How should compassionate and rational people respond to the fact that a narcissistic, racist, misogynist, sociopathic, mindless, scapegoating demagogue will soon have his finger on the button of a nuclear arsenal that could put an end to the struggle of every one of our selfish genes to pass copies of themselves on to succeeding generations?
No Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
In the film the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, played by 16-year-old Judy Garland and her dog, Toto, are picked up by a tornado and dropped in a land ruled by a wicked witch. Then with the help of the Munchkins she sets out along a yellow brick road in search of a Wizard who can show her the way home. Along the way she meets a scarecrow (Ray Bolger) that complains he hasn’t got a brain.
“How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?” Dorothy asks him.
“I don’t know,” the scarecrow replies, “but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.” And we might add today, twittering. Ergo Donald Trump.
Well until recently we westerners were on our own yellow brick road in search of a wizard who could show us the way home to a world based on the enlightenment values we cherish: a world of democratically ruled social welfare states governed by international laws. But unfortunately Donald Trump together with his demagogic clones in Europe has knocked us way off course.
How did he and they do it? He and they did it by channeling our anger and fear away from rational analysis and toward xenophobia and hatred.
We are angry because the wealthiest among us have made out like bandits while most of us have seen our real income decrease.
We are afraid because we have witnessed an increase in terrorist attacks and interracial violence.
So we ask: What is the best way to solve the problems that gave rise to our anger and fear? And as rational compassionate humanists we answer: The best way to solve the problems confronting us is to behave in a manner rational analysis indicates will most likely lead to the solutions we are seeking – i.e. to behave rationally. But unfortunately not everyone is equipped to behave rationally. Indeed that is a key reason democracies fail.
What does it mean to be rational?
As Avinash Dixit and Susan Skeath put it in their book, Games of Strategy: “Rationality has two essential ingredients: i. complete knowledge of one’s own interests and ii. flawless calculation of what actions will best serve those interests.”
In other words, in order to behave rationally people must: have a goal and behave in a manner that, given the information available to them, is most likely to lead them to realizing their goal.
Or again, rational behavior means behaving in a manner that an intelligent extraterrestrial aware of our goals and aware as well of the information available to us would predict we would behave.
Consider this scenario: a man on a park bench in Central Park is hitting his arm. A policeman walks up to him and asks, “What are you doing?” “I’m keeping the elephants away,” he responds. “But there aren’t any elephants for miles around,” the cop exclaims. “See it works,” the man replies.
Was he behaving rationally? He had a goal. But hitting his arm could not in any way help him realize his goal.
Or consider a second example. A man driving home from work has a flat tire outside an insane asylum. He pulls over, jacks up the car, takes off the hub cap and places it on the ground, undoes the lug nuts, places nuts in the hub cap, and as he turns to remove the tire inadvertently kicks the hub cap sending the lug nuts into a sewer.
“Damn. Now I’m screwed,” he screams.
“No you’re not,” a mental patient watching him from the insane asylum calls out. “Just take one lug nut from each of the other three tires and use them for the spare. Then drive to where you can purchase more lug nuts.”
“Wow,” the driver says. “Good thinking. How come you are in a mental institution?”
Well I may be crazy,” the patient replies, “But I’m not stupid.”
Unfortunately, however, as the Monte Hall problem demonstrates, stupidity all too often prevents even sane people such as the motorist in this story from behaving rationally.
Monty Hall was the emcee of a T.V. show called Let’s Make A Deal that ran from 1963 to 1986. Contestants on his shows were shown three doors. Behind one was a valuable prize. Behind the other two, nothing.
Contestants got to keep whatever was behind the door they chose. But after making a choice, Monty Hall would open one of the doors not chosen and behind which there was nothing.
Then he would allow the contestants to stick with their original pick or switch. If they switched they would increase their chance of winning the prize from one third to two thirds. But most contestants stuck with their original choice.
Why? Because of an inability to employ flawless logic, something an intelligent extraterrestrial might regard as stupidity, they were incapable of behaving rationally.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump’s election?
Most of the people who voted for Trump had clear goals.
They wanted to elect the candidate for President whose policies would be most likely to make them safer and materially better off. But because of a failure to consider all of the information available to them and then employ flawless logic to determine who of all the candidates would best serve their interests they ended up voting for the candidate most likely to make them less safe and materially worse off.
Were they irrational? Not necessarily. It takes time and effort to acquire information and employ flawless logic and the more complicated the questions the more time and effort it takes. So sometimes it makes sense to just go with your gut instinct. Sometimes, in other words, it is rational to be irrational.
And that is precisely what makes scapegoating a rational strategy for demagogues like Donald Trump. Scapegoating demagogues appeal to the gut not the brain. And it is in times like today when people are angry and scared that those appeals carry the most weight and most need to be countered by clear thinking individuals of good conscience.