This post may be a bit all over the place, and It will definitely be on the heavy side, so strap in now or get out of the car.
Now I know that the motto for this blog is “building irrationality.” I’m going to do the opposite. Sorry Mekhami, sorry Teslanaut, but my purpose here is to make the idea of a ‘rational individual’ a little more concrete.
Some of you may see my phrase-choice ‘rational individual’ and think of economics. Good job! That’s what I was thinking of too when I came up with these ideas. Bear in mind that I have not formally studied economics in depth, so the following may be old news, but it’s so specific, and only briefly touches on the field of economics, that I doubt I’ll be committing any Faux Pas’ here.
The Mistake of hyper-individualism
On to the meat of it then: Modern economics depends on the notion that humans are rational individuals. By this economists generally mean that people act in their own interests to keep themselves alive. But consider, what happens when the most minimal of safety nets is put in place? Or when a false belief becomes prevalent among a population, but is not immediately life-threatening? Irrationality arises.
Now we find here a Hobbesian paradox: We’re the most capable of working towards our best interests when we are forced to fight to survive, but our interests are best met when the situation allows non-interested individuals to survive and thrive.
In other words, it seems that our interests are being met when we don’t all focus on our interests being met. This is absurd, so to avoid this absurdity, I will re-examine what we mean when we say ‘our’ interests.
The Meta-conscious Benefit of Others
Paradox’s are often a matter of hidden assumptions, and I believe that is the case here. Once a community is formed, humans no longer function strictly as individuals. Do not misunderstand my intent here, I’m not going to make any political statements regarding collectivism vs. individualism. The only political concession I as for from the reader is that people do indeed act in concert within a community of individuals to accomplish what one individual could not. The individual then finds themselves benefitting from forces over which he/she has no control. Since we’ve evolved to take every action possible to keep us alive, a sudden (by ‘sudden’ i mean evolutionarily sudden) lack of control naturally bothers us. But it doesn’t bother (most of) us enough to make us leave. This is the key. The civilized individual realizes that these outside forces are a fantastic means of keeping that individual alive, superior even to that individual’s own abilities.
So when I write ‘meta-conscious,’ I mean just that: beyond conscious. You cannot be aware of other’s decision making processes, just as a deliberative body does not have one single brain, just as the workers who build skyscrapers consult unthinking blueprints, rather than work as one perfect building organism. This may seem obvious, and i shouldn’t have to point out that this is a good thing. However, these meta-conscious actions demand we change our definition of a “rational (self-interested) individual.”
Humans are not Rational Individuals
At least not in the traditional sense. The ‘traditional sense,’ however, presents a false dichotomy: either we’re rational or we aren’t. More likely, rationality exists on a continuum.
Common sense tells us that there are those around us who are very logical, methodical, and generally seem all-around more rational than the rest of us. That same sense tells us that there are those who are not very rational; those individuals I mentioned in the “mistake” section. They seem occupied with flights of fantasy, barely keeping their own finances in line, and asking friends for important favors daily. Most of us in the middle can figure out most of the problems that come our way, and, if the resources are available, plan ahead enough to improve our quality of life. So it would seem that, at the very least, some individuals are more rational than others.
Now I must explain these common-sense observations. How do we accurately place ourselves on the rational continuum?
To be clear, acting rational is not merely acting for one’s own interest, in strict individual terms. As I’ve shown, our individual identity is couched in a community. That community of course exists within an environment of it’s own, which in turn exists in a larger environment, etc.The more that we are aware of the positive and negative effects of this community, and the subsequent positive and negative effects of our various environments, the better equipped we are to survive.
So perhaps the sliding scale of rationality is a matter of consciousness. Or, in other words, concern for any given fact of life.
However, one can be aware of their place in the universe, even painfully so, and be lacking in their ability to understand it. No one would call you rational if you knew you had to pay your rent, but you tried to pay it by handing your landlord with banana peels. Even if your neighbor was kind enough to tell you about money, thus causing your consciousness to grow, you can’t have been said to have been logical, either deductively or inductively, to have “figured anything out” on your own. Something has to hold consciousness together, to connect our awareness to itself. Generally, if someone is good at making connections, solving problems, and using logic effectively, we refer to them as ‘intelligent.’
Now we have two sliding scales, that of consciousness (awareness), and that of intelligence (smarts).
Wait a minute, you might find yourself saying. Someone can be both smart and aware and still simply not care about their own condition, or anyone else’s. Being an informed logician is not enough to make someone act, and a synonymous term often used for ‘rational individual’ is ‘rational actor.’ Indeed, we can only judge someone as rational based on their actions.
Very well, hypothetical reader, good point. Rationality also assumes a will to act. Once again, to be clear, I am going to sidestep a controversial argument. I am not taking a stance on free will vs. determinism here, I am merely using the term “will” to mean “drive to do something different, rather than maintaining the status quo.” This has something of an emotional component to it, as we have to care about whatever goal it is we are pursuing to take action (assuming we aren’t being forced).
A personal example: I’ve been a vegetarian for about two months. Consciously, For years I’ve known the facts about environmental damage, the high cost-in-vegetables to meat ratio involved in raising animals, the inefficient recycling of animal waste, and the decrepit conditions of factory farms. Intellectually, I like to think I’m a pretty smart guy; I’m a university student with a high GPA, I enjoy deep discussions, and, most importantly, I keep up with work, finances, and relationships necessary for me to maintain where I’m at in life. It’s safe to say that I was aware enough and smart enough to quit eating animals. But for a long time I didn’t. Why? I didn’t feel bad eating them. I thought about it, sure, but breaking habits takes so much more work than maintaining them. Then I spent a weekend with some vegan friends at a different college, and saw how easy it was to live more compassionately. They talked about a whole range of emotional issues, some that hit me harder than others. Most specifically, the environmental issue is something that I care about, because If we wreck the planet, the planet is going to wreck us, and I care very much for my own life, both its presence and it’s quality. With an emotional component firmly in place, I walked away from meat, and haven’t missed it at all.
Rationality is made up of three sliding scales: consciousness, intelligence, and will. The sum total of all three scales is one’s level of rationality. The rational individual, then, is no longer merely one who preserves his/her livelihood and, possibly, his/her self-identity.
The rational individual is instead one who understands the needs and wants of themselves, the immediate community of other individuals, and the effects of the causal environment. By defining oneself both as ‘part of the whole’ and a ‘whole part’ does one escape the original Hobbesian paradox, and realize the higher standard of living that civilization brings. A highly rational person, by this definition, will work to improve civilization, and will raise the standard of living for him/herself, as well as his/her company.
The irrational individual is one who finds themselves low on one-to-all three scales, and could be said to be ignorant of how things (including themselves) work. Some categories of irrationality can then be illustrated:
low consciousness = greedy
low intelligence = stupid
low will = lazy
Greedy + Stupid = destructive
Greedy + Lazy = leech
Stupid + Lazy = easily manipulated? or content (I’m thinking in an ‘ignorance is bliss’ kind of way)?
Greedy + Stupid + Lazy = highly delusional (think: get rich quick schemes).
These are just the variations at the extremes. Of course an infinite number of possibilities exist, as it is possible to be relatively low, middle of the road, or high on any combination of the three. I merely wish to give you an idea of how every day language addresses the margins of these continuums.
So what is the result of people acting within this definition of rationality? All other things (especially resources) being equal, the more rational a population, the higher the standard of living for that population. Please note, however, that all three scales must be high for the population to be considered rational, as an especially greedy, lazy, or stupid population is likely to not have a high standard of life.
However, an increasingly rational individual is not guaranteed a higher standard of living. The rational individual must compete with the greedy, and will be passively restrained by both the stupid and the lazy.
And that is it! If you made it this far, thank you very much for reading. I hope you have some reaction that you’d like to share with me. I know its a lot to ask of you after having you read all of this, but an open dialogue is the only reward that I can offer you at this point.