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.
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.
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.