By Divya Murugesan

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

The highly explanatory and impressive models of micro-economics will fall flat on their faces if not for the assumption of rationality of the consumers/producers. For those who of us, who made the wise decision of not pursuing Economics, the idea of rationality is as follows:

It is an economic principle which assumes that individuals always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the greatest benefit or utility, and are in their self-interest.

Makes great sense, doesn’t it? Each person, living in pursuit of their own happiness which they may find in a six-figures salary job or an adventurous trip or, for someone like me, in a box of pizza! But eventually, the Micro-Economics book is shut after examinations and reality creeps in. Welcome to the real world where (wink, wink)* isn’t the dominant strategy to the Prisoner’s Dilemma game for many people.

Here, I’d like to introduce the concept of moral rationality. Moral rationalism, also called ethical rationalism, is a view according to which moral truths are knowable a priori, by reason alone. But moral sense theorists such as David Hume are quite opposed to the idea of moral rationalism, and go on to argue that reason and emotions are quite distinct faculties and that the foundations of morality lie in sentiment, not reason. Another argument put forth by opponents of moral rationalism is that if ethics are actually based on practical reasoning, this shows that it can be objective and universal and hence, shouldn’t be questionable. But do we see such a scenario in the real world? Are we actually guided by reason in all the actions that we carry out? What makes us act in the socially accepted ‘right’ way even if we don’t want to, or in economic terms, even if it gives us disutility?

To those who feel that this tussle between morality and reason is never-ending; let me propose an alternative view. It may be so that in being moral and succumbing to the societal notions of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, we actually are being rational. What prevents us from say, stealing from someone or cheating someone if it gives us a certain payoff?

People may indulge in doing the ‘right’ things and may be deterred from doing the opposite for the many reasons; mainly, the fear of a repercussion or some form of punishment which will provide them with disutility. Secondly, many people indulge in ‘altruism’ i.e. the practice of concern for the welfare of others or selflessness, fearing Karma. The fear of a higher power and the desire to secure a place in ‘heaven’ may encourage people to do morally right things, for we are socially conditioned to equate being moral to being God’s favourite person. Isn’t this fear of punishment or greed for reward, a selfish pursuit?

Speaking of altruism, Peter Watts in his novel, Blindsight, writes, “The most altruistic andsustainable philosophies fail before the brute brain stem imperative of self-interest.”  There is again an alternative view to his standpoint. Many psychologists and sociologists who study altruism are divided on whether true altruism actually exists. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as benefits, but neurobiologists have found that when engaged in an altruistic act, the pleasure centres of the brain become active.

This aside, some other very compelling arguments against altruism are put forth, which may further force my alternative view that morality is actually the pursuit of rationality.

One plausible reason could be the expectation of reciprocity of one’s helping acts from others. Though this tit-for-tat explanation is rather narrow, it is said to have come from our ancestors who lived in the era of barter systems and closely knit communities, where helping someone would translate into better bonding, trust and the possibility of others helping us in our times of distress. A closely related argument is that of ‘kin selection’ where we feel obligated to help those who are related to us because it increases the odds that our blood relations will survive and transmit their genes to future generations. This argument can be used to explain cases of leaving bequests to our children rather than consuming the income ourselves, or lending money to a relative.

There is also a theory of signalling. By doing the morally right things, people signal to others around them that they’re ‘good’ people which may lead them to benefit indirectly, for help comes with a higher probability to those who’ve indebted others with their goodness. Some acts of charity may also be intended for the purpose of signalling to others the quantum of resources that one owns. By being the helper, one has an upper-hand in society; prestige, dignity and social acceptance follow.

Social acceptance is a big incentive for one to follow social norms. It plays a huge role in our daily lives. Coming out of the closet for homosexuals comes along with judgements of people (and also a trip to the jail if you’re in India), which makes it extremely difficult. We follow or do a lot of things without questioning or rebelling, for they are supposed to be the ‘natural order of things’. Why is it comfortably assumed that we will get married one day? Or that we’ll treat our friends and families on a special occasion? Because these are social norms, which upon breaking, rouse the ire of the people around us. And we put up with all this, because we’re scared to be lonely. We crave acceptance. In such a scenario, being moral for social acceptance seems pretty rational.

Morals, ethics and norms are codes of conduct that allow for the smooth functioning of society. Imagine an intersection of roads without traffic lights or the  police, where everyone is in a hurry to rush home after a long day’s work. The pursuit of each person’s self-interest will come in conflict with that of others, resulting in chaos! The rational thing to do here would be to put in place a set of rules, i.e. to get traffic lights fixed. Only by cooperating and following certain rules can one achieve his/her goal. This cooperation is what Thomas Hobbes (and many other political thinkers) called the Social Contract.

Hobbes considered men ‘self-interested’ and more or less equal to one another. With this and limited resources, he claimed, there prevailed a state of chaos, or ‘State of Nature’ wherein every person is always in fear of losing his life to another. In such a situation, what helps is the ‘I cooperate till you cooperate’ strategy, thereby making people willing pursue peace while others do too. This also explains much of Gandhi’s ‘Ahimsa’ or non-violence principle. Moreover, this state of chaos calls for an enforcement mechanism which enforces the contract between men, enabling them to pursue their interests without any hindrances.  I think Bryant McGill agrees with Hobbes’s Social Contract theory when he says that “All of our relationships are based on self-interest, discrimination and a perverse need for gain.”

Some even go on to say that morals taught to us since childhood, like ‘honesty being the best policy’ or stealing being morally wrong, is actually propaganda by the class which controls the capital in a society to prevent common men from encroaching upon their property.  Given these arguments and the countless moral dilemmas we’ve all been through, I’ll leave it to you to figure out if your emotions are exclusive and distinct from reason or if they reinforce each other!

*The Prisoners Dilemma is a game wherein two rational persons, A and B are suspected to have committed a crime; but there isn’t enough evidence to prove them guilty, so they are questioned separately. If both A and B remain silent, they go to prison for just 1 year. If one of them winks i.e., blames the other, then he gets a prison term of 1 year while the other person goes to prison for, say, 4 years. If both of them wink, they both go to prison for 3 years. Contingent on what the other person does, the best strategy in this simplified game of Prisoners Dilemma would be (wink, wink) i.e., both of them winking.

Divya is currently pursuing B.A. (Hons) Economics at St Stephens College. She is a zealous writer who likes to share her political and social opinions. She holds prior experience as an editor at Sanskriti School, Chanakyapuri, writes regularly at The Stephanian Forum and has also contributed as an editor to Eureka Wow. A music lover and an enthusiastic reader among many other things, she also likes to spend her time, sketching and painting. She believes in taking each day as it comes and living life to the fullest!

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind