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The rational animal, or the irrational computer

It seems to me that from the “liberal” (in the U.S. politics) perspective, man [humans] used to be the “rational animal” but is now the “irrational computer,” and this worries me a bit.

The rational animal

For an example of the first view, here’s a quote I just googled::

“We believed . . . that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice; and that he could be restrained from wrong and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice, and held to their duties by dependence on his own will.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1823

The idea being that our rationality is what separates us from the beasts, either individually (as in the Jefferson quote) or through collective action, as in Locke and Hobbes. If the comparison point is animals, then our rationality is a real plus!

The irrational computer

Nowadays, though, it seems almost the opposite, that people are viewed as irrational computers. To put it another way, if the comparison point is a computer, then what makes us special is not our rationality but our emotions.

I was thinking about this when reading in n+1 magazine the review by Megan Falvey of the book “Freakonomics.”

Our description of the rational self supports the real-world conditions under which some futures seem more attainable than others. It coaxes us into wholehearted, personally felt participation with capitalist regulation. Levitt’s calculating individual is the ideal subject of contemporary neoliberal economic reform, in particular the expansion of the market into all possible areas of life.

The idea seems to be that “the description of the rational self” excludes warmer aspects of human nature. That I’ll definitely believe. But I still think rationality is a good thing–perhaps my bias as a scientist.

Decoupling rationality and selfishness

Rationality can serve other-directed as well as selfish goals. Yes, I can rationally try to get the best deal on a new TV, but the Red Cross can also use rationality (for example, in the form of mathematical optimization) to deliver help to as many people as possible. Or Novartis can use rationality (in the form of up-to-date biostatistical methods) to increase the chance of developing an effective drug–this can serve both selfish and unselfish purposes.

The decoupling of rationality and selfishness is a point we made here, in the context of considering voting as a rational way to attempt to improve the well-being of others as well as oneself.

To get back to Falveys’ book review: I’m not attempting to address the details of her disagreements with Levitt and Dubner, just to express my distress that she sees rationality to be a problem. Considering the alternatives, I think rationality is pretty good. But it is useful to think about the goals to which the rationality is directed.


  1. Martin Ternouth says:

    Andrew –

    I suggest that this rational/irrational issue is also connected to a wider feminist debate that proposes that concepts such as rationality, objectivity, knowledge and structure (associated with male thinking) are less inclusive (and therefore over valued) compared to what may be considered female attributes of empathy, subjectivity, information and communication.

  2. Dennis O'Dea says:

    Back in the sixties, when economists worried more about this sort of thing, or at least started worrying about this sort of thing, Anthony Downs had a good discussion about the meaning of rationality before we went on to write down the median voter theorem. When we say an agent is rational, we are not saying anything the goals this agent may have; we are not saying she is selfish, or greedy, or anything like that. We are only saying that she will attempt to achieve her ends in the most effective way that she can. Rationality is a statement about means, not ends. If someone's goal is to be compassionate and virtuous and environmental, then rationality states that she will not go around running over people in a Hummer she purchased for that purpose.

  3. A.West says:

    I suggest you check your premises on all counts. Have you considered that both rationality AND selfishness (properly understood) might be a good thing? Aristotle, for example, promoted both reason and an egoistic code of ethics. Ayn Rand continued in that tradition to show how both reason and egoism are required, by man's nature, for economic progress and individual happiness.

  4. paulse says:

    I had been having similar thoughts to those related by the n+1 reviewer. Levitt seems to fall pretty squarely into the Friedman school of economics (he was hired by UC, right?).

    I think that economists need to impose some constraints on agency for philosophical reasons, as markets are really their only tool. With the emerging popularity of behavioral finance, the views of Keynes, which Friedman seemed to spend so much time debunking, seem to be worth another look.

  5. paulse says:

    Freakonomics makes no reference to Prospect Theory.