Economic thought is formed by different, sometimes competing theories. Of many things that unite them, the assumptions about human nature that make all analysis possible come to the fore. These assumptions evolved along with the progress of knowledge in various disciplines, translating into modifications of theories recognised by scholars along with the displacement of the oldest ones that grew out of the Enlightenment as based on a mistaken belief in human rationality.Were the fathers of economics really too idealistic about the role of rationality in guiding human behaviour?
As stated by philosopher and psychologist Steven Pinker in his book “Rationality: What It Is,Why It Seems Scarce,Why It Matters”, the view that people are irrational has become a secular dogma. He points out that this idea is imperfect due to the fact that human cognitive abilities are the heritage of our species regardless of the culture from which it originates (Pinker referred to the research of the San tribe from the Kalahari desert carried out by Louis Liebenberg showing the existence of rationality as a characteristic feature of human brain, i.e. the ability to use available knowledge to achieve goals). It turns out that man shows greater rationality when the information he processes is clear and important from the point of view of his existence, which may mean that the assumption about the rationality of subjects in the sphere of management is not a very far-reaching simplification of the vision of human nature (homo oeconomicus by Adam Smith).
The situation looks different with regard to the defence of people’s favourite views. Citing Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker states that we are more irrational when we insist on our own opinion in heated disputes. This can be seen “with the naked eye” in political disputes. It is because we are all burdened with egoic bias (the desire to get it our way) and other cognitive errors that we can overcome only in the course of discussion and repeated analysis of our own beliefs. In this way, we are more rational as a society than each member individually.
From the point of view of the history of economic thought, it is the psychogenetic sophism that is particularly significant – the error consisting in the evaluation of an idea not in terms of its truth but in terms of its origin. One of the most spectacular examples of this is a mistake made by Karl Marx in Capital, where he emphatically stated that classical economics cannot be considered reliable because of it is financed by bourgeoisie. The misfortune resulting from this mistakewas reflected in the dominance of Marxist economics in the universities of Eastern Europe for decades after the end of World War II. That is why the message from Pinker’s book is so important: we should remember that ideas can be true or false, internally coherent or contradictory, and they have nothing to do with their authors.
The place of valuation judgments, which cannot be eliminated and which should not be even attempted, remains problematic. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, they are the springs of human action and allow us to replace worse living conditions with better ones, but it must be borne in mind that there are no absolute and eternal values, because they are intrinsically subjective (they result from preferences).However, in science,including economics, “pointing out the bias of the theorist in no way refutes the refutation of his doctrines by legitimate arguments.” Perhaps the rationality of man manifests itself precisely in the ability to fight cognitive errors, thanks to which science and civilisation can develop.