[Edit 17/01/24: This is one of the first posts I made on this blog. I wrote it when I was a freshman. While it’s embarrassing to reread my ‘juvenilia’, to my surprise it’s not nearly as piss as I thought it would be (at least after a few edits). While editing, a link accidentally got posted on my social media accounts. While I’m mortified to think people might actually read this, the post has a charming spontaneity to it that I feel I’ve lost since then.]
Out of all the precepts of economics, that of rational human actors is the one most criticized by laypersons (particularly continental philosophers). However, economists usually find their propositions quite self-evident (we should think of ‘rationality’ as a utilitarian sort):
- Agents have stable, well-defined preferences and make rational choices that are consistent with these preferences.
- Whatever their preferences, agents will attempt to maximize their satisfaction subject to the constraints they face.
- Agents prefer more of what they want to less.
- Agents will satisfy more urgent needs before less urgent ones.
- The goal of an action is to remove an uneasiness.
This problem can be circumvented by separating ‘rationality’ from the set of premisses on which an individual or group bases their reasoning at a given time. In doing so, all of the above propositions can be retained, while ‘irrational’ behaviour can be explained as due to false premises. In this fashion, one can act ‘irrationally’ while still being fully consistent with the above principles of human rationality. Thus, ‘irrational’ behaviour, in logical terminology, can be said to be ‘valid’, but not ‘true’.
In fact, the scope of human action which is outside the range of rationality or our meaning of irrationality is exceptional, as the following examples will endeavor to show. Michel Foucault, in Madness & Civilization (a condensed version of his History of Madness), writes of a man who believes that he is made of glass, and who is subsequently diagnosed as melancholic (in an archaic use of the term) and sent to an asylum. Foucault notes with interest that this man behaves in an entirely rational manner, except for his false premise (a mode of behaviour referred to by early psychologists as ‘melancholia’). That is to say, he behaves exactly as a person would if they actually had become glass. In a similar episode, a man who believes that he is dead is sent to an asylum, where he was entirely docile, but refused to take meals because, after all, dead people do not eat. The head of the asylum, in an experiment, recruits a troupe of volunteers to dress up as dead people, via make-up, et cetera. They are put in a room with the ‘dead’ patient, where a feast is set before them. The ‘dead’ man queries “But I thought that dead people do not eat?” “Of course dead people eat!” replied one of the volunteers. Thereafter, the patient ate heartily, all the while still believing that he was dead. Read the rest of this entry