Rational Thought

Been slammed at work too much to do much of anything, but in the 10 pages of the Reppert book I’m reading I found a quote which sheds light on quite a bit of the way we engage in political discussions”

If you were to meet a person, call him Steve, who could argue with great cognency for every position he held, you might on that account be inclined to consider him a very rational person. But suppose it turned out that on all disputed questions Steve rolled dice to fix his positions permanently and then used his reasoning abilities only to generate the best available arguments for those beliefs selected in the above-mentioned random method. I think that such a discovery would prompt you to withdraw from him the honorific title "rational". Clearly the question of whether a person is rational cannot be answered in a manner that leaves entirely out of account the question of how his or her beliefs are produced and sustained.

Incidentally this is part of the moral problem of working in law. Very often you are presented with the position you must defend (rational or not) and you must use your brain to make that position sound rational. But enough about my problems.

I think this quote has a lot to do with suspicion about the Iraq war. Proponents of the war suspect that their opponents don't believe that war is ever good (or believe that there is never too much negotiation or believe that the US can never really do good in the world) and that other arguments are just a way of hiding their true feelings from the public. Opponents of the war suspect that the US wanted to go into this war no matter what evidence was available (for reasons which are ususally left unsaid lest the speaker sound silly) which supposedly explains the multiplicity of reasons for the war as well as explaining the intelligence failures.

I think we often ascribe irrationality to our opponents because it means that we don't have to deal with their arguments. Notice that in the case of Steve his arguments were not said to have been refuted, they were merely shown not to be part of the method of selecting his positions. I think for the most part we would be better off not engaging as if our opponents were irrational, unless they prove themselves to be irrational in some generally understood way. (But that opens up a whole can of worms that I can't deal with today. So in the comments feel free to figure out how we could safely determine irrationality without being dismissive.)

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at April 8, 2004 1:59 AM