The Short Piece
Everyone Is Rational
The problems we need to manage are much deeper.
Nobody does anything they think is irrational. If they touch fire, which is arguably stupid, they must be doing it because they want to impress someone, feel pain, or see what fire feels like. In light of this desire and want, touching the fire becomes rational to them, even if it’s not actually rational. But unfortunately, only God can ultimately know what is “actually rational,” and none of us are God. Maybe touching fire gets someone a promotion to being chief of a village somewhere? Can we really say that it’s never rational to touch fire? Seems extremely situation-dependent…
Is what’s best and rational to us what’s actually best and rational? These can obviously align, but not necessarily. The problem is assuming “the rational” and “the best” are always the same. Really, saying something is rational just tells us that something “is itself” — everyone necessarily acts rationally to themselves.
If we do something, we think it’s good and rational to do, even if that’s jump in front of a car. If we do something that we think is irrational, we think it’s good and rational to do that irrational thing (Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man” is no exception). We can’t escape it, so to say that “x is rational” and mean “therefore, x is good” doesn’t follow, unless by “x is good” we mean “x is good to the person acting.” Sure, x is relatively good, but we can’t say that rationality necessarily matches “actual goodness.”
What I’m gat at is that the suggestion that “the market is rational” doesn’t mean “the market is best.” The common phrase implies that rationality is somehow unique to the functioning of the Capitalist system, but all systems are rational. Socialism is rational. Democracy is rational. Buddhism is rational. All systems, within their assumptions, paradigms, and the like, operate rationally. I think what people mean when they say, “the market is rational,” is that “the market is best,” but this conflates “rational” and “best,” which I think is an extremely consequential mistake. This is discussed extensively in “The True Isn’t the Rational,” so here I’ll just stick to the basics.
If we think it’s going to rain today and bring an umbrella, we acted rationally even if doesn’t rain. Perhaps we weren’t “rational” in studying the weather, but that’s always debatable. The main point is that, relative to what we believed was true, we acted rationally.
Rationality defines itself against a belief about what is true, best, good, and the like. Since we can be wrong in our beliefs, it is possible for us to be wrong and rational. Failure to realize this may make us overconfident in rationality, for we could believe that if we acted rationality, we couldn’t be wrong. This could set me up for severe failure (and suggests the error of “autonomous rationality, as discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose).
By believing “the market is rational” means “the market is always right,” we assume that everything the market does is what’s best. It becomes infallible and inerrant. The same goes for anyone or anything that we prop up with claims of rationality: we blind ourselves from our imperfection with our rationality. It’s good to be rational, sure, but we can’t not be rational. We can be right and wrong, but regarding either, we can only be rational. The question rather is if we are rational well, and as will be argued in other works, that entails thinking “beyond and yet with rationality.”
If our conversations in democracy are to become productive again, we need to stop thinking that the problem is that people “aren’t rational.” Everyone is rational — “the problem of rationality” emerges out of something deeper. If democracy is to survive, we need to learn to cope with “the problem of axioms.”
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