Rationality and Sensibility

I majored in philosophy in college. One of my classes was called ‘Morality and the Law’. As part of that class, we read and discussed a lot of Supreme Court cases (as well as other cases). And one of the ideas that cropped up in a lot of those cases was the idea of the reasonable person. This is the hypothetical — and entirely fictional — person who exercises case, makes good judgements, and is generally neither a genius nor an idiot in their daily lives. They are the standard that we judge other people against. For example, we judge whether someone is negligent by asking what a reasonable person would do in the same circumstances.

We also tend to use that judgement when we’re judging other people in our everyday lives. We like to think that other people are rational. More accurately, we like to think that we are rational, and that if other people would just learn and think, they would be like us. And we especially apply that standard to people living in poverty.

For example, in their book Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith write that “One of the biggest difficulties in getting out of poverty is managing money and just the general information base around money.” People in the middle class know how to do things like use a credit card and manage a checking account. They know how to get a good interest rate on care loan. They understand mortgages, annuities, and insurance. If people living in poverty just knew how to do those things — if they just knew how to think — everything would be fine.((Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle edition (Highlands: Aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle locations 642-643, 596-602)) 

The problem is that people aren’t rational. At least, we’re not just rational. We are also emotional, impulsive, intuitive, and hundreds of other things. We are a thousand chattering voices, many of which are submerged in our subconscious. Sometimes reason wins out. At least as often, emotion, impulse, intuition, desire, or some other voice wins out. In fact, reason tends to win out only when we’re working hard to make sure that it does. So, in spite of that background in philosophy — a discipline where we prize reason — I prefer to think of us as sensible: if we knew everything about that conversation that was going on in someone else’s head, we would look at their actions and say, “yeah, that makes sense.”

One of the big differences between poverty and non-poverty is that being middle-class — let alone wealthy — means having a cushion for all of the non-rational things we do. I can impulsively spend ten dollars on something dumb and it’s no big deal. Someone living in poverty doesn’t have that slack. The simple difference is that there is a much higher demand on the person who is experiencing poverty to be rational.

We're sensible, not rational. And being middle-class, let alone wealthy, means having a financial cushion for all of the irrational things that we — that all of us — do. Click To Tweet

And here’s the thing: when we’re thinking about how to address poverty, we have at least two choices:

We can take the approach that charity skeptics take and try to teach and enforce rationality. I think that doing that isn’t likely to work. Being rational takes effort, and effort isn’t infinitely sustainable. Being rational often enough to work your way out of poverty — consistently making the right choices without giving in to emotion or impulse — is all but impossible.

We can take a charitable approach and start by building a cushion for people who are experiencing poverty. It’s a little counterintuitive, but by giving some space to be irrational, we can make it easier to be rational when it counts. For example, by giving people the option to make a bad financial choice once a week — to blow two dollars on a candy bar or four dollars on a latte — we also help make sure that they don’t use their energy up on being rational about the little things. And that makes it more likely that they’ll have the energy to be rational about the big things.

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