We live in a post-rational world, where everyone tries to be as moral as possible and it is fashionable to boast about emotional-intelligence credentials: the ability to feel what other people are feeling. This is supported by studies in behavioural economics, which show that people are highly irrational, displacing the dry old studies of 'economic man' that sought to explain how individuals make rational choices designed to maximise their utilities.
In a surprising turn of events, there is nowadays an element of social pride to be derived from declaring that we are highly irrational and slaves to our passions. Appeals are made to morality instead of rationality. If morality is all about subjective opinions, it's quite an easy goal to aim for in justifying decisions based on feelings. "I was only trying to do the right thing" or "I acted from the purest of motives".
For those who still want to think of themselves as rational beings, they must at least convince everyone that being rational is not inconsistent with being moral, or, even better, that rationality and morality are pretty much the same thing when you think about it. That way, they can continue making rational choices without being denounced as evil creatures - because their morality is presumably bound up with their rationality so it's fine. That way anyone can be both rational and moral at the same time, which unites the two ideas as a seamless part of a single decision-making process?
The fear that rational action may part ways with morality arises from confusion about the meaning of 'morality'. Most people simply mean 'doing the right thing' or 'being a nice person' in a general sense - being kind, compassionate and loving. The conflict between rationality and morality is therefore another way of expressing the conflict between doing what makes sense and behaving in a way that others will consider 'moral' - kind and unselfish. Morality, in other words, is understood as a measure of social approval.
Where an individual's rationality leads to decisions that other people regard as selfish, maximising his private utility, contributing nothing to what others would regard as the 'social good', then it is thought to be 'immoral'. Since rationality is a process of linking your means to your desired ends, and choosing the means that will be most likely to achieve your desired ends, then it is easy to see how rationality and morality (understood as public approval) can part company. Choosing to work hard and save money to achieve financial freedom would be rational in the classic sense (the means chosen will certainly lead to the desired end) but it will result in a situation where some people have more money than others: economic inequality. This in turn raises moral concerns, i.e. concerns that other people will regard the situation as unsatisfactory.
So the question is how to be both rational and moral (or at least not immoral or, worse still, amoral) in the perception of other people. A rational course of action is often correlated with the maximisation of wealth, while the course of action that would be regarded as moral (sharing all your stuff with those who are less fortunate and equalising everything) is correlated with everyone becoming poorer. So it is certainly a troubling question for those who consider prosperity to be superior to penury. We want to create wealth, but most people also want to feel that creating wealth is a good and moral thing to do, meaning that others will consider them to be good people, even when it leads to unequal outcomes because of all the people around that are still very poor.
Of course, you could try to redefine the meaning of morality so that it accords with your own evaluation of your conduct, not just a measure of how others perceive your conduct or how you perceive the conduct of others. That would allow you to pursue your private sense of morality by giving away all your own wealth if you wish. But problems arise when, having decided that sharing everything out is the moral thing to do, you set about passing a bunch of laws that force everyone else to do what you have decided is the right thing to do, on grounds that law should reflect morality. The rule of morality is that if you're feeling guilty about being too wealthy you should sell everything you have and give the money to the poor...but once that is identified as the moral course of conduct it seems to follow that that you should lobby for laws forcing everyone to do so.
Nobody wants to build a free market society that lacks any concept of public morality. One way to achieve this is to recognise the moral content of rational decisions, by showing that in some circumstances, a decision cannot be rational unless it is also moral. For example, while it is usually rational to pursue your own self-interest and maximise your own utility, there may be situations where pursuing your own interests will result in harm to someone else, so out of your 'moral' desire not to cause harm, you impose constraints on your behaviour. Other market actors do the same thing, and we all desist from pursuing our interests in ways that will harm the other person:
This means that the rational pursuit of wealth maximization incorporates common-sense perspectives otherwise known as 'commercial morality' - in maximizing my wealth it is not rational to stab my neighbour in the back and cheat him at every possible opportunity, because a market in which everyone behaves in this way would really suck. It is better to keep your promises and pay your dues even when you have an opportunity to exploit your partners, because it is surely better for your own purposes if your partners know that they can trust you. Behaving in an untrustworthy manner is therefore irrational. In this way, almost by accident, people behave like moral agents when they make rational choices. You set out to maximize your own wealth and discover along the way that actually, you're a pretty decent person.
Thus Adam Smith's prudent baker, who sells bread in order to earn a living, would be recast as a moral baker, who sells bread in order to earn a living and also out of the goodness of his heart to provide people with bread to eat. When questioned about his motives, he will offer both the prudent and the moral. Offering reasons rooted in morality, when asked about your motives, is very important for purposes of virtue signalling. Moreover, any baker today with the temerity to announce that he only sold bread to earn a living would soon find himself ostracised and without any customers: so pleading that you are making money, sure, but also driven by moral considerations, is a supremely rational thing to do. Whether you actually have any moral concerns is beside the point. The important thing is to sound as if you are driven by moral concerns: say all the right things, etc. So in fact the Smithian baker is probably better off keeping his prudence to himself, and offering only the moral justification for his conduct: "I did this so no one would ever go hungry again."
A good example of this may be seen the in the following conversation, where the fictional Mr Taggart, an upstanding and moral entrepreneur, tries to re-educate his selfish sister, Ms Taggart, who appears unfortunately to be suffering from a grave moral delinquency:
Such conversations can now have their edges softened, thus making them more comfortable, by firmly denying the charge of being a selfish capitalist. Rationality is thus defended as a way of understanding the best way to make choices and decisions including moral principles regulating social conduct. Rationality is merely a good starting point, and it does not preclude a role for 'agreed mutual restraint' based on the precepts of morality.
But there are two residual problems, which show the dangers of unnecessarily conflating morality and rationality.
First, subsuming morality within a theory of rational choice is a really good excuse for those who seek power, and see their path to power lying in forcing everyone to follow their own moral code. This is easy to achieve in a democracy, where irrational people will vote for anything if it's packaged in the language of morality. 'It's for human dignity and equality, with social justice thrown in as extra!' cry the politicians. 'Oh, alright, that makes it ok to steal and kill and plunder', shrug the voters.
Second, it overlooks the simple point that being rational does not require every single decision of your life to be a rational one, e.g. it's perfectly fine to irrationally support a home sports team that never wins any matches, for no other reason than sentiment and misguided loyalty. It's ok to do some things just because they're fun. Prioritising the importance of making rational choices is the best way to approach life on the whole, but this does not require that you must never ever do anything for reasons other than rational, such as your private emotional or moral obligations.
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