What Does It Mean to Be Rational?

I would argue that we judge a community or system of thought or a person as rational or not based in large part upon how they respond to criticism. If the response to criticism is to ignore it or shut it up by appeal to some authority — a text, a leader, “the way we do things” — it is less rational. If the response is to engage in dialogue with defeasible appeals to public criteria it is more rational. No community or person is completely rational or irrational.  Even the homicidal maniac ax murderer will listen if you tell him that his ax handle is falling apart.  Even the most secular atheist utilitarian will sometimes make an appeal to life or happiness or freedom which he or she cannot further justify.  However just because there is no pure example of a rational or irrational person or group does not mean it is not possible to detect tendencies and groupings — the Manson Family is less rational than the US Supreme Court for example.

Explicitly anti-rational ideologies  — romanticism, mysticism, fascism — are an interesting test case.   They provide an argument against appealing to argument — it makes life boring, or vitiates the sacred bonds of the community, or teaches children to be uppity or whatever.  By doing so they are appealing to a reason not to be rational.  Nothing wrong with that, but it demonstrates how in a modern society some sort of appeal to what’s right as opposed to “just how you have to do things” is inescapable.

The connection between rationality and a non-brow-beating response to criticism also demonstrates how intertwined issues of rationality are with issues of ethics.  Part of the reason you don’t want to be irrational is that you don’t want to get things wrong about the world — if you are stuck in a conceptual rut, or factually in error, or trapped at a local maximum you would like to know.  But another part of the reason is that knocking down everyone who challenges you with an appeal to authority is just an awful way to be a person.


14 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be Rational?

  1. 💜…(coming straight from the Heart)

    Como te sientes en este momento Eric?😎I remember when I 1st heard Diane Sawyer say ‘a criticism is a less than wonderful version of a request.’

    …it fit right in with the NonViolent Communication training I was doing that was suggesting ‘all communication is a please or a thank you and now I find myself really enjoy finding the please & the request in any ‘criticism!’

    When I read the 1st half of your blog I thought about what I learned in debate class at Palo Alto High School about eliding and how to argue with sophistry & poutrage (and being aware of argumentum ad hominem). I see those tools being used by politicians and I see innocent audiences fall prey everyday 😦

    …reading the 2nd half of the blog I wondered if we were dancing with ‘reality’ & ‘rationality?’ Because there are times as a Montessori Methodist that I find it quite rational to be less than realistic 😉 Feel me E? ~Tony Scruggs

      • ⚾…thanks for the clarity request Eric!

        I was taught that ‘poutrage’ was using false outrage to persuade, ‘sophistry’ was using a false argument to persuade and ‘eliding’ was combining two controversial points together to prevent the other person from getting a word in. I wanted to tie all of that into the rational/criticism idea in that my observation is that rational ideas rarely use debate tricks because the idea is what persuades. Did that make sense? 😉

  2. N.S. Palmer says:

    The connection of rationality and ethics is near and dear to me, since I think that different kinds of beliefs serve different purposes, and a belief’s purpose is relevant to assessing its rationality.

    Factual beliefs, such as “the store is a mile south of here,” guide us to success if factually correct and to failure if incorrect. Empirical and logical considerations are paramount in such cases. On the other hand, such considerations might be almost irrelevant to beliefs such as “God loves me.” Their purpose is to provide moral and spiritual support for our lives and communities. In such cases, we might respond to criticism politely and then ignore it. It’s an arguable point, of course, but (may Mr. Spock forgive me) logic isn’t everything.

  3. Late for a meeting, rushing into the room like a whirlwind saying Sorry, traffic was terrible. The 10 people sitting there say….. so how do you think we got here, in a helicopter? A similar thing happened to me and I took their criticism to heart that moment . Was mine a rational response to criticism? I don’t know, but it has changed the way I think about excuses and how I take responsibility for my actions.

    Men can rationalize the hell out of choosing a loophole that is legal but not ethical. If they must rationalize (or is it lie) to themselves or others that what they did was legal and therefore A-OK, they must have that gut Feeling that it is not quite right ethically.

    It is the people who don’t listen to criticism that are the frightening people. Do they ever consider ethics? Are they 100% irrational? Another one of those lines that is blurred at times? I don’t know where the term ‘gray areas’ came from but it’s certainly no comfort.

    Somehow, there is an inborn surety of ethics in some of us. There are things you just know about for sure. It’s been there since you were born. It’s unwavering, and absolute. In business and with friends, the ethics of an action is considered in every choice you make.
    Rational? Irrational? Nuts Perhaps?

  4. I don’t think I believe that ethics was there since I was born — I feel like I am constantly maturing in my understanding of other human beings and how to balance my needs versus theirs. In the case you describe I think you are too hard on yourself. It doesn’t seem like “criticism” so much as shaming. By criticism I meant criticizing the decisions and pronouncements of those in authority.

  5. I never thought of that episode as shaming. Hmmm how odd. I see your point. Thank you. I didn’t get the feeling of being shamed or embarrassed, but I did see it as a response I deserved.

  6. “how intertwined issues of rationality are with issues of ethics”

    Without pausing to think, my gut instinct is: yes, I would have thought very much so; although, I sometimes find my conception of ethics different from others.

    If by ethics, morality, mores, we’re taking about community customs, habits, values (which generally I do), then I would have thought here’s where the common ground lies– I think what constitutes ‘rational’ has to be that everyone is playing the same game. In mathematics, for example, when calculating a sum, if a man makes an error we might be in a position to look through his calculations and say “Ah, do you see, you forgot to carry the two here and so that’s why you reached this conclusion instead of the correct one”. He could and would acknowledge the mistake. If a man from another community takes three from seven and gives an answer of twenty-two, where would you start; I think you would need to reduce everything back to the point where your common ground lies because it’s not so much a mistake as a way of doing things radically differently.

  7. What does it mean to be from one community rather than another? To take an extreme example you might think you are a member of a different community than is a lion on the Serengeti, but you both suffer from the effects of global warming, you both have a stake in preventing it, you both would run fast if a tsunami came bearing down on you (in the opposite direction). Yes there are people who when confronted with 325+101 would say “No thanks, I’d rather just enjoy the weather” but sometimes those people include me. Moral: What’s a community?

  8. “What does it mean to be from one community rather than another?”
    “Moral: What’s a community?”

    Aren’t there unlimited criteria? I only think your example with the lion is only extreme to the extent others are willing to entertain the idea. For me, it’s not unreachable in that I could conceive of someone very much having that attitude (a Vegan, animal activist, etc.), that ‘All living creatures belong to the same community’. Some go a step further with ‘all living things’; some still further with ‘we have a duty to the earth, the trees, the rocks, the ocean, we are all one’ etc. I could also conceive of someone having a strong ‘sense of community’ with this latter view. I think, at this point, you just begin to test the grammar of the word. I don’t think you could use the word community with the relationship between LEGO bricks, lions, and backgammon but, I would have thought, only because pockets of people haven’t been discovered yet (or hopefully ever) who can hold this view.

  9. Community is like imagining where exactly you belong in the world. Finding where you fit in the story, in the illustration, or in the grand unfolding of events? When you understand that, then finding out there are lots of others right there beside you. That could be your community, or at least one of them.

    Family isn’t always community, and I don’t think just geography denotes a community. So, what is it? A physical place? Friends? Closeness with people? A group united by common ideals? Religion Animals Nature? Probably all of those things.

    I think my community is like minded people. I also have a different view of ethics from most of my friends, They never wonder about anything, so they are not my community, but what do I know? Can anyone define their own community?

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