The scope of irrationality

In a comment on my last post, twwells referred to the “pandemic irrationality” in America. Modern America isn’t really distinctive in that respect, though. In every human culture and time, unreason has been far more common than reason. It’s impressive how far people have gotten in spite of that.

People can be rational about matters in their private lives, where their failure to recognize reality would have quick and disastrous results. There are a lot of exceptions even there, but if people manage to be rational, it starts at home. Where irrationality really runs wild is in follow-the-leader behavior where each person can pretend not to be responsible for the cumulative effects of the group. People like to blend into the group; through most of humanity’s history, there’s been survival value in doing that. They identify with the people who belong to their kind and treat others as enemies.

This isn’t going to change on anything less than an evolutionary scale. At best, we can hope to someday educate people so their tendency to conformity and tribalism takes a less harmful course. It’s easy to understand why the left thinks people should be coerced for their own good, but force is never a way to advance reason. Force degrades both the people exercising it and the people they command.

Maintaining a free society in the long term is still an unsolved problem, and the US now belongs in the category of failed experiments. But the solution can’t rely on mass rationality. At best it can rely on widespread respect for those who do practice rationality. A culture can be conducive or hostile to reason.


2 Responses to “The scope of irrationality”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    This isn’t going to change on anything less than an evolutionary scale. At best, we can hope to someday educate people so their tendency to conformity and tribalism takes a less harmful course.

    Gary, this really makes no sense at all. You really think that people in the modern west today behave no more rationally than peple do in the rest of the world, or have done throughout history? And do you really think there’s no difference in the degree of violence and destruction people’s irrational tendencies lead to, so reducing violence and destruction is just something “we can hope to someday educate people” for?

    I’d suggest, if you haven’t read it already, that you read Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”. It does a great job of documenting how much more rational human behaviour has become compared to most of history, and how much less destruction people’s irrational tendencies lead to. Pinker’s attempts to explain these developments are mixed, combining some very good insights with some very muddled thinking; but he does amply prove his case that the progress has been great and very real. It is an important antidote to the tendency to think and write bleak statements such as the above.

    A major reason why irrationality has been so common is that rationality is a learned skill. It is much easier to be rational if you live in a culture that provides guidance in learning how. Most cultures throughout history provided no such guidance, and so near-universal irrationality, misery and violence have been the results.

    A few cultures, most notably Ancient Greece, developed important ideas and techniques in helping people to learn to be rational, but made such guidance available only to a priviledged few. Modern, western culture was the first culture to systematically develop guidance in learning to be rational, and also make such guidance more and more widely available; today it is available universally. The peace, prosperity and freedom we enjoy today, relative to all of history, are the result.

    There are still many areas of life in which most people are highly irrational. Rationality, even when the guidance in learning it is available, is difficult and requires effort; more people will be motivated to exert that effort in a culture that celebrates reason. Western culture is mixed; it combines the pro-reason influence of the modern enlightenment with the anti-reason influences of the pre-modern right and the post-modern left. If our culture becomes more predominantly pro-reason, by getting Ayn Rand’s ideas more widespread and accepted, children will grow up with greater incentive to exert the effort required for rationality and will become more rational adults. And the political consequence of a society with more rational adults will be a freer society.

    The important point is that we already have ample evidence from history that great progress towards mass rationality is possible, without requiring changes on an evolutionary scale. There’s no reason to give up hope that the culture can improve to bring further such progress.

  2. twwells Says:

    Until the last century or so, we had a culture that elevated and sometimes glorified individual effort and achievement. Today, however, most people are more concerned with getting than with making. They shirk responsibility while demanding that others make their lives 100% safe. This is the pandemic irrationality I had in mind.

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