Some of you might know that ‘ratio’ comes from Latin, where it’s original meaning was linked with the mental operation of dividing.
Yep, the first ‘rational’ thing made by man was resource allocation: how much food each member of the clan will get, according to a huge, and variable, set of criteria. I won’t get into details now.
My point is that we shouldn’t be bragging about how rational we are. At most we are ‘rationalize-rs’.
You see, for a decision to be perfectly rational it has to fulfill three criteria. The decision maker must:
– Have at his disposal all pertinent information regarding the entire situation under consideration,
– Be able to act in a completely unemotional way,
– Be in possession, and willing to use it to the maximum, of a brain not only in perfect working order but also able to process that huge amount of information in such a short time that nothing significant changes while the decision is being made.
So, which of you still thinks we are actual able of reaching actually rational decisions?
In reality we function in a completely different way.
From time to time an IDEA flashes in our heads. Again I won’t enter into details about how this outcome is influenced by our needs, emotions and previous experiences, for now I’ll just deal with what happens after that idea has already ‘sparked’.
Depending on a plethora of individual characteristics people differently when something like this happens to them.
Some shun it as if displaying any degree of originality was a mortal sin.
Some honestly and straightforwardly set to examine it as thoroughly as they can. They take into account as many information as they can muster about the subject and not only carefully balance costs against possible benefits but also try to determine as many stakeholders as possible and determine, to the best of their knowledge, whatever consequences might befall upon them if that idea is put into practice. And they proceed only after this entire process has been followed step by step.
Some take a different route after the cost analysis. If they reach the conclusion that the whole thing might prove to be profitable enough for them they start identifying who might object, for what ever reasons – no matter if valid or not – and thoroughly plan how to stifle the opposition.Some don’t even care about the costs. If they become, by any means considered to be proper by themselves, convinced that that particular idea has to be implemented then they will stop at nothing. They will employ all means at their disposal in order to put that idea into practice, no matter what those around them might feel, think or even suffer.
Please observe that the last three are all using their rational brain to the utmost. Yet only the second one might be described as reasonable, right?
Most of us are culturally conditioned to think about the third that he is a callous manipulator and about the fourth that he is an aggressive bastard. Right again, ain’t I?
Well, not so fast.
According to Plato the fourth is doing the right thing. ‘He who sees the light has not only the right but also the obligation to take the others with him towards that light’. (Plato’s Republic). One might think that this is a very dictatorial attitude that doesn’t, in any way, resemble Socrates’ manner of dealing with things – after all he was convicted exactly for teaching the young how to make their own decisions – but this is another discussion. Coming back to the manner advocated by Plato it is indeed extremely authoritarian – all dictators have followed it to the letter – but it is not altogether without merit. What should a doctor do when you are brought to his ER with a mangled leg? Wait for a couple of days for you to come about and decide if you’ll accept the amputation – while the already dead tissue poisons you beyond any therapeutic possibilities – or proceed with cutting away your limb and thus saving your life but assuming the risk that you’ll sue him for his last dollar?
According to the modern business practices the third guy is acting in a quite conventional way. Most of us agree that planned obsolescence is good thing – it provides a lot of jobs – doesn’t it? Well, I don’t, not on the scale we are using it anyway, but that again is another subject.
And now that we have reached the presumably respectable and the only reasonable ‘second decision maker’ I’ll just add some of George Bernard Show’s words on this matter:
So it seems that there isn’t such a thing as an always valid manner of thinking, right? Things depend a lot more on our individual judgement than a lot of people feel comfortable with. Rational thinking isn’t at all that panacea some people believe it to be and in reality reason is nothing but a mental tool and the manner in which we use falls squarely in our individual responsibility
That’s why Plato thought he was doing a service to his fellow citizens when he wrote: “I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.” Let me remind you that Plato was contemporary with the Golden Age of the ancient Greek civilization and with the last days of the Athenian democracy. I’m not going to pretend now that the demise of the Greek democracy or the relative rapid decay of the Greek civilization after Pericles and its replacement by the Roman and Persian ones were influenced by Plato’s writings. No. In fact it’s all the way around. Plato had only witnessed and put in writing the attitudinal changes that affected the Athenian/Greek society and which eventually caused those developments.
And now that we have reached the subject of democracy here is why maintaining a democratic attitude is extremely important for the long time survival of a society. Real democracy means that a considerable part of the people pay active attention to what is happening to their lives and have the ‘constitutional’ possibility to intervene peacefully if they don’t like where their leaders take them. We have seen that we cannot depend, as Plato urges us to, on the wise guidance of a ‘specialist leader’ since there is no such thing as ‘perfectly rationality’ being attained by a man. A widely disseminated attitude of the general population is the only way in which individual mistakes made by the leaders are eventually acknowledged and fixed. Any other ‘political arrangement’ leads to these mistakes being rationalized away and their (disastrous) results constantly accumulating until the entire system collapses.
One other thing before I wrap this up. The first argument I made, that the first rational thing made by man was the rational allotment of food among the members of the clan, is also a rationalization. That’s how we, who like to believe about ourselves of being rational, think it must have happened. That the inhabitants of the temperate Europe were the most rational among the peoples of the Earth and that’s why they have reached such a dominant position as they used to enjoy until not so very long ago.
Sorry, it happened exactly the opposite way. Europeans, because of the harsh conditions they had to face – coupled with the relative abundant resources and a special geographical layout – they have developed a (relatively) rational way of thinking. It was this or else… just as Ernst Myer says: ‘evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit’. In order for us to develop ‘rational thinking’ we needed the very special environment to force us to do it.
We are any special – if at all – not because we are any different but because we had the good fortune of being born in the right place. OK, we made good use of that happy act of hazard but that’s all.
For those of you who want to read about how ‘mere’ geography decisively determine evolution I highly recommend Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel.