Defending ‘Human Rationality’
[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.
James Frazer, in his book The Golden Bough (p. 12), details how all magical beliefs stem from two ‘principles’:
If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produced like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely, the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.
To illustrate, the Law of Similarity is the impetus for rain charms consisting of throwing an effigy of a god into a river, and the Law of Contagion is the impetus behind voodoo dolls made up in part by the hair, fingernail clippings, etc., of a person the doll-maker hopes to curse.
For our final example, Baudrillard  points to a convicted killer who had been dining one day with his love. His companion told him that she loved him, so he shot her dead and proceeded to eat her. This, of course, is absolutely absurd and repugnant to the average reader, but the Baudrillard points out how this action is actually ‘hyper-logical’: if you truly love someone, what better way is there to act upon this than to entirely integrate the other into oneself?
These are extreme examples, of course, but the last places where many of us would think to find any semblance of rationality. The cases in which no rationality at all can (thus far) be found are cases of extreme psychosis (e.g. schizophrenia, brain damage), where thought itself is impaired to the point of not knowing what is reality and what is fantasy.
Though the notion of the set of premises of an individual or group addresses the empirical existence of actions considered ‘irrational’, the introduction of this concept comes at the cost of blurring the division between conscious action and unconscious reflex, insofar as a premise is neither completely conscious nor unconscious. As a heuristic, then, this approach explains the problem at the cost of raising new ones. It may be that this simple notion provides a key toward bridging the gap between thought and action. Still, the above definition in no way accounts for the origin of these premises (i.e. how an individual comes to take a spurious fact for granted), particularly those which are false, hence motivating ‘irrational’ action; thus it remains a merely functional definition. Nevertheless, identifying the premises prominent among specific demographics may likely help to predict future actions and purchases, as well as provide a greater understanding of group dynamics.
The point of this short essay has been the meagre goal of showing that the form of rationality remains, irrespective of the absurdity of its substance. As well, it has been shown that empirical instances of human ‘irrationality’ are insufficient to discredit the notion of human rationality. Finally, it has intimated the importance of premises as a heuristic device in both accounting for patterns of ‘irrational action’ and predicting similar actions in the future.
: Foucault, M.; Howard, R. (trans.) (1965). Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity In The Age of Reason. New York: Mentor.
: Frazer, J. (1951 ). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic & Religion, Abridged Ed. New York: The Macmillan Co.
: Horrocks, C. & Jertic, Z. (1996). Baudrillard For Beginners. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books.
: For objections to the view that psychosis is irrational, see Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness, and the double bind theory of Gregory Bateson in regard to schizophrenia.
- The form of rationality (of a utilitarian sort) in human action is constant regardless of the absurdity of the premises upon which one acts.
- What we call ‘irrational’ behaviour is simply rational behaviour based on false premises.
- Because a premise is neither wholly conscious nor wholly unconscious, problems are raised as to whether or not they belong in the realm of economics. Nonetheless, an understanding of the role of premises in thought may likely facilitate greater accuracy in predicting human action.
***Note: The propositions of economic rationality are taken from The Harvard Guide to Writing Economics and Mises’ Human Action.