Thoughts on the Rational Actor

Who is she, the rational actor? A human being, a living creature, flesh and blood – or a mindless computer, wired and assembled so as to execute an endlessly looping programme? Is the rational actor rational, or is what we think of as rational whatever the rational actor does? Did we conceive of her as the reasonable being par excellence or is our understanding of reason and rationality (whatever their difference may be) now increasingly a product or by-product of the rational actor’s computing capacities and capabilities – in other words, can the egg lay a chicken? All of these are pressing questions, yet questions too to which conclusive answers one may not find without raising yet others again.

Since the introduction of so-called ’smart‘ technology, it has been the subject of sometimes more, sometimes less fierce debate what that label exactly could, should, or would entail. The question „What does it mean to be smart?“ may well have become one of the winged words of our decade, forgotten we may however have that one of the most eager participants of the surrounding debate is the smart product itself. She can answer, fairly easily, with „It means to be like me,“ and quickly we are absolved from further enquiry. The dictum rests with us: To be smart is to be smart is to be smart; or: fake it until you make it.

This brief illustration deserves much more far-reaching attention, yet here it serves as one symptom among several of an increased difficulty one encounters at distinguishing maker from product, smart technology from smartness, artifice from artist. This difficulty points at an unresolved debate about reason and the ways in which it relates to other supposed aspects of human nature – a debate that is as convoluted as it is inevitable if one were to try to unravel some of the mysteries of the everyday.

The problem of distinction is simultaneously one of reconciliation – as little as we are able to draw a line we find it incredibly cumbersome to bring one and another together. On the one hand, we thus conflate artificial and ‚real‘ intelligence – on this basis we quickly confuse what was thought of as separate entities. The rational actor, once an ideal type or a formal model, suddenly becomes a normative end; and likewise a smart device, once invented as a support, is used as a surrogate instead. Who is smarter, now, the device or the user? She who provides me with information, or me who I count on her provisions?

On the other hand, such conflations marginalise aspects of ourselves (and our selves) that would otherwise very well deserve ontological autonomy: If all is rational, where are the emotions? If all is smart, where is error? If all is able, where is the disabled? The holist pretensions of the above reductionist gestures stop short of any actual embrace. This is the problem of reconciliation; for if rational actorhood is presumed, if it is an a priori maxim that we hold but do not confront as the ever-questionable belief it is, we are unable to account for contrary experience in terms other than irregularity, deviance, aberration, and so on.

So once again, who is she, the rational actor? Perhaps both cerebrum and circuit, both heartbeat and hardware. Perhaps neither. Most importantly, she is a construct that we may hold dearly, but may just as well not. For when has an increase in rational sophistication, in ‚objective value‘ as some may call it, yielded a decrease in what it labels as its opposite, irrationality? When has it been clear that these were actually opposites? When were we able to provide evidence for the legitimacy of the call for evidence?

The question could, in this light, not even be whether or not the assumption of the rational actor were an accurate, defendable one or not, for that would just precisely miss the point. The question might instead be which assumptions about what kind of reasonable being and behaviour have what kinds of consequences, and what sorts of different observations one may derive from one or another starting point. In this sense, to take a product of one kind of assumption (the rational actor, the machine, the smart device) for an answer to the questions it were just about to raise appears peculiar. Is it reasonable?

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4 Kommentare

  1. Nele_K
    Juli 6

    I don´t get, once again. Why are you talking of >shehe<?

  2. Juli 11

    I’m sorry but I don’t understand your question?

  3. Nele_K
    Juli 12

    Sorry, something went wrong with that comment! Again, I am little confused. So you are talking about the general actor, so why are you referring to him as her? You also mentioned that if the ratonal actor is holding on a questionable believe, she or he isn´t able to make a contrary experience. Does that mean having a smart device and using it more is questionable? Or did I mix up the different entities? And what did you mean by obejctiv value?

  4. Juli 13

    No problem, thanks for clarifying! I am talking of ‚her‘ instead of ‚him‘ just because I wouldn’t have a good reason for either (this connects to an age-old tendency in writing to put all general phrasing masculine by default, which I consider an androcentric practice to which I don’t want to subscribe – of course I could write something like he/she or she/he instead, but I find it interesting to see how simply inserting ’she‘ instead feels and looks odd, for worrying reasons). As to the second point you raise: I did not mean to say that the rational actor herself is holding on to a questionable belief, but that rational actorhood as such may very well be a questionable belief; in other words, it could be that actor rationality is an ideal type (in the Weberian sense) that we mistakenly assume to be real (and not an idealisation of what it means to be an actor/agent/…). I find this problematic because it pre-qualifies experience, namely in that it needs to discard contrary (i.e. non-rational) experience in order to uphold the very concept of rationality. Irrational experience is thus labelled negative, or at least as an object of suppression (my irrational experience ought to be suppressed by my rational character in order to retain my rationality). Now, if I use a so-called smart device (e.g. my smartphone), I further narrow my conception of that rationality (i.e. to the capabilities of that device, e.g. storage, service provision, or an ‚optimised’/’customised‘ consumer experience). This could reflect back on ourselves, at least that is what I am trying to argue: We compare our own rationality to that of the device we decided to call smart. If my device is smart, how smart am I? Or: Should I be more like my device? Narrowing down the concept of rationality even further should then likely increase the effect I just described – in other words, it should ‚discriminate‘ against an even wider range of experiences that are at odds with the ’smartness‘ framework. Lastly, by ‚objective value‘ I refer to that which is assumed or expected to neutrally further the rationality of an actor. In my opinion, even that very claim of objectivity is problematic in the exact same sense in which the claim of rationality is problematic – they are absolute, judgemental, and ultimately exclusionary constructs.

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