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Friday, July 29, 2011

Is It Rational to be Rational?

Rational defined: 1) governed by, or showing evidence of, clear and sensible thinking and judgment, based on reason rather than emotion or prejudice 2)  able to think clearly and sensibly, unimpaired by physical or mental condition, strong emotion, or prejudice (Encarta Dictionary).

Of necessity, man is a social animal.  This means that he cannot totally pursue his own selfish interest.  Several layers of rationality are required.  While in a narrow sense individual selfishness is good and rational, he finds that if he pursues it to the total exclusion of the welfare of others, his self-centeredness will soon prove counterproductive.  He will discover that his own welfare is inescapably tied up and has competitive elements with the general welfare.  Likewise the general welfare cannot assert its claims with total disregard for the welfare of individuals.  The arrangement is clearly a mutual enterprise of accommodation, adjustment, and sacrifice.

This means that living arrangements must continuously be made. There is no elixir that once and for all settles all matters.  Because of this government is necessary.  Since government must mediate egocentric viewpoints, it is often an exercise that is neither serene nor stately.  But we must understand that its necessity originates out of the dual nature of man as an individual and as a social being.  It is only right that the individual pursue his selfish interest even while the larger society concurrently pursues its selfish interest.  Because of its inevitable intrusion upon personal life, government will always be more or less resented.

Some have attempted to argue that since the animal of reason—man—is rational, government is unnecessary.  Left alone, he will navigate rationally and justly since these attributes serve his selfish interest.  He will reliably choose the immediate as well as the greater good.  Unfortunately, every honest person must admit that this does not always accurately describe his own behavior.  He will admit that he occasionally has been blinded by passionate emotions or simple stupidity that brought him to grief or would have without the intervention of others.  Finally, it must be understood that rationality is not the foundation of man.  Rationality always is launched from and has its base in ethical values.  Everyone sees their own behavior as rational because their behavior is founded on their own value systems.  Thus, both Hitler and Gandhi were rational men.  And the social movements they led were also rational in this sense.  It is hopeless to appeal to rationality alone as a touchstone of rectitude or as a sanctuary from ordinary evaluation and, if necessary, intervention.

This evening I watched a documentary (Mind over Money) from the Nova series on the 2006 financial crash.  It was very interesting and asked the fundamental question—when faced with financial decisions, do humans act rationally or irrationally—from cool calculation (either consciously or unconsciously) or from emotion?  From my point of view, many basic decisions (not just those of a financial nature) are not made with cool reason but from emotion in one way or another.  We as humans do a lot of stupid things from envy or greed for example.  We see other people feeling good and making lots of easy cash, and we want to fully share that feeling and do likewise and completely overlook any risk or ethical aspects involved.

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