13 November 2010

Being reasonable

Who is the reasonable person these days? Who should we benchmark? The Clapham omnibus may still run, and there may well be elderly couples who search Twitter before setting out on a journey to the airport from where they will fly to a foreign holiday destination. Of course, this couple will realise that if their journey to the airport is by car, it will be by far the riskiest part of their journey, won’t they? 
I used this car journey example when trying to explain to patients about the risks of any operation. The riskiest part by far, I told them, was the journey to and from the hospital. Mostly, they had not though about risk in these terms, or perhaps not thought much otherwise about risk. Any activity carries some risk, sometimes quantifiable, sometimes not. And while the risk of any activity happening might be low, the consequences might be severe. You might well think that your chance of surviving a plane crash is poor, yet you have a very good chance of surviving — and to increase this chance, sit well back in the plane, not up front in first class.
Those of us who are not experts often have a skewed view of risk, and most of us are not experts in many fields. We may invoke the concept of the reasonable person (who used to be a man in the days before political correctness), yet we don’t know what this person might know.
Further, the legal reasonable person seems to be a fiction, a concept designed to help the thinking and arguing process. And what a reasonable person thinks is considered to be reasonable, a wonderful if circular argument.
Well, we might say that a reasonable person is ‘normal’ for the circumstances. And in a way this is correct; experts are compared not to the man in the street, but to their peers. If the expert has acted in a way that these peers consider reasonable, then he or she is being reasonable.
It’s more difficult to say what the normal person is in a more general context. You only have to read the newspapers to see the segregation of types of people by age and sex and buying power. Are you generation X or Y, or are you a metrosexual, for example? If you aren’t, then can you be called reasonable? Are any of these classifications ‘normal’?
Are you of normal intelligence, or are you, like the children in Lake Woebegone, of above average intelligence? By definition, normal intelligence is the mean of all intelligences, and is rated at 100 on the scoring system. University students are about 15 points or more above this; are they they ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable’, and should they be comparators? How was your IQ scored? Were you tested using questions based on your ethnic and other backgrounds? The inability to understand the differing ‘intelligences’ lead to the indigenous populations of countries conquered in the days of colonisation being regarded as ‘backward’, for the differing skills needed for survival were outside the mental frameworks of the conquerors.
You probably want to be thought of as reasonable, neither an anarchist not a total reactionary. Someone who might not take everything they heard or saw at face value, but someone who could be a bit sceptical, a bit ‘canny’. And most of us are probably ‘reasonable’ and think of ourselves as being vaguely progressive. Unfortunately, there is a flaw in this, as described by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
So, do you really want to be reasonable?

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