Social scientists have demonstrated, repeatedly, that we all suffer from biases that make it almost impossible for us to make truly rational decisions. On the other hand, as an interesting essay on NYTimes.com demonstrates, those biases do not mean that our actions are completely devoid of reason; we do have a conscious mind capable of exerting a force of will on our thoughts and behaviors, and that conscious mind does respond to reason (or at least reasonable sounding arguments). But this begs an important question: what is the relationship between reason and irrationality? Does the existence of the latter preclude the existence of the former?
There are, of course, extremists on both sides. On the one hand, some scientists who study the brain (cognitive or neuro-psychologists, in particular) have come all the way around to the idea that there is really no such thing as reason at all. According to this school of thought, our genetics combine with our environment and our own past to completely drive our behavior. Your conscious mind cannot really override those genetic and environmental forces, because your conscious mind is itself created by those genetic and environmental forces. The result is a post-modern predetermination: everything that any human has ever thought, felt, or done is driven by factors completely out of their control, since the beginning of time; any attempt to change that path is ultimately driven by the same forces pushing us down the path. It’s the Calvinism of the 21st century.
At the other extreme are hyper-rationalists; those who believe that human behavior is almost always driven by rational calculation, even if that calculation is made on a sub-conscious level. Hyper-rationalists dominated economics for decades (and philosophy for centuries before that). Most (but not all) economists now would argue that while not all human behavior is the result of rational processes, rational thought is still the dominant way that we make our most important decisions. The article I linked above is a philosopher’s version of that kind of reasoning.
Personally, I find fault with both extremes.
Those who would deny reason make an interesting argument–but my rejection of that line of thinking is mostly on practical grounds. Predestination may be correct, but as a foundational principal it leads to some pretty unappetizing moral choices–after all, no one is ever truly responsible for their actions, and therefore any punishment of those actions is unjust. I think society is better off if we all believe that our actions matter, whether or not we are just fooling ourselves.
The other extreme just doesn’t jive with what we know about how the human brain actually works. I have no problem with social science models of behavior that assume rationality in order to allow us to simplify some sets of problems. After all, models are like maps: just because they aren’t drawn perfectly to scale doesn’t mean that they can’t help us understand our surroundings. But there are just too many instances of irrationality driving our behavior for us to truly deny the power of irrationality, even in the most important life-or-death circumstances, and even when we’re given plenty of time to think about it.
Instead, I think the truth lies somewhere in between, in that nebulous area where “reason” and “irrationality” intersect. After all, just because we are influenced by our environment, our pasts, and our genetics doesn’t mean that our actions are completely controlled by them. We do still have conscious minds, capable of logical thoughts, and we still have a force of will, capable of overriding our concerns. Which is not to say that we should bury our heads in the sand and pretend that our biases don’t exist.
Instead, I think we need to appreciate that reason is a complicated thing. Rationality is simple: we have a set of preferences, and we either make the right (rational) choice or not. But reason is a much fuzzier concept. Our ability to reason exists within the context of our biases, which affect the conclusions we come to, how we process information, and even what kinds of information we seek out. Those biases form the landscape upon which our reason may roam. Sometimes those biases form obstacles to our reason, but our reason is capable of overcoming those obstacles if we can recognize them for what they are.
So at the end of the day, I do believe that we are all responsible for our actions–but it it also important that we understand the factors influencing those action. The existence of bias doesn’t negate our understanding of reason; it ought to enhance it.