rationality and human behavior: a hodgepodge

It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand what makes people tick. By all comprehensible models of reasonable human behavior, people should seek out what is good for them and makes them happy. But they rarely do, in fact, they often seem to put all their efforts into seeking out and perpetuating situations that are bad for them and make them unhappy.
Cases in point: people in unhappy relationships, people who hate their jobs, people who hate where they live–what percentage of people do we know who don’t fit into one of the above categories, and how many people genuinely lack the power to get themselves out of these situations. Very few. Of course, some people really can’t afford to move or quit their jobs, but the vast majority of us could find a way if we put as much effort into finding a way instead of finding reasons not to.
It seems that if we all behaved “rationally,” we would all fit into one of two categories: those who modified our behavior to achieve maximum health and wealth, in which case we’d all be marathon-running corporate lawyers; or to achieve maximum pleasure, in which case we’d all be drug-abusing hedonists who die at the age of 25. Unless we were a rare poetic soul oblivious to surroundings as long as our minds are immersed in Art, but that describes very few of us. The majority of us fall somewhere between the two extremes, but why do we?

The very reason that wildly different types of behavior and sets of goals can be considered “rational” for human purposes should itself give us pause. Which is going to ultimately make us happier: setting out to achieve maximum health & wealth, or setting out to achieve maximum pleasure? You certainly can’t do both, so which is going to yield more happiness? Impossible to tell, so it’s already impossible to decide which to do.
One problem with both of these formulations is that they assume a very individualistic view of human nature. The goals are individual, not community ones; and the behavior required to achieve them would seem to be expected to take place in a kind of a vacuum. But humans aren’t made to be individuals, we are made to live in communities.
As a little political side note, I think that conservatives forget this when they insist too much on the individual ability to survive and succeed without the help and support of a community. On the other hand, liberals forget this when they deny that communities must hold beliefs, standards, values, and practices in common, or the communities will fail. Some of these standards will make sense, others won’t. Check out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for an example of what I mean. This is not to say that community standards shouldn’t change: they can, do, and must, but there is a price to pay, and while it might be worth the price, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that someone will have to pay it.
Look at the Mosaic law of the Old Testament: it seems wildly irrational, not to say completely bonkers, to us today. While some of the laws have effects that seem rational to us, others simply do not have any practical purpose whatsoever. However, every single law has the purpose of defining the Israelites as a community, both to themselves and to outsiders. If you compare this law to other contemporary law codes, there are elements which promote the rights of individuals, especially of women, slaves, and the poor generally; but the law code does not leap outside of its cultural context and insists that the society’s members must adhere to the law, no matter how irrational it may seem, in order to continue as a society.
Already we’ve introduced several irrational elements which chip away at the individual’s exercising of his or her rational behavior toward ideal ends. The individual requires the support of a community, but must give up some of his or her autonomy and material goods in order to keep that community going.
Is the individual, then, at the mercy of the community? No, the community exists for the individual and not the other way around. If the community does not promote the happiness of the individuals that make it up, then there is no reason for its existence, and no reason why the individuals involved should continue to contribute to it. However, the happiness of any individual member of the community, in terms of either health/wealth or pleasure, may be less than it would be without the rules, for the good of the community as a whole.
However, this is not what I was trying to get at when I started this. What I was trying to get at, is why someone who loathes the climate of North Dakota, and who works at a mind-numbingly dull dead-end job in an office where gossip and backstabbing run rampant, doesn’t just up and move? Plenty of people might have reasons: poor health, finances, etc. But many more people have excuses: they can’t afford it (they can, they just prefer to spend money on other things), they’re afraid they won’ get another jobs (there are plenty of dead-end jobs available in nicer climates), and so forth.
Then there are people who drag along in so-so relationships, and even get married to the barely tolerable relatee. People who watch TV or eat ice cream instead of exercise (like me!). And more seriously, those who stay in abusive relationships, who engage in self-destructive behaviors, and so forth. If such cases were rare, we could chalk it up to individual quirks or problems; but they are far from widespread, few people we know have not been in one of the above situations at some time. Perhaps the question is: when the community has failed to promote the happiness of its members and there is no longer a reason for its members to contribute to and perpetuate it, why do the members usually insist contributing to and perpetuating it anyway?
In part, I think this is another symptom of our nature as community individuals: instead of doing what is best, we do what is familiar, we do what we see people around us doing, we do what is done. When I was a teenager, I got pretty sick of hearing about “peer pressure” all the time. Some people, I suppose, did things just because their “peers” told them to; but in actuality the “reasons” for doing things were much more subtle and multifaceted then that, and it applies to everyone, not just teenagers. To take teenagers for an example, though, a heck of a lot of teenagers choose to smoke or take drugs or whatever not so much because the kids around them do, but because their parents and other adults they see around them do.
People consciously or unconsciously take a path that they see being taken, or that has been taken. They take it not because it’s a good path, but because it’s a path, maybe they can see they’re not going anywhere good, but at least they can see where they’re going. They can reconcile this path, this set of behaviors, with the world they see and experience around them. Maybe if you tell a kid who has grown up poor and with no parents to speak of that he or she can stay away from drugs, can go to college, can get a good job and nice house and so forth; they know that this is true, and can’t tell you any reason why they can’t, but they can’t see it, they have no precedent, no gestalt, or what have you. And that’s the same for all of us: maybe we don’t like where we live, but every day we see tons of people living here and going through all the same motions as us. It’s safer to stay where we are because it’s a coherent lifeworld, we exist only in relationship to that which we see around us; a change would be a leap not so much into the unknown but into chaos and nonexistence.

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