Rational Actors

This passage from a recent article on CNN got me thinking:

The mistake some make when viewing ISIS is to see it as a rational actor. Instead, as the magazine documents, its ideology is that of an apocalyptic cult that believes that we are living in the end times and that ISIS’ actions are hastening the moment when this will happen.

This isn’t the mistake that most of us make at all. Our problem is that we want to pigeon hole anybody who doesn’t think like a liberal westerner as “irrational.” Modern liberal or classical liberal? it doesn’t matter, take your pick. As is so often the case, both the left and the right sides of American political thought are completely guilty of this mistake.

I want to make it clear what I don’t mean: I’m not talking about individuals. Individuals act irrationally all the time, in any society. Depending upon the kind of irrationality and its effects, most societies end up pushing these people to the fringe.

No, I’m talking about the generally accepted behavior of any given culture [and in this case, we have to take the people who make up ISIS as a specific cultural group]. Viewed from the outside, culturally accepted behavior often seems flat out crazy. But viewed from inside the group it usually makes perfect sense.

This is true when it’s Republicans looking askew at those crazy Democrats, northerners making fun of those hick southerners, Europeans thinking all Americans are slightly crazy, or CNN journalists claiming that ISIS members are not rational actors.

From within their own culture, there are perfectly good reasons why they behave the way they do. They simply¬†aren’t the same reasons why Peter Bergen behaves the way he does. Calling it irrational is simply a cop-out. What it really means is that Peter Bergen is trying to slap the label “crazy” on ISIS.

OK, fine. We can call them crazy. From our perspective it might even be an accurate word. But if we’re trying to fight them or stop them it’s useless. It’s not a model that actually helps us in the real world.

We must first understand why their actions are rational from their point of view. Only then will we be able to devise a strategy to actually defeat them.

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