Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rationality is not enough

Rationality — in the sense of understanding objective reality by means of logic and the evidence of the senses — is necessary, but it's not sufficient. Values are real, but inherently subjective, and are susceptible to only a trivial kind of rationality. Ideology — in the sense of explicitly stating one's values — has been a cause of irrationality. However, you can't throw out the baby of subjective value with the bathwater of irrationally justifying those values.

DBB self-identifies as a "moderate", largely because he's reality based:
I like to think I'm a moderate because I like to find the facts and find out what works rather than starting at an ideology or a party and working backwards (like the party hacks and pundits seem to do). I also am intellectually honest and consistent in my positions. Unlike the political parties.
I can't fault DBB at all for sticking to the facts: I'm 100% in agreement. Facts and reality are necessary.

But they're not sufficient.

It's very frustrating in today's society to be intelligent and sensible with a personal relationship to reality. It seems like everyone with some sort of interest is not only willing but eager to bullshit, distort, spin, and lie outright to persuade others. It's tempting to blame ideology itself for these sins against the truth. You're not going to sin against the truth without any motivation, without s something you want, some way you want the world to be. The remedy would then seem to be to abandon ideology and, like DBB, just stick to the (objective) facts.

But you can't do that.

Of course, if you define "ideology" as being some system of thought that overrides true beliefs about reality, then of course ideology sins by definition against the truth. But under that definition, liberalism, conservatism, humanism, egotism, or any ethical system — even, in a certain sense, Nazism or Stalinism — is not necessarily an ideology. Yes, sinning against the truth is indeed sinning against the truth, but by calling these sins "ideology" you've merely applied a new label to these sins; you haven't explained them.

Everyone wants something. Everyone has values. If you're explicit about these wants and values, if you've stated them precisely enough to communicate them, you've created, in a sense, an ideology. There's nothing in this sense of ideology that analytically entails lies and bullshit, so we can look instead to causal connections.

Of course, if your wants and values are exploitive, if you want to gain at others' loss, then you won't value the truth for its own sake, at least not regarding those you want to exploit. Contrawise, a dedication to truth for its own sake tends to act against exploitation: if I tell you straight out I intend to exploit you, I cannot expect your efficient compliance. Anyone who does not consider himself absolutely immune to exploitation then has a good instrumental reason to value the truth.

However, lies and bullshit as instruments for exploitive ideologies doesn't go nearly far enough to explaining their connection to ideology.

There's also laziness. If I think value is good for us both, it often seems easier to promote the value by lying or bullshtting. It's very easy to rationalize this tactic, especially if the value is subtle. It's not like I'm doing you any harm by persuading you to accept the value. If I tell you that God demands that you behave cooperatively (and will surely catch you out and punish you if you do not), surely the mutual benefits of cooperation outweighs the minor sin of bullshitting you about the demands of a nonexistent entity. Especially since trying to explain cooperation in purely rational terms is a lot more complicated than it looks, requiring the subtle mathematics of advanced game theory, probability and recursion to fully justify.

Of course this laziness is more damaging than it first appears. To get people to swallow any kind of bullshit, however well-intentioned, you have to get them to suspend rationality, to refuse to apply rational thought to some domain of inquiry. But once you learn to swallow one kind of bullshit, you'll swallow any kind of bullshit, precisely because you've abandoned rational thought. Once you irrationally believe that God can demand something, however benign, you're ready to believe that God can demand anything. It's a small step, cognitively speaking, to go from "God demands that you behave cooperatively" to "God demands that you kill all the Jews." You've already been conditioned to suspend your rationality and self-interest when you hear a sentence that begins "God demands..."

Hence Diderot's condemnation of the just and enlightened prince*:
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.
*Yes, I flog this quotation unmercifully. It is, in my not-at-all-humble opinion, one of the wisest sayings ever uttered.

But even laziness is not a sufficient explanation for the connection between ideology and lies and bullshit. It's not that hard to explain things rationally; you don't have to be a super-genius to understand the benefits of cooperation, fairness, egalitarianism, rationality and any other non-exploitive ethical and social system. The hard work is in coming up with these explanations; it's relatively easy to understand something once it's been explained.

An enormous part of our brains are dedicated to understanding objective reality, and our notions of truth are inexorably bound up with our urgent and unceasing evaluation of objective reality. Because so much of our brains are dedicated to objective reality, it's inevitable that we use metaphors borrowed from that understanding to explain our values, especially where our values relate to objective reality. We say "stealing is bad" to communicate how we feel about people walking off with our stuff.

There's nothing wrong per se with using metaphors, so long as you don't confuse the metaphor with reality. And that's the fundamental problem with our discourse and notions about ideology and values in general.

It's tempting to believe that people with values fundamentally different from our own are actually mistaken, that they have failed to correctly apprehend objective reality in the same sense that someone who believes the Earth is flat or that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago is mistaken and has failed to correctly apprehend objective reality. We want to believe that our own values are correct in the same sense, especially when we want to justify punishing or inconveniencing others for the sake of our own values. We want to believe that stealing really is wrong, that a thief is not only an asshole, but also mistaken, and — if he persists in his stealing — actually irrational.

The problem, much as I'd like to believe it myself, is that it's just not true. The idea that values are actually true or false in the same sense that our descriptions of objective reality are true or false is flat-out no-bullshit not rationally justifiable.

(Values are rationally justifiable in a trivial sense: you are aware of your own values introspectively in the same sense that you are aware of the evidence of your senses; your own values are facts about yourself. Facts are foundational and don't require elaborate rational justification; rational justification is the process of justifying abstract beliefs on the basis of the facts. Of course, actually fulfilling your values often requires a deep rational understanding of how reality works.)

It's irrational to take ideology and values as objective truth. It's equally irrational, though, to deny ideology completely. To deny ideology completely is to say that you don't have any values at all, or to say that your values are inherently mystical, and fundamentally transcend descriptive language. But both assertions are obviously bullshit. Of course everyone has values, and those values can be adequately communicated in ordinary language: I like this, I dislike that, and I dislike the other so intensely that I'm willing to use force to stop it.

It is, for example, not the case that rape is objectively bad. It's simply the case that I dislike rape so intensely that if you rape someone, I would — in principle — personally hunt you down and kill you. (Of course, I live in a civilized society, and I'm happy to delegate that job to the police, and give them guns to do the job. And if some rapists makes himself so obstreperous as to require the police to actually use their guns, I won't shed a tear.)

Conditioned as is much of humanity to subservience, obedience and mental slavery, it seems very scary to many people to justify coercion on nothing better than their own values. But it is the case that all coercion is justified on nothing other than the opinion of at least one person. It's comforting to pass the buck, to the government, to society, and eventually to God and scripture. But society and government are nothing more than people with opinions, and of course, there is no God, only priests and prophets, themselves nothing more than people with opinions.

Furthermore, to pass the buck is itself a choice, the fulfillment of a value. If you eat meat, you are killing an animal; it matters not that the butcher actually performs the task. If you choose to allow "God" to decide what is right and wrong, you are just as responsible — even if God were to actually exist — for those decisions as you would be if you just decided for yourself. No one can escape the reality of choice: even if someone holds a gun to your head, you must choose compliance over death. (Of course, most people would naturally consider the alternative of immediate death to justify many (but not all) choices that they would not otherwise condone.)

The obvious objection to this argument is that if everyone just did what they wanted, we would have no society at all, no cooperation, the most banal sort of law-of-the-jungle anarchy. But this objection is specious. A cooperative society can be justified on the basis of mutual benefit, of people getting more of what they want by cooperating than by competing. It is rational to scratch my back if I scratch yours if and only if you desire me scratching your back more than you object to the effort of scratching mine. Cooperation for mutual value rests foundationally on the existence of individual value; cooperation without mutual value is just exploitation.

It irritates me no end when people with whom I share many values lie and bullshit in support of those values. But I'm not going to deny my values just because some dumbass politician or rhetorician bullshits in their favor. I might change political parties, I might support or oppose particular organizations or individuals, but no amount of bullshit for the sake of humanism will stop me from holding and advocating humanist values.


  1. Absolutely. Over the past few years, especially, I have seen that the absolute worst forms of bullshit come from people who claim to have 'no opinion- just an interest in the facts'. If I hear those words, or words like them, it is an immediate signal to me that the speaker is either confused, or dishonest. It has become an axiom of mine that everyone has an opinion, everyone has an ideology, and everyone has something they want. Maybe someday I will meet someone who defies this, but I think it will just be the exception that proves the rule.

    It almost seems like this is somehow related to the contemporary phenomenon of bullshit centrism in politics and media. By bullshit centrism, I mean Joe Lieberman, Joe Klein, and others of that ilk- dishonest partisans who try to hide their partisanship in 'moderation' and 'centrism', as if they and only they were capable of balance and objectivity.

  2. There are two ways of pushing a specifically moral position.

    The first is to tell me how the adoption of the position is what I already believe (expressed in a particular way), rationalizes my competing interests, or is otherwise in my own self interest, short- or long-term.

    The other way is try to bullshit me that the position is somehow "actually true", and I should adopt the moral position even if it's not in any sense in my own self interest.

    I definitely agree with you: There are a class of pundits and politicians, the "bullshit centrists" who say, "I'm not about an ideology, I'm just interested in the facts. And the fact is that it's good to spend $500 billion to $2 trillion to bomb the shit out of Iraq. How can you argue with the facts?"

  3. Those bullshit centrists annoy the living hell out of me.

    Getting back to your opening paragraph, I think you can justify a "good" set of basic morality with more than just trivial rationality - in the end, you have to have a morality that protects just about everyone because if you don't, then you ultimately protect no one because those without protection eventually just won't take that shit anymore and then you have a revolution... and if they don't learn the lesson they repeat the mistake and there is another revolution later as the formerly opressors become oppressed and then fight to avoid that, and so on, ad nauseum. I see strong rational reasons to want to avoid that. Plus, I always figure that just because one may be favored now, that doesn't mean you will be in the future.

    So maybe there is something more than just rationality for morality, but I think even if that is the case, the rationality portion of morality is more than trivial.

  4. in the end, you have to have a morality that protects just about everyone because if you don't, then you ultimately protect no one because those without protection eventually just won't take that shit anymore and then you have a revolution...

    I disagree, dbb. There are rational reasons to act against morality. An evil actor of sufficient power, intelligence and ruthlessness can reap rewards, and escape punishment. I'm not sure I buy morality as a direct consequence of rationality.

  5. Given my stance on meta-ethical subjective relativism, I must point out that acting "against morality" is imprecise. One can act against some given morality; one can also, in a given moral and social context, act contrary to one's own interests (generally because a person has been fooled in some way).

    Morality is the application of rationality to interest. "Interests" are foundational, they are not themselves rationally established.

  6. I must point out that acting "against morality" is imprecise. One can act against some given morality;

    OK, lets put it this way: there are forms of morality which are unrelated to, or even opposed to, concepts such as 'the Golden Rule', Human Rights, or even the concept of Law. dbb seems to be arguing that use of rationality will inevitably tend to bring one closer to these concepts. What I am saying is that for some people, use of rationality may tend to push them away from the concept of Human Rights, or 'The Golden Rule'.

    Take, for instance, the 'Straussian' morality of the Neoconservatives. As I understand it, their morality is that only a small 'vanguard' elite of people are truly capable of governing themselves, and this small elite is aware that there is no God or objective law. However, since the vast masses are not capable of governing themselves, they must be held in check by lies about necessary, stringent laws, about the necessity of pain and sacrifice for society. The lies are called 'noble lies'.

    I don't know how seriously neoconservative thinkers actually take these ideas, but you can see that this is not a morality which "protects just about everyone" because it actually considers most people to be expendable. But, it does make rational sense.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is an attractive morality to me. I'm just saying that I'm not sure I buy a simple connection between rationality and a desire to protect most people. Acting against the interest of most people is too easily profitable to a powerful, ruthless person. Acting to further the interest of most people is too often dangerous for a powerful person.

    I'm not sure where that leaves me, though, as someone who really does want most people's interests to be protected.

  7. dbb seems to be arguing that use of rationality will inevitably tend to bring one closer to these concepts. What I am saying is that for some people, use of rationality may tend to push them away from the concept of Human Rights, or 'The Golden Rule'.

    I agree.


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