The rise of western industrial civilization has long been hailed as the triumph of reason. At a societal level, the establishment of modern institutions and professions to deal with various issues was expected to facilitate rationalisation of society in keeping with scientific knowledge and secular democratic values. At an individual level, internalisation of rational thought was expected to guide human beings in their actions in diverse spheres, be it work or social life. The development of science and technology was expected to facilitate the process of rationalisation when new scientific knowledge helped advanced industrial societies to solve many problems that people faced in their day-to-day lives including the satisfaction of basic needs.
On the other hand, in poor and underdeveloped societies, people continued to face serious challenges even in satisfying their basic needs such as food, water and shelter. Governments and other institutions have not been very effective in addressing diverse issues, often leading to poverty, malnutrition, premature death, widespread diseases, conflicts, violence and at times, mass exodus or displacement.
In spite of various efforts of world leaders in the past to establish global unity through various initiatives, the divisions across the world, largely based on ideology and perceived national interests, have remained potent, at times threatening world peace. The recent, worldwide expansion of capitalism through neo-liberal reforms has brought different parts of the world together on the basis of new production and exchange relations. As a result, many countries have seen their economies grow. China has become the largest industrial powerhouse producing all kinds of industrial goods for a global market using the enormous reserve of cheap labour that the country has at its disposal.
" Increasingly global integration through commodity and financial markets has not led to any unity and solidarity on a global level. Divisions among countries remain endemic. "
On the other hand, competition for markets, and the loss of jobs at home have forced even a powerful country like the USA to resist some of the market trends. But, weaker and smaller countries have had no choice but to adapt to the conditions created by the market.
The stated purpose of neo-liberal reforms had been to promote economic growth everywhere so that economic prosperity does not remain confined to the few already developed countries. Yet, economic development continues to be highly uneven and large parts of the world remain impoverished or underdeveloped. Meanwhile, even many of the developed countries have faced economic crises, adversely affecting a large section of the population in these countries by way of loss of income, property and savings.
Increasingly global integration through commodity and financial markets has not led to any unity and solidarity on a global level. Divisions among countries remain endemic. Internal divisions have developed into violent conflicts within countries resulting in deaths and mass displacements. World leaders representing different power blocs do not perceive the above conflicts in an identical manner. The most recent case is the Syrian conflict. While the United States and several other countries want to use force to tame the Syrian regime, Russia and China do not support such a move.
What is noted above and many other developments around the world demonstrate that many human actions in the modern world are not guided by rational thought but often motivated by irrational or instrumental thinking.
There was a time when the world was divided on the basis of two contradictory world views or ideologies, namely socialism and capitalism. Both were rational world views in their own rights. But, today, the divisions in the world do not follow the same lines. Neither Russia nor China is socialist in the way their societies and economies are organised. Yet the political elites in both these countries perceive their national interests to be in conflict with those of the developed capitalist world led by the United States.
" What is noted above and many other developments around the world demonstrate that many human actions in the modern world are not guided by rational thought but often motivated by irrational or instrumental thinking "
As discussed in an earlier article, a major challenge that humanity is faced with is human induced climate change. Being pre-occupied with the need to achieve the economic objectives of their respective countries, the leaders of both the rich as well as the poor countries do little to face the climate change crisis, an incredibly irrational tendency given the increasing threat that the climate changes pares to the well-being and survival of humanity. The labour government in Australia was defeated at the recently concluded parliamentary elections there, in spite of the fact that several decisive steps were taken by that government to address the climate change issue, indicating that many voters do not necessarily appreciate such rational actions as they are more worried about the immediate problems they face.
So, observing the human condition today and the issues that surround us, one can only wonder whether we are already in an era of unreason. If all past efforts to promote rational thinking and behaviour through education, scientific interventions and public discussion have brought us to the present predicament, it is hard to figure out how the human societies could get out of their present and future crises and create a just, equitable and sustainable world order. The same is also true at a societal level where the challenge is to create a sustainable social order devoid of violence, conflict, poverty and discrimination.