The Samovar


Arationality and honesty

Perfect rationality is impossible, and the limit of the scope of the concept of rationality is important. I start from an observation that many would not agree with, that there is no such thing as truth (which I’ve argued elsewhere to some extent). It’s just a heuristic concept that helps us to function in everyday situations. Dropping the notion of truth involves us in some considerable difficulties, which I discuss in the previous link, but these difficulties are not insurmountable. It is possible to have a useful conception of epistemology free from the notion of truth. In this entry, I criticise the idea that we can be ultimately rational, and look at the consequences of taking this seriously for ethics and morality.

Epistemology in some sense is a specific form of rationality, it concerns only thoughts and ideas whereas rationality is supposed to also encompass actions. An action can certainly be instrumentally rational. Someone is thirsty, so they pick up a glass and turn on the tap and drink – this is instrumentally rational, rational with respect to a given set of goals which are not in themselves analysed. But actions cannot be rational in and of themselves, they must be relative to a set of ends, and ultimately these ends cannot be described in terms of rationality. In consequence, people cannot be rational (ultimately). One consequence is that Vulcans couldn’t exist – you cannot act by logic alone. I call the aspects of our behaviour that cannot be analysed in terms of rationality, arational. This is in distinction to irrationality, which is about doing the opposite of what rationality dictates. Examples of arationality abound: emotions, tastes, etc. But also at the boundary, things like the fact that we keep breathing rather than just stopping.

So can we analyse the arational? To a certain extent yes, we can say more about it than nothing, but there are no complete answers. Later, this leads on to the ethical concepts of honesty and responsibility which I believe are related to arationality.

To start with, let’s take the trivial observation that we humans are nothing so special. We’re essentially “meat machines”, machines built by our genes to replicate themselves (this too is a simplification, but bear with me). We’re built on a physical substrate subject to physical laws. It’s surprising that we can do anything like thinking at all. It’s instructive to think about the extent to which we could call the behaviour of other animals as rational. Is a dog rational? What about an amoeba?

So given that, rather than talk using high level concepts like “reasons” (X believed Y and so took action Z) that presumably are supposed to be understood in some undefined way as related to the internal state of the central nervous system, I’m just going to talk about decisions which can be analysed externally. We can say in some way unambiguously that individual X took action Z, they made a decision to take that action. The decision need not be conscious, remember we’re not talking about internal states here. So we repeatedly make the “decision” to breathe, just as the amoeba makes “decisions” to extend its pseudopodia, or what have you.

Now this way of looking at things helps us to see what we can or can’t say about arationality. To some extent it can be analysed. Obviously we mostly keep choosing to breath because we would be unsuccessful meat machines if we didn’t, and so our genes wouldn’t be replicated. This isn’t to say that we must do these things, just that you would expect to see that most individuals would make these sorts of decisions most of the time because they’re meat machines formed from recombinations of genetic material that tended to act in this way (there are some assumptions there, but that’s another story). Evolution also gives us a point of view on when we can’t analyse arationality. A new individual, either because of a particular recombination of genetic material or because of a mutation, exhibits a new type of behaviour. This happened for reasons we can understand (maybe just chance), but until the individuals interactions with the environment determine the success or otherwise of the individual in reproducing, we can’t say whether it was a good behaviour or not (from the point of view of the genes). Until that point, the behaviour just is a behaviour, and the individual is just an individual that exhibits that behaviour. What more can be said before the success of the behaviour is tested in the world? In conclusion, looking at arationality in terms of behaviours, we can obviously analyse much of arationality in a scientific way, but ultimately in certain cases all we can say is that such-and-such is the behaviour exhibited by such-and-such individual.

At this point I want to bring in the moral and ethical aspects. We like to think of morality and ethics as being about right and wrong, but just as there is no truth, and just as rationality is not entirely straightforward, there is no such thing as right and wrong. There are only decisions. There are decisions individuals make for themselves, and decisions that a political entity makes for others (social mores, codes of conduct, rules, punishment, etc.). A poor person steals from a rich person, the rich person is so rich they never notice they’ve had something stolen. Has a wrong been done?

Rather than talk about this from the point of view of whether or not the poor person made the right decision, I want to just talk about the types of decisions that have been made here, by whom, and what considerations bear on them. First of all, the thief has made a decision to break the rules. Secondly, the society has made a decision to punish people who are caught breaking the rules. We wouldn’t like to say the thief did wrong because nobody was hurt by the action, and the thief’s life was made better as a consequence. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the decision was necessarily right because if it was right then surely the society would be wrong to make the decision to punish people who are caught. It’s clear that talking about this case in terms of right and wrong is a surefire way to end in confusion. Instead it’s a calculus. The society makes its choice to punish thieves because if they didn’t – they believe – there would be a breakdown of order. The thief makes the decision to break the rules knowing the decision of society, and must take responsibility for this action. If they are caught, they will face punishment, if not then they won’t.

Suppose now that the thief was a rich person stealing from a poor person. The analysis above seems unchanged, and indeed it is. One thing that may change is that the society may choose to allocate its resources differently towards catching the one or the other sort of thief. For example, a society may decide to put more resources into catching poor thieves stealing from the rich than rich thieves stealing from the poor, or it may do it the other way round. That’s politics. In my view, society today tends more towards the former whereas it ought to tend more toward the latter, and I make political decisions based on that. These are my decisions, which are ultimately arational. I could put forward reasons for this view, but those are ultimately judged on arational criteria. Others may differ.

Equating the identity of an individual with the actions they decide to take in the circumstances in which they find themselves gives us a useful way of looking at two problems: free will, and morality. There is a classical problem which is that free will cannot be consistent with determinism (if an action was determined by physical laws it cannot have been freely chosen because it couldn’t have been otherwise). There is an extension that says that all decisions must either be determined or random. It goes like this. If an action wasn’t determined by physical laws, then it would effectively meet the physical definition of randomness. In exactly the same circumstances (including the experiences, desires, preferences, state of mind, etc. of the individual concerned at the time of making the decision) you could have different outcomes, making the decision effectively meaningless (not dependent on anything at all), or random in short. However if we identify an individual with the decisions they make it doesn’t matter whether they are determined (or random), they are still the decisions of that individual (it is just that the identity of the individual is also determined). A forced (unfree) choice would be one that no individual in the same circumstances could have made differently (e.g. you cannot choose to ignore the force of gravity).

This last point has a moral and ethical component. If we accept all the choices we actually make are not forced in this sense, then we have to take greater responsibility for them. An ugly choice that we were put under great psychological pressure to make is still our own choice because it is we ourselves who are choosing to respond to that psychological pressure. It is not an external thing acting on us in the same way that gravity is. Even if we were offered the choice between one option which would lead to our death, and another option, it’s still a free choice because we are free to choose how to weight the significance of our own death. Evolutionary processes explain why so many people will weight the significance of their own death so highly, but since the identity of the individuals themselves is the output of that process, we cannot consider that process as an external force acting on us.

The general point here is one of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and being honest about their status as one’s own actions. Often, we attempt to excuse our actions by giving the reasons why we took them, as if these reasons were themselves external forces acting on us which we couldn’t ignore. However, as we have seen, an action itself cannot be rational, it can only be instrumentally rational with respect to an arational core. We rarely think to deeply analyse our own arational cores, but the considerations given here suggest we ought to be more aware of them and identify with them more explicitly. It may be that to do so, we must become more aware of our own logical inconsistency (even incoherency). We are often in the situation, for example, of wanting a thing and also wanting not to want it or even believing that we don’t want it. If we make the mistake of thinking of ourselves as having a core identity that is coherent and consistent in some sense, then we are inevitably led into confusion. It may be this that underlies the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

Following this logic through and acting on it is actually a very difficult thing to do. It means really coming to terms with the inconsistency of our very identities (which the word alone suggests the difficulty of). It means realising that much of what we do we do without reason (our arational cores), and that we  have made choices that we both like and dislike not by mistake or because external forces acted on us, but because that is our nature. It means taking responsibility for every choice we have made, being honest about them, and analysing ourselves. Self-analysis is unavoidable if we do not have a consistent and coherent unitary core (and can be done by introspection and by looking at our choices and identifying those choices with ourselves). Finally it means living with all that inconsistency.

In particular, it can be very difficult to honestly appraise the inequality of society, our own place in it, and live with that. Most reading this will have been the recipients of more than their fair share of luck and will have benefited disproportionately from the work done by everyone. Born into (relatively) wealthy families, receiving (relatively) good educations, etc. It would be easy to fall into the habit of thinking, as many do, that we deserve what we have because that is an easier idea to live with. Choosing not to engage in this sort of self deception requires us to honestly face up to our arational cores, and the experience may not be pleasant. Why do we not give away all our wealth to those who are in need? If we even asked ourselves the question, we would probably find some reason that explained how it couldn’t be otherwise. Perhaps the prospective recipients of our wealth wouldn’t be able to make correct use of it, perhaps charities are essentially corrupt and wasteful, etc. I don’t want to say that we don’t do this because we are selfish. It is more like the choice to keep breathing, there is no need to find a reason for it, it is just a decision we keep making. The danger in finding a reason why we don’t give all our wealth away to others who need it is that it may stop us from giving any away. If there were a good reason why we shouldn’t give our money away, then presumably we shouldn’t give any away. Similarly, if there were a good reason why we should give our money away, we probably ought to give almost all of it away. If we must act by the one sort of reason or another, then we’re faced with the choice of giving away all or nothing, and most would give nothing in that situation.

This may explain why the poor tend to give more money away than the rich. Suppose the choice were not between all or nothing, but between nothing and everything except the minimum necessary for my own survival and that of my family, dependents, etc. For the rich, this choice would then be between nothing and maintaining their lifestyle, or of changing their lifestyle to one of poverty. For someone who is already poor, it wouldn’t involve any change of lifestyle to give away enough money to leave them poor as they already are. By choosing to live by the idea that we do what we do because we have reason for doing so, we put ourselves in the absurd situation that those for whom it would be easiest to give are least likely to do so. The alternative is to say that the amount we choose to give away is our own choice and is not dictated to us by our reason. To take responsibility for the choice, and not to try to pretend that we are acting by a coherent code that dictates our behaviour.

Knowledge, here particularly self-knowledge, is always better than delusion, even when it hurts. When we allow ourselves to be deluded, things always end worse than when we are clear and honest about what is going on. There are many applications of these ideas: religion in this view is obviously problematic because it attempts to externalise our moral choices (indeed, our wish to externalise them may explain why religions are so prevalent); much ethical and moral philosophy, secular or otherwise, is problematic for the same reason, it supports the pretence that there is a coherency or could be such a thing, which stops people from coming to terms with the lack of it. Finally, I want to focus on just one more example, propaganda.

In a previous entry I talked about Jacques Ellul’s book “Propaganda” and the idea that intellectuals are most subject to propaganda because they want to believe that they understand the world, but lacking sufficient time to really do so they rely on answers provided to them by others (putting them in the power of those others). The other aspect of propaganda is what Ellul calls “integration propaganda”. The idea is that once you have participated in an action, you will rationalise that action and create a justification for why it was the right thing to do. The propagandist only needs to get you to participate in an action and you will do the intellectual reorganisation yourself. This is an aspect of propaganda that most people don’t understand (believing that propaganda is just a way of getting people to believe something by repeatedly saying it, or some other such simplification). This is essentially a form of cognitive dissonance: nobody wants to consider themselves the bad guy. Or in the framework of this essay, people want to think of themselves as coherent and consistent, so if they took an action they must have had reason for doing so. Recognising that we are not consistent, rational beings working to some perhaps unknown moral code then has the potential to free us from integration propaganda. Taking our own arationality and inconsistent as a given, we would no longer feel the same requirement to create a self-justifying rationalisation, and so the propaganda would not have its desired effect.

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8 Comments

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There’s stuff here I like and stuff here I don’t like. The stuff I don’t like is mainly that you treat it as an axiom that choices of ends are arational and that all imperatives presuppose some assumed goal, rather than arguing for it. But that’s probably to be expected, if that wasn’t your aim in the post – it’s a popular position so I often find myself being irked by how easy it is to assume.

But I totally agree with the idea of being more whole-hearted about responsibility – interestingly, Sartre, who was completely against determinism, argued a similar position: no distinction between actions we freely chose and those we didn’t (apart from obvious gravity stuff). You’re responsible for all of it.

I hadn’t thought of how it relates to explaining patterns of charitable giving, or the efficacy of propaganda, though – good stuff on those.

Comment by Alderson Warm-Fork

How can a choice of ends be anything but arational? Surely you have to pick a starting point somehow? What other starting point is there?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Well, it’s certainly a puzzling issue, but plenty of people have tried to provide something kind of solution.

For example, you might say that some ends are logically necessitated – i.e. to not hold them is inconceivable, makes no sense.

Conversely, you might say that some ends can be intuitively perceived to be desirable by thinking about them for a moment. This might sound bizarre, but it’s not absolutely clear how it differs from any other case of perception. We just open our eyes/ears/minds and direct our attention and, unless something interferes, we get an impression of the squareness/loudness/goodness of something.

Alternatively, some ends might be necessarily implied by other ends. For example, one might say something about the desire for knowledge here: whatever it is we want, we need to know how to get it, so the value of knowledge is implied by all other values.

I won’t deny that the arationalism you present is in some ways a plausible view and if you were just aiming to follow out some of its consequences, fair enough, but the issue isn’t as clear and settled as all that.

Comment by Alderson Warm-Fork

For me, I don’t think it makes any sense to say that there are logically necessary ends. Do you have an idea of an example? I can’t think of any, it seems every candidate I come up with has an actually existing counterexample, and certainly a possible counterexample.

Intuitive perception of ends seems to be equivalent to an arational choice of ends. It’s not a choice of ends that we make consciously, but it is just determined by our individual natures. I say individual, because our intuitive perception of ends seems to differ from one individual to another. Take the issue of abortion for example, an issue on which one side finds it intuitively obvious that it is equivalent to murder, and the other finds it intuitively obvious that it is not. This is the same as perception – surely you’ve had that experience where two people vehemently disagree about what colour something is? (Usually when it is a shade that is very close to grey.)

I would agree that some ends are implied by others, but one could equally say that the ends that are implied by others aren’t really ends at all, they’re implications of the real ends (the ones that aren’t implied by others).

Basically I don’t see how you can avoid arationalism because otherwise you would have an infinite regress problem. And anyway, if you’re already taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences, why not also take responsibility for your values too?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

“Intuitive perception of ends seems to be equivalent to an arational choice of ends”
Not necessarily. With perception, we assume that other people, or us at different times, are getting access to a coherent reality, so we compare and contrast their different perceptions and look for what makes most sense of the similarities and differences. On the abortion thing, for example, it makes most sense to suppose that most people intuitively see the destruction of a ‘person’ as a bad thing, but disagree over what counts as a person (which is, to an extent, an issue in philosophy more than ethics). Or the issue might be whether the right to bodily integrity trumps another’s right to life. That might be decided by considering why we see those rights as important, and what our views of the human being are.

Rawls, I think, originated the phrase ‘reflective equilibrium’. I guess I’m wondering, why is ethical thought in a worse position than rational or scientific thought?

“you would have an infinite regress problem”
No more than you have an infinite regress problem in thought and knowledge per se. How do you justify your standards of epistemic justification? According to what standards? Typically, people have trouble explaining how it all makes sense but continue to believe that it does.

“why not also take responsibility for your values too?”
Typically people see responsibility and appeal to standards as going hand in hand, no?

Comment by Alderson Warm-Fork

“we compare and contrast their different perceptions and look for what makes most sense of the similarities and differences”

But “what makes most sense…” is clearly a value judgement (and one on which people disagree vehemently). There are knowledge values as much as ethical values. (I seem to recall that Hilary Putnam’s essay “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy” is quite good on this, but it’s years since I read it and I forget what exactly he said.)

“disagree over what counts as a person (which is, to an extent, an issue in philosophy more than ethics)”

What counts as a person is a choice though (an arational one). For me, a human blastocyst for example doesn’t count, for others it does.

Similarly for weighing rights, you have a choice about how to weight them.

“No more than you have an infinite regress problem in thought and knowledge per se.”

Yes, and rationality is sort of arational too in some bizarre sense. Personally, I take a Pragmatist view of rationality, and this is founded on an empirical, intuitive, arational set of choices (albeit backed up by the results of millions of years of evolution). You can read what I wrote about this here.

I think this point that there’s no source of meaning than evolution is important. Given our status as meat robots manufactured by our genes to replicate themselves, there’s no other source of this meaning (that I can think of). The only solution to infinite regress then is by thinking in terms of evolution, and specifically of ourselves as the product of that.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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