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The Myth of Rationality

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Social science seeks to tell stories and construct theories about human history and human behavior. The stories and theories we display are built on foundations of widely shared themes and constructs. These deeply held foundations can be called “myths.” By calling the idea of rationality a myth, I do not mean to imply that it is either necessarily false or necessarily unfortunate. It is simply a recurring, legitimate theme for the theories and stories that we construct. Because they provide a structure for interpreting experience and taking action, myths allow human life to be portrayed as taking place within a comprehensible story, rather than an incomprehensible reality.

The stories found in business cases and newspapers, business and national plans, histories of human institutions, and the theories of organizations, economics, and social science reflect a shared consciousness of a few central myths. Among these myths, none is more important in modern Western life than the myth of rationality. By the myth of rationality I mean the idea that the human spirit finds definitive expression through taking and justifying action in terms of expectations of its future consequences for prior values. Rationality embodies and elaborates a critical part of human traditions as reflected in our recorded histories and philosophies throughout the world. It is the basis for most contemporary prescriptions for human behavior, and for most contemporary descriptions of that behavior. It is a fundamental element of modern faith.

The word “rational” has a number of interrelated meanings when applied to human action. Some of these meanings define rationality in terms of the outcomes of action. A “rational” action, from this perspective, is an action that leads to outcomes that turn out to be desired. Within this kind of meaning, rationality is intelligent by definition. It is not a basis for action but its outcome. The meanings with which I will be concerned are somewhat different. They focus on the process by which action is taken. They define rationality as a class of procedures for taking action. These meanings make the intelligence of rational action not a definitional necessity but a theoretical or empirical question. And one of the issues is whether procedural rationality is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for intelligent action.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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  • Interdisciplinary Yearbook of Business Ethics
    This volume comprises the work of twenty scholars and practitioners from Europe, America, Asia and Africa. Contributors represent a diversity of fields including organizational science, economics, systems theory, personality psychology, business ethics, finance, management, philosophy, political science, sociology, and ecology. All the papers stand for a more human and ethical approach to economics and business.
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