I recently was debating with a History professor about whether or not humans were inherently rational. As a philosophy student who was well aware of Aristotle’s definition of man as “rational, political animals” I was firmly rooted in the position that people were naturally rational as it was part of what distinguished us from other species. The history professor was not convinced and talked about how people act in opposition of reason every day. Rationally they know they should eat healthy, take care of their bodies and minds but it seems almost human nature to rebel against these better instincts. His specific example was how politically divided people are because they are so uninformed. Rational creatures would surely be better at distinguishing what was good for themselves and their fellow man but rather they fall into partisan dribble, clinging to party lines as if their life depended on it. I’ll admit, it was hard to argue that people are acting rationally rather than emotionally, especially when it comes to politics. Data suggests people are more swayed by emotion than reason when it comes to politics.
My teacher, Plato, wrote one of the most famous books in philosophical history, The Republic.
In this book Socrates and his friends attempt to uncover the nature of justice. At first, some of his friends think they already know what justice amounts to, but very quickly a dispute arises and they realize the issue is far more complicated than at first appeared. This attempt at trying to find the true meaning of important concepts like justice is what philosophers call “conceptual analysis.” While it might seem boring to spend so much time trying to find the definition of words, philosophers see it differently: many important disagreements depend on how we define words. For instance, people disagree about whether imposing high taxes on the rich is “fair.” This might be because they disagree about what fairness amounts to in the first place.
The disagreement with your history professor seems to revolve around not so much whether people are rational, but the meaning of the claim “humans are rational.” Whether that quoted claim is true depends on how we define “rational.” I myself would not disagree with your professor that humans often spend time arguing over things it is better not to argue about. Nor would I disagree that people often act against their own interests, and the interests of the community. I explain this in two ways:
A. When I claim that “man is a rational animal” I am claiming that humans are importantly different from other animals because we have *the capacity for reason. * The capacity to engaging in reasoning means we also have the capacity to know right from wrong and to be morally blamed for violating ethical codes. There was a story in a major newspaper recently about a man attacked by a tiger at a zoo. The man unfortunately died, and it was a painful death. No one, however, is suggesting that we should put the tiger on trial and lock him up for life. Instead, there is discussion about whether some of the zookeepers’ and the zoo CEO could have acted differently, and whether or not they should be held ethically responsible. This is because only humans are rational creatures in so far as (most of us) are capable of acting rationally. That means we have the capacity to understand reasons and to respond accordingly. Of course, we do not always do this, but we have the capacity.
Consider it this way, it is not controversial that to suggest that humans are emotional creatures. I myself agree with that and think that part of being human and living a good life is having the right kind of emotions at the right time. I do not think humans should rid themselves of emotion. However, at times humans act cold and emotionless. There are humans in unfortunate situaitons around the world who are literally starving to death. Just small donations could make a meaningful difference in their lives, maybe even save their lives. Yet so many people who could donate money instead spend that money on Starbucks. Many people might look at this and say humans cannot be emotional creatures. We must be cold and heartless. The truth, of course, is that it is complicated. Humans have the capacity for both reason and emotion, but at times, for various reasons, we simply do not exercise those capacities.
B. Sometimes humans rationally recognize that they should behave in a certain way. They might believe that behaving in that way is not only the best thing to do ethically, but it is also the best thing to do personally. In other words, in this instance, the right thing to do matches what is in an individual’s own self-interest. Despite the luck of these things matching up, and despite the given human in question recognizing that doing the action is right and in their interest, and even in spite of wanting to do that action, the person DOES NOT to do the action in question. How could this possibly be? If something is the rational thing, the right thing, and the thing that someone knows is best for them, why would they not do it? This is an especially tough question given that humans are rational creatures.
The answer to the above is rooted in the Greek word akrasia, which can be translated in English as “intemperance,” or “weakness of will.” Sometimes humans just cannot force themselves to do what they really want to do because doing the action is difficult, painful, or unpleasant. Suppose that the best thing to do is for an individual to quit smoking. The person knows it is ethical to quit because quitting means lowering the odds of putting others at risk via second hand smoke. They know it is good to quit because they want to be a good example to their children. And they know they should quit for their own health: they really want to live a long life and to have the chance to watch their grandchildren grow-up. However, this person simply cannot make themselves quit. The problem is not a lack of rationality. The problem is akrasia. The thing is, although humans are rational animals, we are also physical and emotional animals. We have needs and desires that physical and emotional, and these often push against our rational needs and desires.
At the end of the day, humans are complicated. We are rational, physical, and emotional. These sides of ourselves do not always line-up, and when they don’t everyone can’t be a winner. Some parts of ourselves lose out to other parts.