Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What to do with this post-rational virtue of ours?

What does it take to be rational these days?

The disconcerting answer to this question is that it takes more than personal virtue. Much more. And that it takes more than personal rationality. Much more.

Let's consider the case of pollution. Pollution in and of itself is never rational - no one wants pollution to happen. Yet it happens anyway, and it happens for rational reasons.

Or, rather, as an aggregate of rational reasons.

You see, for any one particular agent, the polluting act is a rational thing to do. For instance, any one person not using a car in order to get around won't make that much of a dent in the overall pollution situation. That one person may, on the other hand, face a wide range of discomforts as a consequence of not using a car. To any one rational person, the tradeoff between not making a dent in the order of things on the one hand, and making clear and significant improvements in the here and now, is in fact not a tradeoff at all. As evidenced by the positively humongous number of people in cars.

The sum total of a large number of rational decisions is an irrational outcome.

It is somewhere around here that the proponents of free market ultra liberalism run into trouble. What do you do when the very thing you base your entire ideological enterprise on - the rational individual - isn't enough to produce the rational outcome we need?

Because - and I'm going to go radical on you all - we need to get a handle on pollution. And a whole range of other issues where the rational thing to do for one person isn't what we need to see in mass effect.

It isn't personal virtue - one person doing the right thing isn't enough. And it isn't personal rationality - that's what's gotten us into this mess, after all.

So. What to do? What's left of virtue and rationality now that the individual aren't the prime shakers and movers of this world we live in?

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