This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Deepanshu Mohan. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Economists Need To Stop Telling Us That We’re Selfish

By Deepanshu Mohan:

The soaring instances of racial discrimination, adversities from global climate change, acts of terrorism, frequency in economic crises through speculative stock market crashes, debt, capital flight etc. all seem to bring out a common behavioural aspect that ties most of these recurring phenomena within/across nations today: a reflection of choices made by individuals in actions driven by a motivation to maximise their absolute self-interest while ignoring the consequences of such actions on the well-being of others.

Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen. Source: Wikipedia.

A mainstream economist may tell you that a “rational” economic individual or group would seek to do exactly this, advocating for “self-interest maximising” behaviour as a guiding force in rational economic decision-making. But is that how we can understand the idea of rationality today? Here, I seek to address the entrenched nature of the uniformly held belief (“self-interest maximisation defining rationality”) in mainstream economic thought today. Based on a closer observation and reading of the literature, I see if there is more to the concept of rationality than how it is perceived to be.

A theme of prodigious scholarly exploration amongst political and economic philosophers (from Aristotle in ancient Greece to Thomas Schelling, George Akerloff in recent times); the idea of rationality, in individual and social choice decision making, has emerged most visibly in modern economic theory.

Almost every given model designed in providing an empirical explanation or solution to a given economic problem implicitly assumes a self-interest maximising rational individual. While rational thought in economics seeks to explore the behavioural aspect of human nature through fundamental questions like who is a rational economic individual, and what a rational economic individual ought to do, the predictive nature of rational choice explained solely under the blanket of a self-interest maximising belief (under Rational Choice Theory (RCT)) seems narrow, both from a normative and empirical sense.

In his work on “Rationality and Freedom” (2002), Amartya Sen argued how particular aspects of preferred choices in our decisions are quite often motivated by other forms of ‘reasons’, through “habit formation” or an experiential behaviour of the individual under given stimuli. Additionally, if an individual’s goals can accommodate for broader values or social considerations (based on her/his position in a social setting), the ability of her/him to make a decision may go beyond a single-minded self-promotion interest.

For example, a woman deciding to marry someone under a more socially restrained family set-up may not be able to make an individual decision based solely on a self-interest maximising principle (i.e., marrying someone who she loves or is most convinced in happily marrying). In her decision to marry someone, she may primarily be influenced by her family’s own collective belief (in this case, based on the weight of social preference attached to parameters like caste, employment level, income, identity etc. by the woman’s parents or her extended relatives). It would be unfair to call the woman here “irrational”, just because her own decision to marry is not based on a purely self-interest maximising principle.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith. Source: Wikipedia.

It is pertinent to note here that in denying that rationality, in terms of decision-making, demands that one must act in a single-minded way does not necessarily prevent oneself from promoting the goals of others (assuming that she/he thinks and decides without being coerced in any way). Rational choice can also be realised on developing a reasonable understanding in the ability of an individual to critically scrutinise her/his decision based on the constraints of what can be part of some accepted societal or sensible behaviour (can be related to what Adam Smith calls “the established rules of behaviour” in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”).

One may ask then why do mainstream economists restrict the concept of rationality in justifying the behaviour of an economic individual to a self-interest maximising basis only?

One possible answer to this is in context to what is interpreted from the works of Adam Smith by most economists who somehow hail Smith as a proponent of the assumption of the exclusive interest of self-interest. This is not true and a social choice theorist like Amartya Sen provided enough evidence on this in his own work (refer to his classic 1977 essay on “Rational Fools“).

Also, a closer reading of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” by Adam Smith gives us a more lucid understanding of his view on rationality in an individual’s decision-making motivations which, as Smith argued, are also based on attributes of sympathy, generosity and public spirit; featured as non-self interest maximising motivational factors for an individual’s actual choice.

Reasonableness In Rationality?

There is nothing irrational about decisions or making actual choices beyond the contours of maximising one’s own welfare or well-being. We can definitely take the feature of self-interest maximisation as a useful motivation for explaining most individuals’ decisions. However, there is more than this to the concept of rationality; as an individual’s goals can go beyond a single-minded promotion of self-interest to be driven by a more reasonable choice made from a process of self-scrutiny (what may be more prudential in its applied nature through some form of self-introspection or reflection based on an individual’s past experiences or actions) or alternatively, within a social context considering the demands of “reasonable conduct” towards others (what John Rawls discusses extensively in his work on “A Theory of Justice”).

In considering the demands of the latter, i.e., “reasonable conduct”, social considerations and preferences (in case of our above example, the weight attached by the woman’s parents on parameters like caste, identity, income level and social position of a man) can very well play an important role in the decision-making process of an individual (i.e., the woman herself). So, what we may believe is right or wrong from the lens of rationality here, may pretty well go beyond what most mainstream economists dictate.

Thomas Scanlon in “What We Owe To Each Other?” makes a valuable argument. In it he says, “Thinking about right and wrong is, at the most basic level, thinking about what could be justified to others on grounds that they, if appropriately motivated, could not reasonably object.” Scanlon’s emphasis (also interpreted by Sen in 2009) here is on the need for a rational individual to incorporate a degree of “reasonableness” into her/his actual choice (the kind of which John Rawls talks about) and subsequently, going beyond the idea of self-interest maximisation as the only rational motivation.

The idea of ‘rational’ thought in decision-making today may do well to incorporate the role played by a critical self-scrutinised choice process and/or the dynamics of reasonable conduct which is conscious to the existing social preferences and considerations present. The broader application of such form an evolving thought which may provide a more holistic and applied meaning to rational expectations, while challenging and questioning the logical core of mainstream economic thinking today.

Featured image source: Pixabay.

You must be to comment.

More from Deepanshu Mohan

Similar Posts

By Reeta Vidyarthi

By Devangana

By parijat banerjee

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below