Are Human Beings Rational?

Aristotle once said Man is a rational animal. Is it a correct assessment of man? Not if you consider a few real life stories. Look at the following incidents of train-rage that took place in Mumbai recently:

A 19 year old student was abused and pushed in a suburban train. Why? Just because he was standing in a convenient spot which historically ‘belonged’ to the bullies! apparently, those men were travelling for the past 20 years standing at the same spot! (It seems to be case of spot fixing!!). So, when the student rightly refused to move, the bullies manhandled him.

There was yet another case of train-rage reported wherein a woman journalist was harassed by a group of women for occupying a window seat which was theirs!

In August, a commuter was beaten up by a gang for occupying ‘their’ seat. At this rate, we may have to introduce a new fundamental right in our constitution !

Consider the following Road-rage cases.

A youth from Manipur was beaten up by a mob in Bangalore on the road. The reason? He wasn’t able to speak in Kannada! A few days back a lynch mob was seen beating up 3 Nigerian women with sticks for an alleged act of crime.

A few months back, I nearly escaped being beaten up by a Shiv Sena mobster on a minor parking issue. The guy got abusive and even managed to land a blow on my face before I made good my escape from the scene. Later I complained to the local Shiv Sena party unit head who looked like a perfect gentleman. He reprimanded the miscreant and requested me not to escalate the issue by taking it to the police.

I’m sure such stories are endless. A recent Calvin & Hobbes cartoon in Hindustan Times tells it all!:

Hobbes: You look down in the dumps. What’s the matter?

Calvin: yes, of late the bully in our school keeps knocking me down for no reason – just for kicks! Sometimes animals make more sense than humans!

Hobbes: yes, they are cuter too!

Well, Calvin is right. Animals don’t do anything for kicks. They do it for a purpose whereas humans do things just for the fun of it. We bulldoze, insult, crack jokes, generally have fun at somebody’s expense just for the sake of some excitement. Sorry, they don’t do it just for kicks. Sometimes they combine cheap excitement with greed. Here is an interesting example of this from a TV show:

Female tortoises dig nesting burrows on the beach, where they lay eggs. Egg-laying typically occurs at night, after which the mother tortoise covers the eggs with sand and organic material. The eggs are left unattended and they take a couple of months to incubate.Upon completion of the incubation period, a fully formed turtle breaks out of its shell. It digs to the surface of the nest and begins a life of survival on its own. As soon as they venture out, you can see them all running for life into the sea. Some can never make it to the sea thanks to equally quick action by too many predators. A dog would come and pick one and go away while birds pick one each as they see their prey. However, when a human being comes along, he would pick not one but several till his bag gets full! Would you call it greed or being rational?

I have seen bosses bullying subordinates just for kicks. A boss I worked with early in my career used to derive pleasure out of putting down people whenever a bright or innovative idea was put up for a discussion. I was always thankful to this boss because early in my career, I got a free lesson on what NOT to do as a boss. I made it a point to back ideas that a youngster came up with. Even when I found an idea highly impractical or unviable, I would point it out and add politely: I’m not discouraging you, if you feel strongly about it, you may try it out.

Well, then, what did Aristotle mean when he said that man is a rational animal. He was perhaps referring to our ability to make rational choices of  actions – just the potential which is not translated to behaviour!


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