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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


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Records of a Revolution
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Campus of the Big Ideas
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You Go Girl!


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.

Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

Midway through a consideration of a question as old as human thought, session moderator Saul Levmore, dean and William R. Graham professor in the Law School, noted that although "to at least some people rationality means predictability," humans are often unpredictable. Which may be why so much thought has gone into making sense of how humans behave.

"The question is not whether humans are rational or irrational," declared John Cacioppo, the Tiffany & Margaret Blake distinguished service professor in psychology, "but under what conditions they are rational." Cacioppo studies the hierarchical nature of cerebral processing at both its molecular and social levels. This approach, he pointed out, helps explain why the same humans who won't willingly put their hands over a flame will walk through flames to reach a crying child. Or why, hiking in the woods, you'll start at the sight of a snake-shaped stick. "On a lower level, you notice something that may be dangerous and look closer." That look "can prompt rational or irrational behavior," responses and emotions based on contextual clues and cultural conditioning.

While Cacioppo studies individual behavior, Gary S. Becker, SM'53, PhD'55, University professor in economics and sociology, analyzes how groups of individuals respond to changes in institutions, public policy, and other social stimuli. The tool that he uses is rational-choice theory.

"I'm not going to be shy about it," the Nobel laureate said. "It's the most valuable theory that we have" to do such work. After defining the theory (a way to "analyze how individuals maximize utility based on their preferences for outcomes in a forward-looking fashion"), Becker explained what it is not: it's not "a theory of the selfish individual" nor one "that's devoid of allowing people to have emotions" or "of the individual in isolation from society." Rational choice wouldn't be at "the center of so many discussions," he argued-from why California energy prices peaked in summer 2000 to how cigarette taxes affect smoking rates-"if it weren't concerned with real life."

Next up was Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor in the Law School and a philosopher who sounded themes from her recent book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001) to argue that emotions are not unthinking: "They have an object. They embody a way of seeing this object." Love "is accompanied by all sorts of beliefs" about its object, including an appraisal of the loved one "as valuable to the thinker's happiness."

The "much more complex question," she said, is whether such thought is reliable. That question gives rise to others: How do past emotions enter into the present? How responsive are we to what we see in front of us? Are we, as rational-choice theory would have it, really forward-looking? For Nussbaum, the day's discussions of rationality and emotion return to age-old questions of moral philosophy: "What is it for humans to live well? What is worth caring about?"

1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?


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  JUNE 2002

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  > > e-Bulletin: 06/14/02



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