Advisory Board

David Berreby

The Edge article Post-Rational Economic Man said

Global 21st-century society depends on an 18th-century worldview. It’s an Enlightenment-era model that says the essence of humanity — and our best guide in life — is cool, conscious reason. Though many have noted, here on Edge and elsewhere, that this is a poor account of the mind, the rationalist picture still sustains institutions that, in turn, shape our daily lives.
It is because we are rational that governments guarantee our human rights: To “use one’s understanding without guidance” (Kant’s definition of enlightenment), one needs freedom to inquire, think and speak. Rationality is the reason for elections (because governments not chosen by thoughtful, evidence-weighing citizens would be irrational). Criminal justice systems assume that impartial justice is possible, which means they assume judges and juries can reason their way through a case. Our medical system assumes that drugs work for biochemical reasons, applicable to all human bodies — and not the price on the pill bottle makes a difference in its effectiveness.
And free markets presume that all players are avatars of Rational Economic Man: He who consciously and consistently perceives his own interests, relates those to possible actions, reasons his way through the options, and then acts according to his calculations. When Adam Smith famously wrote that butchers, brewers and bakers worked efficiently out of “regard for their own interest,” he was doing more than asserting that self-interest could be good. He was also asserting that self-interest — a long-lasting, fact-based, explicit sense of “what’s good for me” — is possible.

David Berreby was the author of this article and also authored Us and Them: The Science of Identity. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Nature, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The Journal of Strategy and Business, and many other publications.
He was previously Freelance Contributor at Discover Magazine, Editor at City University of New York, and Associate Editor, The Sciences at New York Academy of Sciences.
David authored The Case for Fitting In, A Bird’s Life, The Punishment Fits the Crime, Ravens, Robots, and the Nature of Humanness, Genius in the Making: If a scientific theory about Jews being smart is so politically incorrect, why aren’t more people complaining?, Human Kinds in the Brain: An MRI scan of racial perception, Can a language be “endangered”?, Human Kinds in the Making: Race and the Mind, Dear Colleague…, Murray Gell-Mann’s Quest, and Human Kinds in the Making: The Attention Deficit Tribe.
David earned his B.A. in English at Yale University in 1981. Read his blog.