Thursday, December 01, 2005

Investing in Rational Capital

Life is full of problems. We want them solved. But how best to achieve this? Let's distinguish two general strategies for attaining a difficult goal. You can jump right in, or you can take an indirect approach - first aiming to improve your capacity to attain the ultimate goal. The overwhelming quantity and quality (read: difficulty) of social and political problems makes me question how much we can achieve directly at present. However, I'm more optimistic about the indirect approach. Though we don't know the solutions to all problems, we know enough to ensure that society is better situated in future, thus enabling future problem-solving. This is because (1) we have discovered a reliable source of solutions, namely, rational inquiry; and (2) we know how to grow this source, so that more of it is available in future. The answer, in part, is education.

Define the "rational capital" of a society as a pseudo-quantitative measure of the rational power it can harness -- through philosophers, politicians, journalists, activists, community groups, etc. -- to solve social problems. At the moment, this quantity is depressingly small. So, rather than squandering it all on 'buying' a handful of solutions today, we should be investing this rational capital, so that we might pursue grander projects tomorrow.

We need to invest in better education, and philosophical training in particular. School children should learn to distinguish valid from fallacious arguments, and reason from rhetoric. They should be encouraged to think critically about ethical issues. Intellectual curiosity must be nourished from a young age, with open discussions of all the fascinating philosophical questions that you never find in schools today.

But this only gets us so far. Philosophical education can develop the potential for rational inquiry, but it still remains to be harnessed. This will require institutional change, with all levels of government becoming more open to democratic participation. Government must be transparent, so that our representatives can be held accountable. Provision must be made for public deliberation and debate - the free exchange of reasoned arguments - and their conclusions heeded.

Ultimate success requires that we be able to reform our political culture away from empty sloganeering, towards substantive debate of reasoned arguments. As I've said before:
There are some issues that are genuinely difficult, and we can't expect any easy answers to them. But for others, it really isn't that hard to come to the truth if one is willing to think critically. Politicians and partisans defend obvious falsehoods all the time. It shouldn't happen. They ought to be exposed as either stupid or dishonest. Once we're all agreed on the easy questions, then we can concentrate on disputing the hard ones. And if we continue to hold each other up to the high standards of reasoned discourse, then perhaps some real progress might be made. So why aren't we doing this?

Perhaps people avoid rational argument because they're no good at it. Successful education should provide the required skills and overcome these fears of intellectual inadequacy. (I assume that most people are not born irretrievably stupid.)

Another problem might be apathy or lack of interest in social and political issues. This is no doubt exacerbated by feelings of political impotence and disenfranchisement. Efforts to promote deliberative democractic participation should help alleviate this side of the problem. (I assume that most people are not essentially self-centred or apathetic.)

Any other suggestions for how we ought to invest our rational capital?


  1. I assume that most people are not essentially self-centred or apathetic.

    This assumption scares me. Because looking around, I'm not at all convinced that this is the case, and that people fail to concern themselves with sociopolitical issues simply because they feel politically impotent. That seems to help explain low voter turnout more than complete disinterest--although the popularity of Bill O'Reilly suggests that a lot of people do care (though this also indicates that simply caring is not sufficient). So maybe you're right.

    However, based on some over-generalized observations of my own country (United States), it appears that only a few things interest a sizable portion of the population:
    1. Abortion
    2. Gay marriage
    3. Iraq
    4. Partisanship: the Republicans vs. the Diet Republicans (er, Democrats)

    One could make the argument that otherwise (with a few exceptions for issues such as healthcare, environmental protection, and taxes) people are disinterested and that in those cases, there is a general consensus. We can all pretty much agree that roads need to be built and maintained, school needs to be available, et cetera. I'm not sure what that indicates.

    Could a quiet stage for political debate be a good thing?

    Or maybe not. Maybe because I generally line up on the side of classical liberalism, I consider the answer to be obvious on the American hot-button issues such as gay marriage (yes, it doesn't hurt anyone) and Iraq (no). That should have been a "yes" on maintaining habeas corpus and a "no" on torture, but my government's not what you'd call "good." The only contestable debate I really see is abortion, and even then the argument centers on a question for which there is no answer, "When does the fetus becoming a living human being?"

  2. "a question for which there is no answer"
    what you need to do here is realise you are making a policy not a sttement of universal fact. You dont "find out" when it becomes a human you just declare a point arbitrarily (or a series of points or a continum) and that declaration has varous implications that can be evaluated.

    Another point however that we must realise is that beliefs and partisanship are not isolated in our particular debate - they are things that must be delt with in the real world with our solutions.

  3. Until you specify the alternatives to rational inquiry (in terms of resource usage) and formulate a rule for when you have enough of each, you're left with an open-ended call to devote more and more resources to rational inquiry. Until eventually, you've devoted all, and starve. That's not rational.

    And conflating philosophical training with rational inquiry is ludicrous. Most people achieve a significant level of rationality (however you want to define it) without philosophical training.

  4. This is because (1) we have discovered a reliable source of solutions, namely, rational inquiry;

    Having begun an education in law this year, I am not so sure this is true (if I understand what you mean by rational inquiry).

    We only have disputes about things that are uncertain. So even when we use "rational inquiry" to decide what to do, it is actually (or at least it seems to me) a thinly disguised expertise at justifying what you "feel" is right. That is, it is an expertise at rationalizing that you get when you teach or study "rational inquiry." Some people are better at this than others. But even they only become the voice of those who already agree with them. In other words, this "rational inquiry" doesn't seem to change minds, no matter how well it is done.

    BTW, I love this blog. I wish I had more time to read and comment here.

  5. A-train, thanks!

    I have a more optimistic view of rational inquiry. (Lawyers aren't genuinely in pursuit of truth after all. So what they do is closer to rhetoric.) In philosophy at least, people change their views in response to rational arguments all the time. And even more commonly, someone who begins on the fence may be swayed to one side or other by the force of arguments. We (at least sometimes) hold positions because we have reason to do so, and not just because of an antecedent "feeling" or preference for that option. Otherwise reasoned arguments would always be entirely ineffective, and I don't think that is the case. Anyone who's even remotely open-minded can sometimes be convinced by another's argument.

    Mike, I'm not suggesting we invest *all* of our rational capital. Some should be "spent" solving urgent problems that face us now. I'm just making the case for why *some* investment is well worth considering. I can't give any precise rule for how much we should invest vs spend now. (Can that be done with any resource?)

    "conflating philosophical training with rational inquiry is ludicrous."

    Philosophical training just is training in rational inquiry. (Rational inquiry is the philosopher's job description.) But I don't think I ever conflated the training with the skill, if that's what you mean. (What you suggest is like conflating music lessons with music. Certainly they're not the same thing. But obviously the former will help improve the latter.)

    "Most people achieve a significant level of rationality (however you want to define it) without philosophical training."

    That's only true in the same way that most people can sing without getting singing lessons. Most people can do well enough to get by in everyday life. But they could do a hell of a lot better. I'm fortunate to get laymen commentators of an unusually high quality on this blog. Reading other blogs [example], I come across a great deal of incredibly sloppy thinking and illogic that you'd never find in anyone with a decent philosophical training.

    Joe - American citizens are politically impotent. So their example tells us little about how people might behave if raised/immersed in a radically different political culture.

  6. Richard, I wonder, can you give an example of having your mind changed about something by rational argument? (I mean something fundamental or important to your world view)

    I guess my point was that the reason some things are disputed (i.e. uncertain) is exactly because they are impervious to rational inquiry (or empirical inquiry for that matter).

  7. Hmmm... the metaphysics of time is fairly fundamental, no? And this argument convinced me that common-sense presentism must be wrong. (Though I can't pinpoint any particular conversion "moment", I'm pretty sure I wasn't born with that belief.)

    For a more personally relevant topic, Parfit's arguments convinced me of his view on personal identity, which again is fairly counterintuitive and not a position that someone is likely to come to in the absence of rational reflection, I don't think.

    Perhaps even more pressingly, my views on meta-ethics and practical rationality changed radically upon reading Michael Smith's arguments for the evaluation of ultimate ends. (Thus the essay I was writing on "Why Be Moral?" concluded very differently from how I had planned and expected.)

    You can see here I actually changed my views over the course of writing a single blog post, in light of considerations that hadn't previously been clear to me.

    A striking political example would be compulsory voting. I always assumed it was a bad idea, for the sorts of reasons hinted at here, but immediately changed my mind upon reading the arguments in my brother's honours thesis. I'll probably blog about this topic in the near future.

  8. 1) On Philosophical Education:

    Given the kind of training that schools provide, school-educated people shouldn't be completely hopeless as philosophers. In schools we have English programmes to give students the inaginative and expressive power to think widely and write vividly, a distrust of absolutes and an appreciation for varieties of opinion; in History classes we teach people to analyse sources objectively, and to wrtie in a clear and concise manner, and to bring some kind of order to complex human events; in Science we teach people to analyse material things objectively, to conduct fair tests and to appreciate precision and dispassionate investigation, and to gain some awareness of the variety of forms in the universe (different sorts of structure, different sorts of change); in maths we teach them to follow rules, and give them some appreciation for the problem of applying abstract laws to real situations, and show them how numbers work; in Art classes we let them to invent and to "think" visually.
    All of these kinds of training are already there, and all of them might be made to contribute to a philosophical training, provided that:

    a) They are drawn together in an intelligent way, so that students can appreciate the merits and pitfalls of each subject, and see how they can be made to complement eachother. (To put in another way: that students can move their "focus" over as wide a range as possible, with as much precision and deftness as possible)

    b) They are made relevant to the lives of the students. This is because, firstly, students are more likely to get interested in their own problems than the problems of Physics or History; and, secondly, I presume that the purpose of "Philosophy in Schools" is not to add an extra subject to the curriculum, but to produce "philosophers", ie. people who philosophize by instinct, and who can appreciate philosophy as an intelligent and useful and enjoyable way of approaching the world. If we ever have "philosophy teachers" in schools, one of their main talents, I think, should be an ability to link academic philosophy to the real and urgent and interesting problems of a teenager's life.

    c) That the already-existing skills are applied to traditional philosophical subject matter (morality, aesthetics, politics, metaphysics etc.) If c) is done well, b) should flow naturally on.

    2) On "Maximising Our Capacity":

    In order to maximise the chances of improving education, we need to improve our capacity to proceed from a philosophical idea to a fact. How can we move from a set of sentences on a blog post to a set of new policies in schools, to a set of philosophy teachers in classrooms?

  9. Good stuff, Richard. Thanks. Those links will keep me from studying for finals for hours. ;-)

    I guess my pessimism is largely driven by living in a neighborhood filled with Bush (and war and torture) supporters, who seem impervious to rational argument.

  10. I think there are a couple of types of rational argument which are bound by certain assumptions.
    It is quite an in-depth conversation to reconcile those sorts of points the sort of depth you are unlikely to reach (especially if religion comes into it).

    The people you talk to probably assume

    1) There are a lot of people out there who hate the USA and
    2) That their hate has little to do with anything the USA actually does (or would require the US to act in a way fundamentally contrary to its nature)
    a) Related to the USA having a higher standard of living (envy)
    b) Perceived decadence (what does Osama think?)
    c) Strategic propaganda from people supporting china or EU or strategic anti capitalist propaganda (foreign powerful people honestly believe some of the nastiest, and ridiculous, rumors about USA, as they have told me)

    3) That torture is an effective last resort method of getting information (i.e. at least sometimes it will get some information)

    4) If people act in an anti social enough way (for example trying to kill you) it is appropriate to ignore their welfare in future decisions.

    And related to that

    5) Practical considerations are more important than international rules or vague principles (a little like act utilitarianism as opposed to rule utilitarianism)

    6) Those who would use force against you respect force.

    Obviously there is a reasonable structure (created by various peopel over a long period of time) that supports a good leftist argument also but people rarely address the basic assumptions and without doing that the other sides arguments always appear shallow.

    It is the very lack of ability to compare these ways of looking at the world that alows further divergance.

  11. "So, rather than squandering it all on 'buying' a handful of solutions today, we should be investing this rational capital, so that we might pursue grander projects tomorrow."

    I wonder if these can really be separated. Certainly, if all we cared about was solving problems immediately, we could do more if every professor was relieved of the duties of teaching first-year students and had that time to devote to their own research (this is as true in physics as in philosophy or anywhere else). And if all we cared about was developing younger minds to be able to do more and better research later, we could do more if all professors were required to do more teaching and had less time off for their research.

    But graduate seminars (and many upper-division undergraduate classes) are an important tool in both the production of knowledge and the transmission of skills. Even introductory classes help sharpen the thoughts of the researcher who is forced to clarify her thoughts on some idea to the level that they can be understood by someone with no (prior) training. So even if we wanted to optimize current problem solving (at the potential expense of all transmission of skills), we might do approximately what we're doing now. And conversely, in many cases it's clear that students can learn more (even about old issues) from someone who is engaged with current problems than from someone whose entire focus is teaching. So optimizing future problem solving at the potential expense of all current problem solving might also not look terribly different from the current setup. (Though of course, teaching in primary and secondary schools should probably have a lot more focus in such an environment than they currently do.)

    It seems that more empirical work would need to be done to show that a change from present methods would be useful for achieving either goal (or that it wouldn't be). Not to mention the fact that forcing a researcher to teach high school or forcing a high school teacher to do research is likely to end up making them less productive at both.

  12. "Philosophical training just is training in rational inquiry." Har har. Ever read "The AnalPhilosopher"? That's just what he says, but he ain't too rational despite bragging about his philosophy credentials.

    True rationality might tell us to be far less optimistic about what rationality can accomplish. It better, before it is too late.

  13. Is this a totally hypothetical proposal, e.g. "in a perfect world". If not, are you not aware of what a poor job our schools do teaching basic literacy and math? If the latter, I really think that you should spend a couple hours looking through and thinking about this, OK

    Education may have theoretical potential, but more government education fairly overtly doesn't seem likely to make the world a better place.

  14. Well, my argument would then suggest that it's a pretty high priority that we improve it! (Whether privatization would help is an empirical question - though it wouldn't surprise me.)


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