Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Rational Irrationality

Sometimes the most rational thing to do is to cause yourself to become irrational, paradoxical though this sounds. Towards the start of Reasons and Persons, Parfit describes a scenario where a robber threatens to kill your children unless you hand over the gold in your safe. But if you could take a drug which would render you entirely irrational, the robber's threats would be made impotent:
Reeling about the room, I say to the man: 'Go ahead. I love my children. So please kill them.' The man tries to get the gold by torturing me. I cry out: 'This is agony. So please go on.'

Given the state that I am in, the man is now powerless. He can do nothing that would force me to open the safe. Threats and torture cannot force concessions from someone is so irrational. The man can only flee, hoping to escape the police. (p.13)

Threats of all sorts depend on exploiting another person's rationality. We can thus neutralize threats by making ourselves irrational. Since we have good reason to want to neutralize threats, it can be rational to make ourselves irrational!

This can work just as well for offence as defence. Parfit later describes a society of perfectly rational individuals who are also transparent (others can tell whether they are being honest). Suppose one of these individuals could turn themselves into a threat-fulfiller - someone who always carries out their threats, no matter the cost to themselves. Would it be rational to make yourself irrational in such a way? In this case it would. Since you are transparent, whenever you make a threat others would know that you would carry it out if not appeased. And the others are all perfectly rational, so they would always placate you if the threat was serious enough. So if you strapped a bomb to yourself, you could get others to do whatever you wanted simply by threatening to blow everyone up if they didn't do as you say!

Everyone else should then (rationally speaking) impair their own rationality by becoming threat-ignorers and advertising this fact. You would no longer threaten them if you knew that they would ignore it, since then you would have to blow yourself up and of course you would rather not have to do that!

It's been a couple of years since I read Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, but I think he explained the evolution of overpowering emotions in terms of the advantages such irrationality affords us. The best way to win a game of 'chicken' is to conspicuously remove your steering wheel and throw it out the window. When others can no longer rely on your rationality to compel you to compromise, their own rationality then forces them to surrender. The craziest man is the most dangerous, and the most dangerous man wins. Overpowering emotions such as jealous rage thus make one very powerful. Pinker argues that the jealous man's wife wouldn't dare have an affair if she knew that he'd kill her if he found out.

I'm not entirely convinced of the evolutionary tale, but the game-theoretical issue is certainly an interesting one. And it doesn't only apply to rationality, but indeed to any goal-directed activity which may sometimes be best achieved through indirect means.

Thus utilitarians could argue that morality requires us to form our character in such ways that we are disposed to sometimes act wrongly (e.g. saving your own child at the cost of many others' lives). Such favouritism is still wrong, just like ignoring the threat-fulfiller's threat is still irrational. But it is justified in an indirect sense, since it results from dispositions that are dictated by the goal in question. It is a case of what Parfit calls blameless wrongdoing.


  1. Can you come up with a better example? Nobody wants to risk their kids on a crazy robber who doesn't care whether they shoot your kids or not. After all, it's not like the robber loses anything by shooting your kids - especially if you have two of them, or they are willing to do it methodically one limb at a time...

    Also, in your example, what's the difference between irrationality and just not responding to violence? What if you irrationally decide to open the safe for them? Why do you assume an irrational person will not give in to their demands?

    I think this is just silly, now that I think about it.


  2. MP, Parfit suggests that the robber will likely kill you all even if you open the safe, so as to leave no witnesses. But if you don't like that example, I mentioned others in the post. The game of 'chicken', for example, or the "threat-fulfillers", or a disposition towards jealous rage. (So long as you get the general idea, I don't think the details of such thought experiments matter very much.)

    Tom, the point is that we're not merely behaving irrationally, we've actually made ourselves (temporarily) entirely incapable of reason. Think of the threat-fulfiller whose bluff is met, so he must blow himself up. He most certainly is NOT rational in doing so! But given the circumstances, he was rational in making himself irrational like this.

    Jason - thanks. I do agree that in most circumstances prevention would be better than the extreme 'cure' discussed in this post. But I'm not sure how relevant that is -- I'm certainly not recommending that we all make ourselves irrational, or anything like that! I just find the quasi-paradoxical nature of it all rather curious.

    Your other point is interesting. Is it necessarily irrational to make threats? I don't see how it is. (I do think it is often contingently irrational, insofar as the ill-will it ferments could impede your later goals, but that's beside the point.)

    Consider the threat-fulfiller in the perfectly rational society (where no-one else has become threat-ignorers yet). It seems quite rational for him to threaten others, especially if he can do so secretly, so as not to dirty his reputation. It really is, in this scenario, the easiest and most reliable way for him to achieve his goals.

    So I guess this just strikes me as another instance where rationality and morality diverge.

  3. how about the united states' foreign policy as an example.

  4. I can think of a better example from the movie "Proof of Life".

    From wiki (and memory):
    Peter, an American, has been hired to assist with building a dam in a South American country. When Peter is in the city one day, a convoy of automobiles (including his) is ambushed by guerilla rebels. Believing that Peter actually works for an oil pipeline company, rebel soldiers abduct him and lead him into the Jungle.

    When he arrives at the main jungle camp, he meets another hostage, Kessler, a missionary and former member of the French Foreign Legion, who’s lived in the camp for nineteen months. Kessler has survived this long by adopting a strategy of "insanity". He pretends to be wildly obsessed with God and Christ, and he is able to save Peter on more than one occasion by creating distractions based around this insane persona.

    For example, Peter spots a map of the surrounding area, left on a table by the guerillas. Kessler gives him an old bible to copy the map and escape route. When the guerillas start making their way back to the table, Kessler distracts them by grabbing a stick and balancing it on his fingers, he runs up to them like a little child, babbling and laughing. The guerillas stop briefly to heckle him - they enjoy picking on the "crazy old man" and this distraction gives Peter just enough time to put the map back where he found it.

    Peter and Kessler then escape with the bible (that is never inspected or even suspected by the guerillas - after all, it's just the crazy man's book).

    There is a real life example I can think of from women(mainly from developing countries that are in social turmoil)who say they avoid rape by "being crazy and disgusting" to their attackers (throwing up, and spreading their vomit all over themselves, and also urinating and defacating to end the struggle quickly). In places like Chihuahua, Mexico, rape usually ends in murder, so "rational irrationality" is very understandable (whatever works!)

  5. Note that pretending to be irrational is not the same thing as actually making oneself irrational. It's unsurprising that the former could be a good idea. It's more interesting that there are some situations in which even the latter would be advisable.


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