The End of Reason?

To start, this week’s episode of the Weeds highlights new research on the link between lead and crime. One of the great sociological mysteries in the United States has been the crime wave that began in the 60s and lasted until the 90s, when violent crime levels collapsed. The most tantalizing theory revolved around the use lead additives in gasoline; when accounting for the time lag in human development, the use and subsequent banning of such additives suspiciously matched crime levels. There’s a more complete summary at Brookings.

While that is fascinating in its own right, I’m using it as a jumping off point to what I really want to talk about, which is the end of reason (?). It’s been rolling around in my head for awhile that most of our (Western) social and political theory has its basis in the Enlightenment, which had several phases and branches, but were all linked by a focus on the primacy of reason. The ideas of science, progress, liberty, all were developed during the Enlightenment. Our modern world is founded on the glorification of the rational individual: it is the basis for democracy, human rights, the market economy, and scientific progress. The world is a better place because of it. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve wrung all the gains possible out of the assumptions around the rational individual. Has the Enlightenment run its course?

Here’s an analogy. Suppose you are trying to propel an airplane as fast as possible. To a first approximation, you can just use Newton’s law F=ma to figure out how big an engine you’ll need. You’ll get a lot of gains out of just that. But eventually, to make incremental gains in speed, you’ll have to start accounting for a lot of complicated things, like aerodynamics. You’ll have to redesign your airplane or risk having it be torn apart by the very air in which it moves.

Our political institutions were developed by Enlightenment thinkers; our Constitution was designed by them. Ideas about rights, responsibilities, and self-determination all come from the Enlightenment. And so the assumption of reason pervades them.

But we’ve increasingly learned all the ways in which the human mind is unreasonable. Shaped by evolution, our brain has many limitations that are becoming more and more apparent. The working assumption of rational individuals has worked pretty well for the last few hundred years, but as we are propelled ever faster by technological progress, I worry that we are reaching a point where our societal airplane needs to be redesigned before it undergoes catastrophic structural failure.

Some examples of what I’m getting at:

Advertising and Media

The whole point of advertising, and the media industry in general,  is to manipulate us into paying attention to and having positive emotional responses to products. It’s obviously not an exact science, but it’s becoming increasingly sophisticated. Tim Wu’s recent book, The Attention Merchants, is all about this. What does it mean to live in a world where individual is not in control of where her attention is focused? What if advertising becomes so good at activating our autonomous responses it’s close to 100% effective? Ideas of self-control and self-determination go out the window.


Ezra Klein recently interviewed Zephyr Teachout for his podcast, and during a discussion of corruption in politics she makes the point that our legal definition of corruption is very narrow, to the point of being almost useless. Money in politics doesn’t have to be an explicit quid pro quo to have an influence. Campaign contributions from particular interest need not consciously change a politician’s mind to have an effect; they can work through deeper, more emotional connections that favorably skew the politician’s views towards the donor.

Or in politics more broadly, the sheer bandwidth of information available and the fast pace of political life makes both voters and politicians worse off, on net. As with advertising, political campaigning continues to hone in on ways to activate our more base impulses without our being aware. Robert Colvile writes in his book The Great Acceleration, “In a flashy, charismatic age, we vote for politicians who promise freshness and novelty, who run against business as usual and the shabby compromises of power. The problem is that once these politicians get into power, they prove unable to meet those promises… Our disillusionment is all the more severe for having had our hopes raised in the first place – meaning that we will be less inclined to trust any politicians at all.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

The tribal pressures described in Democracy for Realists look only to get worse in the near future, as political actors continue to up the rhetorical ante to activate identities and mobilize support. Now to be sure, elections in the past have had worse rhetoric; just look at the election of 1800. But today we are constantly awash in this kind of information.


Consider the idea of implicit bias, where our brains have uncontrollable biases towards and against different groups of people. If true to a great enough magnitude, how would we deal with favoritism/discrimination? You can’t make biological responses illegal.

And to bring the discussion back to lead poisoning, our criminal justice system is based on an idea of personal accountability. As a response to the crime wave of the latter 20th century, America embarked on a program of mass incarceration. But if crime was occurring largely because of malformed brains from environmental poisoning, can we justify such a system? Indeed, if most crimes are a result of either mental illness, underdeveloped brains, or crimes of passion, does a system of incarceration even make sense? I recently read an argument, from an economic perspective, that we should just get rid of prison entirely; the net benefit to society is negative.

In sum, I’m worried that our political and societal institutions don’t have the intellectual foundation to deal with the fact that we are creatures of biology, and are often not in conscious control of our actions. The assumption that we are creatures of reason with free will has built a fantastic world, but it may be past time to pour some new foundations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s