Critique of Modern Reason and Rational Problem Solving

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A Critique of Modern Reason
And
Rational Problem Solving

William Brueggemann

April, 2009

Kyushu University of Health and Welfare, Department of Social Planning and Welfare Administration, 1714-1 Yoshino Cho, Nobeoka Shi, Miyazaki ken, 882-8508, Japan

Abstract

Modern politics and the economy are based on a way of thinking called modern reason, first articulated by Thomas Hobbes in 1651. The field of social work has adopted this way of thinking and rational problem solving as its primary method. However, modern reason and rational problem solving are defective ways of helping people resolve personal and social problems. This paper critiques modern reason and rational problem solving. Key words: modern reason, rationality, rational problem solving, and decision-making.

When a man reasoneth, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total...for REASON in this sense is nothing but reckoning, that is adding and subtracting of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan[i]

Introduction
Modern reason and the method by which it is used, called rational problem solving, have become the way we think about things in our modern world and is the form of reasoning used in solving the most complex problems of our day. Modern rational problem solving has been officially designated as the method by which members of the social work profession are expected to engage in assisting clients and reach decisions.[ii] While rational problem solving method is a powerful tool it has a number of limitations for social work practice. These limitations militate against the unqualified acceptance of rational problem solving as a model for the social work profession.[iii]

1. What is Modern Reason?
Modern reason, first articulated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his book Leviathan published in 1651, is a process of calculation. "In what matter so ever there is a place for addition and subtraction, there is also a place for reason; and where they have no place, there reason has nothing at all to do.”[iv](emphasis in original) Therefore, "when man reasoneth," Hobbes asserted, "he does nothing else but conceive a sum total."[v] “Reason” said Hobbes, “is nothing but reckoning, that is adding and subtracting of the consequences of… names agreed upon.”[vi]Graham Allison asserts that rationality refers to an “essentially Hobbesian notion of consistent, value-maximizing reckoning or adaptation within specified constraints.”[vii]

2. What is Rational Problem Solving?
If someone today talks about a decision being rational, he or she simply means a process by which one defines a problem, gathers information, compares all the alternatives, and then in a cost calculus, decides which alternative solution maximizes one's goals.

For Hobbes, reason is an instrument of problem solving. In order to use modern reason in problem solving, Hobbes asserted that one must "get a good and orderly method."[viii] This method says hopes is “…nothing but reckoning of…consequences.”[ix] Hobbes then proceeds to describe how modern reason can be used to reckon consequences of decisions. Rational problem solving, asserts Hobbes, begins as the decision maker first decides or defines interests or goals that one wants to achieve. For Hobbes each person is the best judge of his or her own interests, needs and preferences.

Ones interests includes arriving at a definition of ones preferences, the particular features or aspects of the subjective interests that one wishes to maximize, "so that he who that by experience, or reason, the greatest and surest prospect of consequences, deliberates best himself."[x]

After a person understands clearly what his preferences are, he considers all of the alternative ways that his preferences can be achieved or in Hobbes terminology "the right ordering of...
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