Saturday, November 04, 2006

Rational Irrationality

In comments to last weekend’s “theory weekend” posts, michael u wrote in defense of rationality as a moral virtue. Specifically, he said,

If theism is deeply influential and irrational, and the widespread influence of unreason is harmful (as it has . . . always proved to be) wouldn’t theism be an agent of harm and therefore something to be excised . . .

There are a couple of issues that I would like to discuss that are related to this question.

Rational Ignorance

The first issue that I would like to discuss is “rational ignorance.”

We only have so much time available to us. Learning takes time. With all of the information that exists out there, there is no way that any one of us can learn more than a very small portion of that knowledge. We have to remain substantially ignorant of the rest.

For example, I have spent my time becoming reasonably well informed about (1) moral theory, (2) the space program and astronomy, and (3) history. I am also have spent time acquiring a fair amount of knowledge about characters and events in the new Battlestar Galactica television show (as well as a few others). However, the time that it takes me to be informed about these things cost me elsewhere. I speak only one language. I know very little about sports, wines, electrical engineering, quantum mechanics, or the effects of illegal drugs.

In fact, the ratio of “things I know” to “things that I do not know” is extremely low – and getting lower every day.

It has to be that way. I do not have a choice in this matter – and neither does anybody else.

Of course, choosing what to be ignorant of is not a matter of looking over all of the possibilities, and then discarding knowledge that I do not think that I need. It requires using time-efficient rules to decide what issues I am going to study, how deeply I am going to study them, and what issues I am going to ignore.

Reason is NOT time-efficient rule. It is extremely time-consuming, and requires a huge amount of background knowledge.

Dawkins and Harris are very much involved in the education system. In fact, they have decided NOT to be ignorant about the philosophical and logical arguments concerning the existence of a God. However, in this they are, and they will always be members of a very small club.

The rest of the world is made up of secretaries, truck drivers, construction workers, football players, and the like. Most people will devote most of their learning to their job – particularly if they want to be particularly good at it. A computer programmer is not going to go home and ponder the existence of a God. He is going to spend some of his time with friends and family and some of it in simply entertainment. If he has spare time, and if he has an interest in being a good programmer, he is going to be spending far more time working on computer projects even in his spare time.

The demands of holding every one of our beliefs to the light of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ is simply too much to demand of people. There must be some way to make priorities.

Here, I argue that the first principle for determining which beliefs to hold up to the light of reason and double check are those that put others at risk of harm. The first question to ask is, “What is the risk of harm to others?” The question of whether the belief is rational or irrational is the second question. If we ask the question of rational or irrational first, we are going to end up asking it a lot of times when the answer simply does not matter – or matters very little.

The Nature of Rationality

A second set of concerns comes from the nature of rationality itself.

As I wrote yesterday – action is governed by beliefs and desires.

Reason belongs in the realm of beliefs. Reason (or rationality) also belongs in the realm of matching means to ends. However, reason has nothing to do with the selection of ends themselves. Reason does not determine if one likes vanilla more than chocolate (or vica versa), or a preference for red-heads, or a fondness for watching horror movies. These are desires that we acquire, and reason has nothing to do with it.

In saying this, I am following a model of reason laid down by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume argued that reason was the slave of the passions – meaning that reason told us how to act on our passions, but did not tell us what passions to have. According to Hume:

'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. 'Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. Treatise of Human Nature

If we teach rationality to a child rapist, we will end up with a very rational, efficient, and skilled child rapist.

If we teach rationality to a Nazi, we will end up with a Nazi who will know the best way to carry out his Nazi agenda.

Reason does not choose the ends – reason only chooses the means for fulfilling the ends that one happens to acquire. If those ends are good (tend to fulfill the desires of others), then rationality is useful. However, rationality, in the hands of somebody who is evil, will simply help him to find the most efficient ways to carry out his evil.

A Desire Utilitarian Caveat on Hume

Hume’s views of rationality were mostly correct. However, he seems to have overlooked a subtle but important distinction.

This is the idea that reason can tell us nothing about the choice of ends as ends. However, since reason is very much concerned with the choice of means, it is possible to apply reason to the choice of ends as means for the fulfillment of other ends.

As Hume says, it may not be contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world as an end to the scratching of my finger. However, if we look at this desire for the destruction of the world as a means to the fulfillment of other desires it is not very useful. Indeed, quite a few of us have reason to act so as to make it very unlikely that others have a desire for the destruction of the world. In other words, it is rational for us to choose to make this a world in which the desire to seek its destruction is extremely rare.

It is reasonable to argue that Hume did not miss this distinction – he simply did not realize what he had. Hume argued that ethics was mostly concerned with promoting character traits (desires). Character traits could be evaluated, in part, on their usefulness to self and others. This is simply one way of saying that, even though we have no way to evaluate the value of ends as ends, we can still evaluate their usefulness. We can still evaluate the value of ends as means.

Conclusion

Even recognizing our ability to rationally evaluate the usefulness of desires (passions, character traits, ends, whatever you want to call them), we still have two problems with putting too much stress on rationality.

(1) We simply do not have the time or the resources to be too rational. We have to use other means to fit all of our belief-selection into the limited amount of time that we have on this planet.

(2) Ends as ends is immune to rationality; and a rational evil person will simply be more efficient at doing evil.

It is better to focus one’s effort on promoting good desires, than to promoting value-free rationality.

One could say, perhaps, that reason recommends a stronger focus on good desires than on reason itself.

2 comments:

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: "wouldn’t theism be an agent of harm and therefore something to be excised"

While religion is such a successful political tool, I doubt that it will be disappearing in th near future.

Religion acts as a powerful placebo which is adminstered often as if it was theraputic.

Another option is the mass doping of the population with some type of "feel good drug." But I think that may have already been suggested in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

SOMA - "All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects."

michael u said...

1. 'The first question to ask is, “What is the risk of harm to others?" The question of whether the belief is rational or irrational is the second question. If we ask the question of rational or irrational first, we are going to end up asking it a lot of times when the answer simply does not matter – or matters very little."'

How can an individual actually determine the risk of harm to others without using reason? Indeed, I'd argue that risk (and harm itself) must be determined rationally: how else? You and I may define harm in a specific way, but on what basis if not reason? I can cite a specific example of an individual who disagrees with any conventional definition of harm, namely, a fundamentalist member of my family who would argue that whipping a homosexual would not be harm, but rather a true expression of corrective love. That's a rather absurd example, yes, but I hope it places into contrast the possible difference between a rational definition and an irrational definition. What I'm getting at is that the definition of harm may be contested – if you forsake rationality, you're lost in relative semantics (and actions).

Secondly, and more to the point, if the mere definition of harm must be determined rationally, how much more so the risk of harm? I don't intend to give absurd examples for the hell of it, but if the risk of harm is not determined rationally, what is the standard by which that risk is measured?

Thirdly, in specific regards to Dawkins and Harris, I don't think they're by any means attacking irrationality in non-harmful ways. Note that they aren't attacking habits or even necessarily private opinions, but the effect and influence of deeply irrational beliefs (as opposed to rational ones). I think ultimately they are making the argument that (a) religion is irrational AND (b) religion is harmful. I don't think they're attacking religion merely on one basis or the other.

2. " Reason belongs in the realm of beliefs."

I realize you elaborate, but I feel it necessary to interrupt here and disagree. I keep hearing reason called a belief or rationalism a belief system, and I'm not entirely sure why. Reason isn't an object to believe or worship. Reason is a procedural system of approaching reality. Reason is not an outcome; it is the process of arriving at an outcome. Reason is the axiomatic process by which one arrives at a result. It utilizes a set of particulars to arrive at a general solution, and it changes as new facts (particulars) are input. I'll elaborate in the section, specifically regarding the topic at hand.

3. " In saying this, I am following a model of reason laid down by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume argued that reason was the slave of the passions – meaning that reason told us how to act on our passions, but did not tell us what passions to have."

I contest Hume's model of reason. I think a basis for ethical naturalism can be derived, though we may not perfectly understand it yet, but I think that neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and precedents set by both genetic and memetic evolution provide an ample platform from which to argue the basis of ethical naturalism. However, I'm not arguing that ethics come from chemical interactions or biological imperatives (like, say, an ethical intuitionist might).

The work of the developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is of special interest to me, specifically Kohlberg's stages of moral development. I'm sure that you may be familiar with him, but you may find these links interesting or enlightening if you are not: http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/kohlberg.stages.html
http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm
http://tigger.uic.edu/~lnucci/MoralEd/overview.html
(Just to correct a misunderstanding in case you're not familiar with Kohlberg, the moral stages he proposes aren't simply or even basically biological/chemical/genetic/memetic, but based in the reasoning abilities of the individual.)

I think that Kohlberg's work, among others, provides a decent backing to naturalistic ethical position. I realize I've gone on a bit of a tangent, but where I'm going is here: I don't think that reason is a blind process.

Your statement: "If we teach rationality to a Nazi, we will end up with a Nazi who will know the best way to carry out his Nazi agenda." I don't think efficiency should be equating with rationality; nor the methodical with the rational. To address this example, the Nazi agenda was based on wildly irrational principles with no basis in fact (and basically my argument is that actual rationality requires the input of facts—not mere desires, though desires may be facts within a situation—rather than fabrications. Facts may develop and be improved upon, of course, so the process of reason isn't perfect, but I'd argue that the concept of perfection is meaningless—that's aside the point, though).

I realize that you to some extent address the issue of ends and means (and some of what I've just said), so I'm going to move on to your conclusions and my inquiries/perspectives/contentions.

4. " (1) We simply do not have the time or the resources to be too rational. We have to use other means to fit all of our belief-selection into the limited amount of time that we have on this planet.
(2) Ends as ends is immune to rationality; and a rational evil person will simply be more efficient at doing evil.
It is better to focus one’s effort on promoting good desires, than to promoting value-free rationality.
One could say, perhaps, that reason recommends a stronger focus on good desires than on reason itself.


Rationality requires facts. The process of pure reason cannot be attained anymore than perfect knowledge can be attained. However, in regards to ethics, I think a rational structure can be built to process facts about an individual ethical situation. Not all the facts can be obtained, but I think that discarding rationality as the process for comprehension and judgment simply because perfect knowledge cannot be attained creates an unnecessary dichotomy: you must have all the facts to utilize the process of reason correctly, and if you don't, the process of reason is not sufficient. The process of reason is, in my understanding, evolutionary in that it improves itself (and the facts that it processes are also improved), but expecting or demanding a level of perfect knowledge (or pure reason) would be removing ethical evaluation from reality to an idealistic plane.

Coming from a position of ethical naturalism, I'd argue that being "evil" is intrinsically irrational (although irrationality is not intrinsically evil). Do you think this argument could be made, or have you considered it? Kohlberg's stages of moral development and the variety of evidence for genetic or memetic ethical grounds seem to suggest that there is something intrinsically less rational about ethical grounds based in consequentialism or simply pure selfishness (whether in regards to the survivability of the group or otherwise).

5. My apologies for not being as clear as I could be. It's late. By the way, I sent you an e-mail regarding several issues with a prior post. I hope that wasn't an imposition, and I look forward to a response if you have the time or interest. If otherwise, I understand you're probably a busy man.