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What are the ramifications of the rationalization of society?

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Douglas Carroll, Ed.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Great question, since each of us forms opinions and rationalizes our decisions based upon the constructed views we hold. There are two elements of understanding rationalization and the ramifications of streamlined decision making.

First, rationalization is the notion that we attempt to justify behavior using logical reasoning (make an excuse). On its face, this does not seem to be inherently wrong. The problem is rationalization often leads to self-deception. Self-deception occurs when we attempt to use logical reasoning inappropriate to the situation we are trying to justify. In other words, we have already come to a conclusion about a situation or decision, and we are looking for some way to support the decision even if it is inappropriate to the situation.

For example, a driver rationalizes it is alright to drive home from a bar because they only have a few blocks to drive, it's late, and they just drank a few beers. The driver knows they are probably impaired and knows the dangers of driving while intoxicated, but rationalizes there is no danger because it's a short trip and no one will be on the road at this late hour.

The second notion of rationalization is the idea that rationalizing is an efficient way to organize. Self-deception again plays a role. We deceive ourselves into believing that because something appears to be logically sound, then no further investigation needs to be done.

Rather than seek to validate the logic behind our decisions or actions, we choose to act upon them with little or no critical analysis of the logical evidence supporting our viewpoint. Our entire basis for action relies solely upon the logic we choose to validate the decision, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

An example is the purchase of Powerball or Mega Millions lottery tickets. The opportunity to win millions of dollars is not validated by the mathematical logic of the odds being somewhere around 175 million to 1. Someone has to win, right? Investing the money over time may not yield a payout of millions, but it would certainly produce a greater return, logically, than purchasing lottery tickets. An astounding fact is that some polls indicate as many as one-third of Americans playing the lottery believe the lottery is the key to their retirement. The logic or math doesn't work.

How does society benefit from rationalization? Let's ask the question differently. Ask yourself how often your rationalizations have resulted in ethical decisions. Keep in mind, you have the benefit of hindsight. Apply your answer to society: does society benefit when leaders attempt to justify (rationalize) their decisions in place of a full public vetting to discern what course of action to take? Rationalization may be efficient but not beneficial to society.

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The answer to this depends upon your perspective.  The most famous perspective on this issue is that of Max Weber.  Weber believed that the rationalization of society put people into "iron cages" and robbed them of their freedom.

When a society rationalizes, more and more of its institutions become based on knowledge and rules.  The institutions become less personal and much more bureaucratized.  This, he says, takes away some amount of personal freedom and also robs people of their connections with other people.

For example, in a rationalized society, a dispute between a husband and wife will be resolved through the application of rules in a setting like a divorce court.  This is not a very natural thing -- it simply goes by the rules without really trying to understand the personal relationships that are at play.  By contrast, a traditional society might have solved this dispute through mediation by community members.  These mediators would have known the couple and known about their lives and about what was best for them.  This would have been a much more personal and much less rule-bound solution.

So, to Weber, a rational society is one where there are all these set rules that take away people's freedom and robs a society of its interpersonal interactions.  This is the ramification of the rationalization of society -- it creates this sort of more bureaucratized and impersonal society.

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