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Some notes about different fields' views of rationality. Not yet developed enough to put into rationality.

I don't know much about philosophers' takes on rationality. I do, however, notice that in many discussions the argument about whether an action, decision, or structure is "rational" is not a terribly abstract, philosophical question, but actually one that reduces to something much more mundane, such as "is the firm acting to maximize profits?" I think the rationality article should eventually discuss how non-philosophers use the term in various fields, including examples.

In the social sciences, rationality is a complex cluster of traits that, some claim, either apply to human beings, or serve as useful approximations with which to model human behavior. A rational being, in this sense, probably

  • has goals and seeks to fulfill them
  • is self-interested
  • is not significantly constrained/influenced by social networks
  • is amoral, except to the extend that morals increase "utility"
  • choses courses of action based on some kind of optomization procedure (see Rational Choice Theory)
  • is not risk-averse. acts on the basis of the "expected value"
  • deals like an economist with sunk costs.
  • is omniscient regarding the future, or at least has a clearly defined and somehow "reasonable" probabilistic model of the future
  • is predictible

Of course, particular uses of the word "rational" may be meant to convey only some of these attributes. Nonetheless, often several at a time are meant.

Some people regard models based around these traits to be somehow reasonable; beings described by this model are sometimes called Homo economicus.

Sometimes, social scientists use "rational" to describe not an individual but a group of people, or a whole society. In that case, they are probably invoking traits listed above. They might also mean:

  • utilitarian. no rawls-like consideration of the guy on the bottom.

Economic man pages:

Other economic pages:


"If you can across someone who professed to be entirely agnostic about whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not, you would regard them as very strange indeed, if not irrational." (Okasha, p. 24)

"Hume concludes that our confidence in induction is just blind faith - it admits of no rational justification whatever." (Okasha, p. 27)

"For normally we think of science as the very paradigm of rational enquiry." (Okasha, p. 27)

"Markets, as described by economic theory, are a spontaneous coordination mechanism that imparts rationality and consistency to the self-interested actions of individuals and firms." (Powell, p. 302)

"The prisoner's dilemma game fascinates scholars. The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge a fundamental faith that rational human beiings can achieve rational results." (Ostrom, p. 5)

Rationality of organizations:

  • "human relations school": emotions/social ties get in the way. (I think they're the "the people are irrational, but the org is rational" people. Maybe Bernard.)
  • "garbage can theory": all the organization's participants run around looking to use their favorite "solutions" to every kind of problem there is. the result is stupid chaos at the organization-wide level.

(organizations are not individuals. non-linear sum of behavior. see the Enron article)

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