Thoughts about rationality, interests, and sustainability

By Tibor Hartel

No doubts: we live in rapidly changing times and the flood of these many changes affects us. A common reaction to them is decision making. We, both as individuals and groups assess our environment and then make decisions

In our decisions, we want to be rational. Using this ‘exercise of reason’ we argument each step and component of our decision, using various ethical, moral and other more pragmatic arguments (the literature of ‘rationality’ is huge and the term has been well ‘dissected’). Many of us think that we are the only rational beings, and are very proud of this.

I recently re-read the Nobel Prize Lecture of (the controversial) Robert Aumann entitled: ‘War and peace’. I warmly recommend it, and if interested here it is:

Aumann defined rationality like this:

A person’s behavior is rational if it is in his best interests, given his information.

And he continues by giving a very extreme example, namely war, which, under the above definition, he calls rational.

“With this definition, can war be rational? Unfortunately, the answer is yes; it can be…It is a big mistake to say that war is irrational. We take all the ills of the world – wars, strikes, racial discrimination – and dismiss them by calling them irrational. They are not necessarily irrational. Though it hurts, they may be rational. If war is rational, once we understand that it is, we can at least somehow address the problem. If we simply dismiss it as irrational, we can’t address the problem.”

If the above definition is correct, then what are the implications for sustainable development?

I see two important components of this definition: the ‘best interest’ and ‘given his information’. Both can function as ‘parameters’ which are always changing.

What is in my best interests? What is in yours? Are your actual interests similar with those e.g. 5 years ago? (i.e. are your interests changing?) How important is the social environment influencing my (your) best interests? How ethical is if I influence your interests? Should I do it and can I do it? Is there any ultimate interest (and if there isn’t, how acceptable is it from ethical point of view to develop one? As I asked in a previous post quoting Robert Chambers: whose realities (and interests) count? If it is in your best interests is to have a fancy car, lots of money and a lifestyle which leads to a high ‘ecological footprint’, while my best interest is to do research, discover the world and have a modest life, how ethical is to question each-others interests? Should we ‘force’ sustainability as normative and then judge and value each others interests? The series of questions can continue.

I take ‘interest’ here to mean ‘The motivation of an individual or social action stimulated by the satisfaction of needs’. With this definition many of the above questions may become suddenly nonsense, unfair or naïve. Just to keep the atmosphere joky: ‘need’ can range e.g. from the desperate need to keep a parthner, through the desperate need to eat till the desperate need to keep my expensive, powerful and fancy car and all of my three big houses! All these needs have their own rights, may be perceived as the biggest problems to be solved by the respective individuals at that moment and life period and will determine a series of decisions and actions which meant to be, rational, in the sense written above.

Now briefly about the second component of the definition: ‘…given his information’.

I would like to introduce this with a quote of a Transylvanian Hungarian writer Wass Albert. In his childhood he was punished by his father because he broken some pheasant eggs – and in war time these were precious food resources. He apologized saying that he thought that the eggs were crow eggs. But his attempts have failed in this respect and the punishment was unavoidable. He later concluded: ‘The same egg can be crow egg for me and pheasant egg for somebody else. And if I know that the very same egg can indeed be both simultaneously, I am cleverer that those who don’t know this, and if I am cleverer, then I should tolerate and be silent’.

I think that if one wants to solve crisis situations (no matter if it is a family crisis, a resource crisis or a war crisis) it is important to keep the ‘information’ parameter in mind and treat it mindfully. Although I have no right to change your needs, I can attempt, however, to give you extra information about the world. You may or not consider it. Up to you. Sharing information and the desire to learn and clarifying has saved many people and solved many crises. We all know how important is to ‘talk’ to each other, share our concerns and views. Apply it to individual people or nations, it should work given that some principles are considered. And it may be an important step toward making a better our life and world (no matter what that means).

This note was read by Laura Sutcliffe before publication – thanks for corrections and comments!


2 thoughts on “Thoughts about rationality, interests, and sustainability

  1. Pingback: Knowledge types and conservation biology in complex rural landscapes | Ideas for Sustainability

  2. Pingback: Knowledge types and conservation biology in complex rural landscapes | Ideas for Sustainability

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