Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Rational and Reasonable
distributed 1/12/07 - ©2007

My friend Ann is a very highly-respected expert on domestic violence. When she did a presentation at an area church, I think we all expected her talk to focus on the terrible problems of abuse, or on the good programs that are in place to help the victims of violence. But she had us discuss an unexpected question.

"Why," she asked, "would an abused woman decide to stay in that situation?"

As we reflected on the matter from that perspective, we came up with quite a list of very good reasons. Economic necessity is certainly important, including high housing costs if she moved, cash for groceries, and access to the family car. She may be making a very pragmatic assessment that the risks to her health or her life are lower if she stays than if she tries to get out and triggers the abuser's rage. The desire to stay connected with friends and local support structures -- for herself and her children -- is legitimate.

It is not hard to imagine why an abused woman might want to leave, and to consider what services to provide for those who have taken such an action. No matter how persuasive the reasons to change, though, many women find the reasons to stay even more compelling.

Ann helped us to understand that abused women who remain in that situation are not stupid, or crazy, or self-destructive, or irrational. And she showed us why considering the reasons to stay is important in finding effective ways to work with abused women.

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I once took a graduate-level course on educational sociology, and did a research paper on the issue of dropouts. Most of the literature asked some form of the question, "what is wrong with kids who drop out?" Especially in light of the economic benefits of a high school diploma, leaving school was generally considered irresponsible or absurd.

A few of the researchers turned the question around. "Why on earth would some of these kids decide to stay in school?"

Rather than blaming the student, their families, and their culture, these studies asked challenging questions about the schools and our society. Those reports on dropouts added a phrase to my vocabulary that I now use often: "rational and reasonable." For many students, dropping out of school is both rational (considering their short and long term economic prospects) and reasonable (with factors of self-esteem and emotional stress).

For some in our society, school is a hostile and dangerous setting (some kids are "push-outs", not "drop-outs"), and graduation may bring only slight benefits. Asking "why would a student decide to stay?" helps us to consider the costs and benefits on both sides of a student's choice about dropping out.

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Garrett Hardin's well-known article, The Tragedy of the Commons, explains why it is to the benefit of rational individuals to damage resources that are held in common -- whether grazing land, ocean fisheries, or the global atmosphere. The costs of over-use or pollution are shared by all, and the benefits of exploitation go directly to the individual.

In fact, Hardin says, it is irrational for an individual or a company to restrict their actions on the basis of conscience, when their competitors do not. (That analysis of rational economic decisions, by the way, refutes the Bush administration's insistence that businesses should voluntarily take on the costs of reducing their carbon emissions.)

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There are all sorts of good reasons why we need to work for a more just and sustainable world. A persuasive case can be made from theological ethics, or by appealing to practical details about impending shortages of fuel and water, or by acknowledging the stark matter of survival in the face of climate change. All of those point toward making urgent and dramatic changes in our personal and societal lives.

Most of the readers of Eco-Justice Notes are committed to those sorts of changes. We know that there are abundant and strong reasons for transformation. But we may be less willing to admit that there are also reasons why rational and reasonable people would decide otherwise.

Battered women make choices to stay in an abusive setting. Teenagers consider all the factors, and decide that dropping out is their best choice. Fishing fleet operators decide to harvest more fish than a sustainable yield. None of them are foolish, or irrational -- and many of them wrestle with the difficult moral implications of their choices.

It is not enough for us to make a clear case for why change is good. We also have to realize that change is difficult, or even irrational, for some people and organizations. It is only when we honestly consider their perspective that we can deal with the complexity of the situation.

If you encounter someone who seems resistant to change, who resist doing what you believe is the prudent thing, you might turn the question around. Rather than challenging them with, "why won't you do what is good and right?", ask them -- in person, or in your imagination -- "what are some of your reasons for acting the way you do?"

You may find that your opponent is not evil or foolish. They may be perfectly rational and reasonable. And by understanding their reality, you may find important clues about how to change the situation so that progress toward a just and sustainable world becomes rational and reasonable for all involved.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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