Recapturing Rationality

September 4, 2012

A rational man is one who aims at goals and takes action to achieve them. This is a definition of rationality currently in vogue in some schools of thought. However, it is a fundamentally uninteresting definition: ‘goals’ are construed as whatever a person was aiming to achieve with an action, and so any action is rational. If every action is rational – because every conscious action must aim at a goal – then there is no such thing as an irrational action, and the very word becomes meaningless. By inference, I can describe the aimless swimming of a goldfish as ‘rational’; I know naught of fishy goals, and it is not for me to say when they are rational and when they are not.

While this is not an incoherent position, we should be wary of any stance which says that a commonly used word is being used incorrectly by the rest of mankind; humility is a useful intellectual virtue. Is there another definition of ‘rationality’ which captures the useful insight that rational action is the preserve of the individual while still retaining the distinction between rational and irrational in a coherent fashion?

Luckily, there is. Regular readers will know of my affection for the work of Fleischacker on liberty, and it provides a useful steer here. The first question we should ask is what we mean when we say ‘action’. The definition above considers ‘action’ to be basic, without considering what it is we do when we act. However, this involves a rather basic conceit: that in the split second of decision-making about whether to, say, kill the fat man, we somehow weigh all the pros and cons of each potential act. Of course we do not; our brains are not hyper light speed quantum counting engines. Rather, we act in accordance with the principles we have accepted and considered in advance, before we were thrust into such a situation. What we do when acting is not to assess every possible outcome, but rather to make a judgement: this context falls under this principle, so this action should be performed.

The creation of these principles is something we do when reflecting, or opting to adhere to a particular moral code. It is in the practice of these principles that they are reinforced, and we become more likely to act in such a way in future. This leads us onto a useful definition of rationality: acting in accordance with our principles.

Our principles are self-determined, even if we are signing up to someone else’s – that remains our decision. As a result, only we can determine whether we have been acting irrationally or not. I can state quite categorically that I am more likely to act irrationally while drunk, for example, which captures the common intuition about the meaning of rationality quite happily.

Moreover, this definition of irrationality – failure to determine the correct principle to apply to a particular context – is something which is only known to the self, and so cannot be a tool for another to step in and remove one’s autonomy, unless one wishes it. This may prove useful to members of that particular school I linked above, who do seem to worry so about such things.


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