Campus of the Big Ideas
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.
sapiens: are we really rational creatures?
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.
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
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
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
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."
"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?"
the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?
Homo sapiens: are
we really rational creatures?
physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?
services, or laws: how do we improve lives?
Clones, genes, and
stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?
How will technology change
the way we work and live?
Why do we dig up
Art for art's sake?
In the realm of
the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell,
Can we protect
civil liberties in wartime?