Halcyon Days for Rational Man

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Halcyon Days for Rational Man

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These are hard times for Compassionate Man. Every place he turns, Rational Man kicks sand in his face.

Compassionate Man would like to bop Rational Man on the beak, but he can’t, because he’s Compassionate Man. Rational Man knows this, so he kicks more sand in Compassionate Man’s face.

Rational Man does this because it makes him feel good, and because he can’t see any downside. So what if Compassionate Man gets sand in his face? That’s Compassionate Man’s problem.

Rational Man takes his cues from the Rational Actor model in economics, and indeed, from philosophers who’ve argued since ancient times that man’s nature is to maximize his own good whenever possible. Generations of Philosophy 101 students have been arguing about the nature of man ever since.

Ayn Rand was Rational Woman. Gordon Gekko, who said “Greed is good,” was a movie Rational Man. Rational Man, even when he rejects evolution, knows that Darwin said the fittest survive, and what better way to prove fitness by kicking sand in Compassionate Man’s face? Compassionate Man, on the other hand, believes that man comes equipped, whether he knows it or not, with altruistic impulses that urge him to nurture his fellow man. Sometimes religious beliefs bolster these urges in Compassionate Man.

Out at the University of California in Berkeley (of course) is something called the Greater Good Science Center, aimed at proving that man is wired to be compassionate. Dacher Keltner, the center’s faculty director, has written that Darwin himself argued that sympathy is often stronger than self-interest.

Why? Babies. Babies are vulnerable. In evolutionary terms, the people who best protected babies “would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Furthermore, Keltner says, modern neuroscience has revealed that, “We are wired to empathize.” The same part of your brain’s cortex that lights up when you’re in pain lights up when you see someone else in pain, he says.

Also, the “periaqueductal gray” part of the brain reacts when you see see suffering. “We don’t just see suffering as a threat,” Keltner writes. “We also instinctively want to alleviate that suffering through nurturance.”

And then whoa, there’s the vagus nerve! Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and this nerve wanders from the top of the spinal cord throughout the body. “The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response,” Keltner says.

When you feel a strong vagus nerve response, Keltner writes, “you are feeling common humanity with many different groups. When we’re encouraged to feel strong identification with just our own group and not others, the vagus nerve dims.”

If so, we are living in a time of dim vagus nerves.

Take the concept of “white privilege,” the idea that white people automatically get breaks that people of color don’t. Judging from telephone calls, talk-radio shows and Bill O’Reilly, the idea that “white privilege” is real drives Rational (white) Man nuts.

Meanwhile, Compassionate (white) Man understands he’s never been stopped for driving while white or followed around department stores while white.

Besides, in the economic model of the Rational Actor, Rational (white) Man would see nothing wrong with white privilege because it enables him to maximize his gains. He might not, say, rob a bank because of the potential risk, but he might vote against tax increases for, say, public transportation because he doesn’t ride the bus.

Also, he might be entirely happy with his all-white neighborhood not because (he claims) he has anything against black people, but because it maximizes his property values.

In this regard, St. Louis has long been fertile ground for Rational Man. He rejects the concept, pushed by radicals like Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, that a house divided itself cannot stand. Rational Man’s house is standing quite nicely, thank you.

In the same way, Rational Man sees nothing wrong with allowing Canadians to run a pipeline full of tar-sand oil to Nebraska because the more oil that’s on the world market, the less it’s going to cost him for energy. Rational Man is all about short-term benefits.

Compassionate Man likes cheap energy, too, but he’s worried about babies. Babies who grow up on a hotter planet because of the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels are going to have a hard time. Compassionate Man thinks maybe he should pay a little more for gas or recycle something even though he’ll be dead before the planet heats up too far.

Rational Man thinks he’s a sucker and kicks tar-sand in his face.

Rational Man doesn’t want to hear about making life easier for 5 million undocumented immigrants, either. He might be OK with more EB-3 visas for skilled workers, especially if he owns a company that hires them, but plain old Mexicans? What’s in it for Rational Man?

Compassionate Man still believes in the huddled-masses-yearning-to-breathe-free thing, but his vagus nerve doesn’t make him angry enough to do anything about it. On Election Day, he was thinking happy thoughts when Rational Man kicked sand in his face on his way to the polls.

Kevin Horrigan

Kevin Horrigan is a member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page staff.

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