What is Rationality?
When I use the term “rational,” I mean a method that is both intended to be, and is, effective in seeking particular values. This needs to be unpacked. First, by methods I mean mental actions like thoughts, ideas, and thought processes, as well as physical actions, and I will use these somewhat interchangeably. I include both mental and physical actions because both relate, in different and connected ways, to seeking values. A thought cannot fully determine an action - there are always details left unspecified. Nevertheless an action that is not guided by at least some thought or thinking processes is largely animal behavior. This is among the reasons Aristotle called us the “rational animal.”
Next, such methods must be effective. It is a vague word, and to the extent that our values are not clearly specified it might be difficult to measure effectiveness. Still, to the extent that we can say that we have procured values that we sought, and did so using methods that were intentional, we can say that those methods at least seemed to be effective. Whether they actually were effective, or we were merely fortunate, is a separate question that we will look at later. Ideally, we would have some sort of reason to believe that the methods we pursue will be effective, which leads to the morass of causation; so the analysis is complicated. In any case, the practical question of whether a thought or action is rational often boils down to what we mean by effective.
Seeking means actually pursuing the values in question. It does not mean deciding whether they are actually one’s values, or weighing them amongst themselves or in comparison to other values. It is about execution, not vision. This does not mean that a thought or planned action is not rational until it takes place. We can have a rational plan of action that has not yet been implemented, and I include such planning in the notion of seeking. But what makes it rational is whether or not it is or will be effective when we go about the seeking.
I use particular because I see rationality as a relation. Methods should never be judged as absolutely rational or not; a context of values is always required. A thought or action is rational with respect to the values that they help to achieve. Note also that values is plural. This means that the definition may relate to more than one value at a time. It might take into account desiderata subject to certain constraints, where both the constraints and desiderata are values. It might also refer to all of a particular person’s values, or to a particular class of values intersubjectively.
Finally, I have left the phrase intended to be for last, because it is easier to understand in the context of the other terms. If thoughts or actions are not intended or expected to help in seeking a set of values, it does not really make sense to evaluate their rationality with respect to those values. They are simply independent or unrelated. We might refer to them as non-rational with respect to the applicable values, though this is a term of art that we would only want to use in precise circumstances. The “intended to be” phrasing makes it possible to define irrational with a parallel construction - simply change “and is” to “and is not.”
I am conflating values with purposes in the definition, even though there are differences. In general, all purposes are values of a sort; the reverse may also be true, but not necessarily. Also, I do not see it as essential that one must act to pursue something for it to constitute a value; I prefer instead to call those priorities - but I am not prepared to argue that here, it is terminological and a different topic. I use the term values to cover all those things that we would like to have or have come to pass.
An example may be helpful at this point, though let us be clear that every example can be debated. Suppose that an individual is lonely and seeks love. He might consider trying online dating, putting some effort into a profile and perhaps touching up his personal grooming. Alternatively, he might wash away the loneliness by staying home alone and drinking whiskey until he falls asleep each night. The former approach is rational because the value he seeks, love, might be gained in that manner. The latter is irrational because it will certainly not be effective.
If sleep or not feeling one’s pain are instead the values in question, then the whiskey consumption might very well be rational. Later, we will look at the question of whether certain kinds of values can themselves be evaluated on criteria of rationality.
We need to look more closely at the very general notion of effectiveness of methods. The ultimate arbiter of effectiveness is necessarily the direct question of whether we are attaining our values, assuming that we are applying the methods in question. That is the foundation, but as a criterion it leaves much to be desired: first, it is possible that we were lucky or that other factors produced the values; second, such an analysis is only useful in hindsight.
For a strong claim of effectiveness, we need to have evidence of reliability; to have reliability, we need to understand the range of circumstances in which a particular method has particular effects. In short, we need some sort of empiricism. If I enjoy having a beautiful garden, I know from both scientific research and my own repeated experience that each plant needs a certain amount of water over a certain period of time. Rational behavior in pursuit of that value will involve knowing those amounts and acting to provide them. In contrast, playing Beethoven in the vicinity of the plants has not been shown to have an effect. It is possible that it does, but we certainly cannot make strong claims about it until it is tested.
Not all decisions offer a context where we have on-point empirically validated knowledge. In these cases, we must rely on pattern matching, limited inductive inference, and other sorts of heuristics. This is where we encounter the most difficulty. How are we to say, in advance, that the conclusion we reach from such methods is effective, and worse, how do we know, in hindsight, that the attainment of the value is attributable to the prescribed action?
To resolve this question, we must first note that just because methods are statistical or heuristic does not mean that they are arbitrary. Pattern matching, though its final result may be ineffable, is almost always a consequence of known inputs. We might decide whether or not to invest in a company based on the management, on the market in which they are selling, on the capabilities of the product, and other such factors. Our weighting of those factors is too complex to explain or directly analyze, but the fact that we have used factors known to play a role in the success of companies is not. In contrast, if our pattern match includes astrological conditions, which have no demonstrated relationship to investment success, then it is to that extent irrational. Similar analysis applies to induction, where we have observed a temporally correlated relationship a few times, and rely on that for future decisions through an inference of causation.
In these cases we are using our best efforts to apply information and knowledge that may be pertinent and use it to form a judgment. Such judgments may or may not be effective in a given instance, yet they are effective in a broader sense because they are more likely to result in attainment of the value than random behavior or by applying factors that are not pertinent. This is the sense in which such approaches are effective, and therefore rational.
Correlation to success and inclusion of pertinent factors are a starting point for an heuristic, but its likelihood of reliability is much improved with some semblance of a mechanism by which the applicable factors operate. That mechanism needs to be based on some broader empirical knowledge. We must be particularly cautious in ensuring that the mechanisms we posit are not metaphysical (i.e., cannot be verified). If the terms we use in describing the mechanism do not refer to entities that we can readily identify, then there is considerable risk that we are simply making it up.
Remember, the context is that we are looking for methods that are effective in seeking particular values. You can believe whatever you want, but if you want to actually get those values then the effectiveness of the methods is paramount. If you cannot show a method’s consistency directly, nor readily identify pertinent factors, correlations, and mechanisms, then you have no good reason to think that the method will be effective - the method is irrational.
A related way to think about effectiveness is that the ability to predict is essential to gaining values. Though we might gain some values simply by being able to recognize them and to grab them as they turn up or pass by, if we are to pursue them actively we must predict. For example, we would predict where we might find them, or what sorts of actions in the world tend to consistently produce them. The methods we use to predict are the subject of philosophy of science. Familiar examples include logic, empiricism, concept formation, and measurement. But these methods do not constitute rationality per se; it is because they enable us to predict, and prediction enables us to pursue values effectively.
A brief nod toward decision theory and expected value is appropriate here. Expected value is the idea that we want to maximize the sum of probability-times-value. There are some - particularly computer scientists, economists, and other rationalists - who see expected value as a preferred definition of rationality. It is surely a valuable model, and in strongly defined circumstances it may even be directly applicable. But it is incomplete, even in its generalized forms. It assumes that we have, and can, articulate all the values under consideration in advance. It assumes that the scales of different values are commensurable in some form, e.g., that honesty and money can be compared via a single scale within an equation, as opposed to only as the output of a more complex process. Further, some of the applicable values may be more complex than simply things-to-get - they may relate to the evaluation process itself. My point here is not that application of decision theory is irrational, but rather that there are many deviations from it that are still rational under my definition. Decision theory is potentially an effective method, but it is unsatisfactory as an overall definition or criterion of rationality.
We can also look at factors that impede effectiveness. For example, cognitive bias can be viewed as tendencies toward thought processes that are not effective, or at least not as effective as they could be. However, we should be careful to distinguish between a process that is a cognitive bias in one value context and an effective (therefore rational) process in another. For example, the fact that we sometimes have only a short time and limited information to make a decision means that we need to rely on intuitive processes (Daniel Kahnemann’s “thinking fast”). Whatever our synthesized pattern matching and decision heuristic in these cases, it will necessarily have biases of some sort built in, some of which will be wrong at some times. In effect, cognitive biases are themselves relational; in attempting to extirpate them we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Finally, it is evident that effectiveness admits of degrees, and this suggests that rationality may also. This primarily comes into play when more than one method is being assessed and we compare them. We might say that a first method is “more effective” than a second, even while both are effective to some degree. Is the first method then more rational? Though it is not clear that this construction would cause any particular difficulty, it seems awkward. Instead we could take a step back and consider our process of selection of methods, treating that process itself as a method to be evaluated. In cases where one method is clearly more effective than the other, it would be simply irrational to select the less effective method (as assessed with respect to the same set of values being sought). Thus it is the selection that is subject to scrutiny in a case of comparison between two methods, and it does not appear to be necessary to admit degrees in rationality, despite the continuum of underlying effectiveness.
Rationality of Values
So far, so good: we want to obtain values, and our efforts to do so can be judged as more or less rational depending on whether they use effective methods. Effective methods are, for the most part, those that help us predict successfully. Successful approaches to prediction are either reliable, in that they can be repeated, or at least pertinent with some empirical evidence and a hypothesized mechanism.
We now ask: can or should values themselves be judged as to their rationality? Values can be treated as methodical ideas (even as they have other attributes), so they at least conform to the structure of the definition.
To answer the question, we will consider some distinctions and structure. I first make a distinction between direct and process values. Direct values are things that we want simply for themselves. We might value love, or chocolate, or a particular person, or physical fitness, and we value these things directly. In contrast, process values relate to the way in which we pursue other values. For example, we may value low risk in pursuing values, thus guiding our approach to it. We may actually value planning itself as something we enjoy. Process values can help or hinder our effectiveness at attaining other values. If they are intended to help, we might call them instrumental, whereas if they hinder, we might call them constraints or guidelines.
A value may be derivative or subordinate to others - we may value completion of a marathon in the context of our value of physical fitness, or a software development methodology as a means of planning. For any pair of values, we might find that one is superior to the other - not in the sense that it is more important; rather that it is partially served by the subordinate.
These distinctions and relationships are not necessarily discrete or invariant. One can easily imagine direct values that have implications for process (for example, intellectual curiosity), as well as constraints that, at least in some circumstances, aid with effectiveness (e.g., stay focused). A subordinate value could serve more than one superior, it could in part be valued for its own sake independent of its subordinate status, and two values might be mutually reinforcing. Still, the meaning of the distinctions is fairly clear in individual contexts.
Since rationality is a relation between a method and a set of values, to determine whether a value (considered as a methodical idea) is itself rational requires at least one other value against which to assess it. We can use the structure just discussed to examine a variety of such pairings..
A subordinate value relationship is generally established by purposeful selection or intent. For example, if we have an important goal we might break it into subgoals that must be achieved in sequence. We can see that in these cases those subordinate values genuinely represent methods aimed at seeking the superior value. It makes complete sense to assess whether they are effective in that role and therefore rational. However, it does not make sense in the other direction - to assess a superior value with respect to a subordinate. Superior values are not intended to subserve their subordinates - they are selected by other means. That relationship is non-rational.
Independent direct values are also non-rational with respect to each other. They are selected for their own reasons, and if they happen to aid in seeking other values that is a happy coincidence, not a question of rationality. This relationship is also non-rational. It does lead us, however, to the larger issue of the overall compatibility of the values that we hold, what we might call coherence. I discuss a variety of issues surrounding coherence of values in The Facticity of Values. Later we will consider coherence as a method and value and look at its rationality status.
Let us now take up process values. In some ways, instrumental process values look very much like subordinate values; their essence is the effective pursuit of other values. With respect to the set of values where it is effective, an instrumental value is rational, whereas if it is applied where it is not effective, it is irrational.
Although instrumental values are a kind of subordinate value, they tend to be more general. They are usually subordinate all at once to a large swath of our other values. Because of this, they often attain a status as independent value. For example, I value an ability to read because it enables me to learn material that assists in pursuing other values. Because it is so broadly useful, and because I practice it frequently, it has become something I enjoy independently even outside the context of pursuing particular values.
Still, no method or approach to achieving values is effective in all cases; this is easily demonstrated by the fact that for any value we can state its contradiction, and someone might very well hold the latter. Practically speaking, we want to beware seeing every problem as a nail simply because we like our hammer. When we are assessing the rationality of an act that is an instance of an instrumental value, then, we must be clear whether we are performing it to serve the instrumental value itself, or relying on that instrumental value as a means to attaining a distinct value.
Constraints, in contrast, are process values that are held independently. In general, they inhibit the pursuit of any particular value, though they are often supportive of broader values. For example, we may value money, but also value compliance with laws. The latter is a constraint; we do not steal to obtain money. This relationship is non-rational, because the constraint is in no way intended to be effective with respect to that value. In contrast, compliance with laws might be a subordinate value of wanting to remain free, or to respect the rights of others. It is supportive of these values and the relationship is potentially rational.
The presence of constraints often confuses the assessment of rationality. For example, one method may not be the most effective to pursue a particular value, but when the constraint is added we see that it is the most effective in achieving both values at once or some weighted combination of them. When we see other people behaving in a way that seems irrational, it is often not that they fail to think well but that they are imposing a set of constraints that makes their other values difficult to achieve. Assessing those constraints can only be done in the context of their overall values.
Reviewing these results, we can see that assessing the rationality of a value is appropriate in relation to another value or set of values to which it is subordinate, but otherwise, the relation is non-rational. This is true of both direct and process values.
Attaining Values as a Value
In discussing process values, we broached the notion of values that are about how we pursue values. The cases discussed were relatively concrete, such as reading as an instrumental value and being law-abiding as a constraint. We now consider something more general: valuing the attainment of our values.
This seems redundant and very odd indeed. Does not the mere holding of a value imply valuing its attainment? Surely to some extent, but consider that there are many individuals who exhibit self-destructive tendencies while still claiming or hoping for typical direct values. Others exhibit apathy and while they might pursue values directly, they might do nothing to enhance their general ability to pursue values. Thus, it is worthwhile to call out this value. Further, it offers a relation that allows us to look at how we organize our values with a lens of rationality.
With attainment of values established as a value in itself, we see immediately that the evolution of instrumental methods into direct values can itself be assessed as a rational method. By developing enjoyment of instrumental methods, such as reading, logic, mathematics, etc. we expand the toolbox of methods available to us and improve our ability to perform them in the event. To be clear, we are not talking about self-improvement generally, but rather the pathway of instrumental methods becoming instrumental subordinate values then becoming direct values. It is about the organization of our values.
Next, overall coherence among our values can be assessed against the value of attaining values. It is clear that it is easier to attain values if they are not opposed to each other. Yet, we almost certainly will have some constraining values, at a minimum to support self-preservation, but also to enable beneficial social interaction. Further, all values conflict with each other in relation to time and effort applied. Thus, coherence does not mean that all one’s values point in the same direction or that there are no conflicts; rather, it means they fit together into a whole that provides pathways for effective action for seeking each of them in appropriate circumstances. Further, it means that whenever necessary, one endeavors to elaborate and clarify apparent conflicts among values so that the lines are clear. Coherence is very much about organization of values, and their prioritization, so working toward coherence is also a rational method when weighed against the value of attaining values.
In our very description of effectiveness we relied to some extent on empiricism and science. Even to know whether a method is effective, we need to have some ability to assess its ability to predict. However, this still relies on the deeper notion of effectiveness - do we, in general, attain the values we seek? This requires a partially foundational, partially circular use of empiricism - we have learned that empiricism, when applied properly, improves our attainment of values. Thus we value these methods directly because they do, in general, enable us to assess the effectiveness of our other methods. Empirical methods and the valuing of them are rational with respect to the value of attaining values.
Finally, though it is extremely general, the value of attaining values is a subordinate value to all of one’s other values, and except in unusual and highly incoherent cases, it is rational with respect to that set.
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