central to suicide terrorism. However, community or group-interest vs self-interest creates a rational conflict. If one dies for the greater community – to protect them, is that not rational?
  • If one dies for a greater life in the Hereafter, is that not somewhat rational?

The Devoted Actor:

  • Dedicated to a cause – whether rational or irrational, logical or illogical. The cause is seen as greater than self, sometimes even rationalised as greater than other people (e.g. civilians); a collective cause, a greater good.
  • Deontic – duty-based, relating to the (personal) ethics and morality of a cause. The cause is moral, righteous and self-satisfying. Opposing this cause could be seen is immoral, even amoral. They protect what they see as valuable or sacred. Lakhani calls this the “moral career” of the terrorist.
  • Authoritative – the cause is greater than the innocent. It is supreme to other factors.
  • Totalitarian – the cause must manifest itself in policy or forced over society, even if that society or group of people reject it.

Problems with the Devoted Actor Model:

  • It explains suicide terrorism in both the religious and secular context. Sacrifice for a group in an otherwise lose-lose or unwinnable situation is seen as for the greater good, not necessarily an action for self-interest. But one must be devoted to a cause and cloaked in an identity related to that cause to begin the journey to committing such an act.
  • It is not specific. An individual can devote themselves to any cause. Secular vs religious causes are completely different, even an anathema of one compared to the other. Incompatible devotions and ones that are enacted and practices in different ways must be understood as sub-types of this model e.g. Islamic devotion in relation to Paradise and rewards vs left-wing anti-industrialism in relation to anti-capitalism.

For more information, please read the linked articles featured in this post.


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