Even if we avoid Rand’s errors and build our rational ethics on the foundations laid by Socrates and Aristotle, Spinoza and Santayana, there are still immense cognitive and psychological obstacles to be overcome—obstacles which may prove, for all practical purposes, as insurmountable. They are:
(1) The representational nature of all pursued goals and values. Reflection on the predicament facing each individual soon makes it apparent to an intelligent being that the pursuit of every immediate impulse would be irrational. Concern for future well-being is a built-in feature of the human brain and is almost synonymous with rationality. But here we run into several difficulties. In estimating the value of any experience, we are unable to compare the actual experiences as they are felt; instead, we must compare our memories of them as represented to the mind. Representation of feelings, particularly memorized feelings, is notoriously unreliable. We tend to remember only the salient highlights, rather than the emotive experience in its entirety. In addition to this, there is tendency to rationalize experiences. Because the terms of thought in which experiences are represented are themselves inherently ambiguous, research shows that most people take advantage of these ambiguities to make things look better than they really are. It has been found, for instance, that people think better of consumer products right after they buy them than immediately before the purchase. Once an act becomes a fait accompli, the natural tendency is to give it a positive spin.
Just as we tend to misrepresent our past feelings, our projections of how we are going to feel in the future—so necessary in forming future plans and goals—is also prey to all sorts of congenital illusions. The fact is, we don’t know really know how we are going to feel in the future and so we must make use of our imaginations to prophesy how we will feel down the road. This is a procedure fraught with uncertainty. Our present feelings tend to color our future feelings. We are very poor, for instance, at anticipating how we will feel toward traumatic events. And our imaginations tend to oversimplify the future, leading us to omit important details which will have critical ramifications on our future feelings.
In short, it is not clear that rational thinking can in fact lead us to happiness. An impressive amount of psychological evidence supports this conclusion. (See Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for more details.)
(2) Human beings are not inherently realistic. Rand defined rationality as, among other things, “a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power.” By this definition, human beings are palpably irrational. Most people have what psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” which “cooks facts and shifts blame in order to offer a more positive view” of ourselves and our experiences.
There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics, and the wisdom of low-carbohydrate diets. Good scientists deal with the complication by choosing the techniques they consider most appropriate and then accepting the conclusions that these techniques produce, regardless of what those conclusions might be. But bad scientists take advantage of this complication by choosing techniques that are especially likely to produce the conclusions they favor, thus allowing them to reach favored conclusions by way of supportive facts. Decades of research suggest that when it comes to collecting and analyzing facts about ourselves and our experiences, most of us have the equivalent of an advanced degree in Really Bad Science.
(3) Realism not necessarily conducive to happiness. There may be a very good reason why human beings are not complete realists: a commitment to a complete, aggressive realism may prove hazardous to the emotional health of most people. Stark reality, in all its brutality, may be too much for many people. But isn’t evading reality harmful? Well, that depends on precisely what we are evading. Again to quote Gilbert:
The research I’ve described … seems to suggest that human beings are hopelessly Panglossian; there are more ways to think about experience than there are experiences to think about, and human beings are unusually inventive when it comes to finding the best of all possible ways. And yet, if this is true, then why aren’t we all walking around with wide eyes and loopy grins, thanking God for the wonder of hemorrhoids and the miracle of in-laws? Because the mind may be gullible, but it ain’t no patsy. The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world—how we see it, remember it, and imagine it—is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers. We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can’t be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it—to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can’t be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters (“I’m sure this thing will fly”), plant the corn (“This year will be a banner crop”), and tolerate the babies (“What a bundle of joy!”). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the others, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.
Gilbert here makes a key point entirely ignored by Rand. If by rational we mean “commitment to the fullest perception of reality,” well, in that case, we need to be rational only about those things that affect our well-being. On issues that don’t affect human well-being, people can be as irrational as they damn please. And this is precisely what we find when we observe la comédie humaine. On matters involving imminent issues of well-being, people tend to be, at the very least, functionally rational. If it were not so, if they were irrational about matters of well-being, reality would’ve punished and corrected them long ago. But on issues that don’t lead to any practical results, they are free to wallow in whatever mire of irrationality happens to tickle their fancy. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. For example, Rand considered religion to be irrational. Well it just so happens that religious believers tend to be less likely to commit suicide, abuse drugs or alcohol, experience debilitating stress, or get depressed. People with religious faith also report higher levels of personal happiness and psychological well-being than do atheists. Since religious belief, as it exists in the First World, rarely leads to overtly harmful behavior, it poses little threat to human well-being, and indeed, may even help well-being by raising people’s morale and sense of optimism.