Monday, April 09, 2007

III. rational agency is a bullshit foundation for anything

christ, i've been rattling on now forever and i haven't gotten anywhere near to the point of my paper yet, which is that if morality is anything that matters, then it's not the sort of thing that depends on our being rational agents. because whatever rational agency is, not everyone has it, and no one has it all the times-- and guess when we're least likely to have it? when it counts. when things are tough. when it hits the fan.

rational agency isn't some obscure philosophical idea, it's a way of viewing other people that pretty much everyone uses to get through the day. people do stuff that makes you mad or makes you happy, and that is translated almost immediately into being angry at them or pleased with them, liking them or disliking them, and we don't really bother justifying the connection, but if someone asked you to, you wouldn't have to think that hard: jane did x. she could have done y (steve, sal & danni were all in same sitch and THEY did y.). but she did x. and x fucking stung. so jane is a douche. she's not a child. she's not a sociopath. she's not a dog. she should know better.

when philosophers go to justify moral standards and the penalties for breaking them, they usually say the same sorts of things: human beings are rational agents. human beings have the the capacity to grasp moral reasons and the capacity to act according to them. children, the mentally ill, and those under extreme stress may be permanently or temporarily exempt from moral scrutiny precisely because they are NOT rational agents. dogs just are what they are. dogs just do what they do. human beings can reflect on what they do, and when their desires conflict with their moral beliefs, they can, by force of will, behave morally despite their desire to do otherwise.

it is my studied opinion that this is bullshit. it is true, as i will personally attest, that most persons tend to reflect (and reflect and reflect and reflect) on their behavior. most persons analyze, to one degree or another, what it is they should do, and what it is that they want to do, and why they should do it, and why they should want it, and so on. it may be the case that thinking rationally-- consciously reflecting on our behavior or analyzing our options-- we tend to be better behaved. (or it might not be the case. thinking things through hasn't always led me to behave in ways that i'm proud of.) but whatever it means to think rationally, it's clearly not something that everyone does, and it's clearly not something that anyone does all (i would even say most) of the time. we we do hurtful things (which is when the question of morality generally comes into play) we're so often under stress, or feeling some strong distracting thing, or we lack some relevant information.


lld said...

Why are you so sure that rationality is total bullshit? I think that to say that Jane wasn't being rational, you would have to know that Jane knows doing x will hurt you, cares that doing x will hurt you (enough to base her actions on this concern), and incurs no penalty for doing y instead of x. That's a lot to demand.

When people talk about rational behavior, they aren't always careful about explaining what is rational and why, so an argument about a particular failure is unconvincing. Without knowing about the incentives, information, and preferences that people have how would I judge a behavior as irrational?

Related to this is an entertaining article in George Akerlof's "An economic theorist's book of tales" that describes how smokers exhibit rational behavior in response to changes in tariffs. And there is a lot of (economic) research investigating how well people can be modeled as rational agents.

I could be full of it, but I think the upshot is that when you consider all of the incentives, information, preferences, and opportunities that people have, they do behave rationally.

So if Jane screws you, she probably has a good reason.

To repudiate rational agency as a model of human behavior, it isn't enough for people to fail to be rational in exceptional circumstances. They probably do fail, and that's probably uncontroversial.

You would also have to show that in a number of ordinary circumstances, given the limits inherent in being human, people fail to be rational (or something like that).

That sounds to me like a hard thing to do. Is that, or something like it, what you're proposing?

Gennette said...

I think that "rational agent" is generally defined as one who possesses desires and beliefs, and acts within the beliefs to satisfy desires. Sometimes people's beliefs are just incorrect (i.e. they don't correspond to reality), so a rational agent acting on incorrect assumptions will get different outcomes than desired. But that person is still a rational agent.

Emotion can factor in here, but it doesn't diminish rationality. For example
Desire: lost weight
Belief: not eating makes me grumpy
Under these constraints, a rational agent may fail to lose weight.

Why am I posting on this random blog when I should be working? I'm sure there's a rational reason...