Definitions of rationality

A principal aim of this chapter has been to build the foundations upon which a clear understanding of the concept of “rationality” could be erected. Clarity does not necessarily imply simplicity, however. Roughly speaking, rationality is concerned with the selection of preferred behavior alternatives in terms of some system of values whereby the consequences of behavior can be evaluated. Does this mean that the process of adaptation must be conscious, or are unconscious processes included as well. It has been shown that many of the steps in mathematical invention—than which there can presumably be nothing more rational—are subconscious; and this is certainly true of the simpler processes of equation-solving.10 Moreover, if consciousness is not stipulated as an element of rationality, are only deliberate processes of adaptation admitted, or non-deliberate ones as well? The typist trains herself to strike a particular key in response to the stimulus of a particular letter. Once learned, the act is unconscious, but deliberate. On the other hand, any person instinctively withdraws a finger that has been burned. This is “rational” in the sense that it serves a useful purpose, but is certainly neither a conscious nor a deliberate adaptation.

Shall we, moreover, call a behavior “rational” when it is in error, but only because the information on which it is based is faulty? When a sub- jective test is applied, it is rational for an individual to take medicine for a disease if he believes the medicine will cure the disease. When an objective test is applied, the behavior is rational only if the medicine is in fact efficacious.

Finally, in terms of what objectives, whose values, shall rationality be judged? Is behavior of an individual in an organization rational when it serves his personal objectives, or when it serves the organizational objectives? Two soldiers sit in a trench opposite a machine-gun nest. One of them stays under cover. The other, at the cost of his life, destroys the machine- gun nest with a grenade. Which is rational?

Perhaps the only way to avoid, or clarify, these complexities is to use the term “rational” in conjunction with appropriate adverbs. Then a decision may be called “objectively” rational if in fact it is the correct behavior for maximizing given values in a given situation. It is “subjectively” rational if it maximizes attainment relative to the actual knowledge of the subject. It is “consciously” rational to the degree that the adjustment of means to ends is a conscious process. It is “deliberately” rational to the degree that the adjustment of means to ends has been deliberately brought about (by the individual or by the organization). A decision is “organizationally” rational if it is oriented to the organization’s goals; it is “personally” rational if it is oriented to the individual’s goals. In the ensuing discussion, the term “rational” will always be qualified by one of these adverbs unless the meaning is clear from the context.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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