A plead for rationality

Illustration: Hannes Pfeifer


Walking through Munich downtown: A passing group of teenage girls is giggling, a mother and her son are quarreling where to go (shopping or home, the stereotype gender conflict) and an elderly couple is enjoying a proper latte art cappuccino to the normal exorbitant Munich downtown prices. Crisis, this seems long ago. Only a mask here and there reminds you of COVID-19.

Normality has silently crept into the house through the back door. We are relaxing on the green grass in the English garden, watching a group of volleyball players giving high fives: Later they will, despite never having kept the acquired minimal distance during the heat of the game, disinfect the ball, feeling proud of fighting Corona. This kind of inconsistency is not a single phenomenon, I myself have experienced it various times in the last weeks: Greeting one friend only with an elbow-bump while hugging another, keeping distance from my grandparents but later serving them food nonetheless, wearing a mask while riding the bike but forgetting to put it on in the groceries store. For the biggest part, we do not mean to violate Anti-Corona-Measures by purpose, but we accept the violation for some reason or another: After all, we haven‘t seen this friend in a long time, our grandmother is old and needs help and come on, one time not wearing a mask in the groceries store won‘t kill anyone. Besides, it might.

This is the basic dilemma we are in: It is rationally evident that measures against Corona only work, if everybody sticks to them, even though in the predominant majority of cases it would not be necessary, as most people are not infected. The problem is, that it is impossible to know if one is infected or not, as COVID-19 is not always symptomatic. If we are infected and do not notice, while not sticking to the precautions, consequences could be fatal. Given these considerations, it seems little to ask for social distancing. And in the first excitement of the crisis, it really did work. People were keeping distance. Why, however, did we loosen up so much now? What has changed?

Answers to these questions cannot be monocausal. They can also not merely be found in philosophy. They reach deep into the nature of human beings and therefore have to involve psychology and sociology.

 One first attempt of an approximation to the topic is to consider the relation between rationality and irrationality. Which one leads our actions? Throughout the history of philosophy, humans have been considered rational in the first place, because this distinguishes us from animals. However, the ability of rationality does not imply that being rational is the primacy over other human traits. Even though it might be the one trait that characterizes us, because it justifies a special status of humankind, it does not mean that we are more rational than irrational. Already Platon and Aristotle divided the soul in an irrational and a rational part. Platon supposes the supremacy of rationality over the other parts because only through reason we are able to gain insights that will lead to good action and a good life. This concept, even though challenged in his dialogue Menon, shows also in his state conception: Philosophers as the only men to be able to use their intellect ought to govern the community. Only this way we will achieve the best possible outputs. However, the idea of rationality over irrationality is not reserved for Platon only. Also, the ancient stoics acknowledged that emotions are an important part of human beings but they called for actions, that are only lead by reason and not by affects.[1] Kant has used the same concept, considerably modified: Actions should be guided by the categoric imperative, which is merely rational. He goes even further: Desires and emotions cannot be motivation for a good action. The right action can be only determined by rational considerations, which is namely the categorical imperative.[2]

Even though simplified and brief, it becomes obvious that all of these positions do not simply posit that humans are mostly rational. No, they acknowledge the strong influence that emotions can have on us and as a result of this, they develop the claim that we should be fighting this influence, as rationality is our only way to act ethically right. Or, as german classicists would put it: Pflicht über Neigung.

Aristotle, on the other hand, went one step further: Instead of fighting our irrational parts, we should guide them in a direction that they strive towards the good. This good, can be only identified rationally. So, ideally, rationality and irrationality are consistent with one another. How can we reach this? According to him only through the right education that starts already in childhood and forms our character according to the ethical ideal. German classicists would call this: Übereinstimmung von Pflicht und Neigung.

„Very well“, you might think now and consider this an interesting (or after all not that interesting) excursus. But what, for Good‘s sake, does it have to do with our initial question? Regarding our everyday actions from a psychological point of view, it becomes obvious that most of the time we are not acting as rationally as we think we are. A big part of our daily activities is carried out in the auto-pilot mode: We act unconsciously according to automatized processes. This means, when we judge others or decide how to act, we draw from unconscious resources. Our mind tries to be as efficient as possible and invents schemes and structures that help us to make as many predictions as possible with as little information as possible. Controlled processes on the other hand are using up energy and therefore resources.[3] That is why we mostly just go along with our habits, which are automized and do not need further consideration.[4]

These processes cannot be considered rational, as they are unconscious. They draw from unreflected prior experiences, instincts, emotions, and desires. Of course, this does not mean that we can never enforce cognitive control. But this happens only if we consider the task important enough to consume our energy. The higher the motivation to decide right, the higher the possibility of controlled cognitive processes.[5] This might explain why most people were sticking to the anti-Corona-measures in the first place: Emotions were high, because of the media everyone was alarmed and this gave the whole matter an air of importance. We considered it worth to double-check our daily activities according to their Corona-consistency because it seemed dangerous not to do so. But after a while, after the first violations did not prove fatal, this motivation faded. Our unconsciousness has learned that in most cases it is no problem to not stick to the rules. Our consciousness, on the other hand, is still aware of what we ought to do. The problem is only that we don‘t let it govern our actions most of the time.

So maybe this is the time for a passionate plead for rationality. Let‘s invest the energy and reflect on our actions. This might be, as philosophy says, our best bet to find the right way to act.


[1] Nida-Rümelin, J: Praktische Philosophie 1: Ethik. Lecture at the LMU, Munich: 19.05.2020.

[2] „Kant’s Moral Philosophy“ in: Standford Encyclopedia for Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/#CatHypImp, last revision 07.07.2016 (accessed 23.06.2020).

[3] Schütze-Bosbach, S:  „Sozialpsychologie“ in: Grundbegriffe der Psychologie II. Lecture at the LMU, Munich: 06.05.2020.

[4] see Verplanken, B (editor): The psychology of habit: theory, mechanisms, change, and contexts. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing 2018.

[5] Schütze-Bosbach, S:  „Sozialpsychologie“ in: Grundbegriffe der Psychologie II. Lecture at the LMU, Munich: 06.05.2020.


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