Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Accommodating Unreason

Is it ever appropriate to manipulate people on the assumption that they are unreasonable? It strikes me as problematic, but it's also exceedingly common. Just think of all the white lies we tell to avoid causing offense, or the rhetoric of a political partisan who doesn't trust her compatriots to listen to reason alone, or the general practice of trying to impress people through non-rational means, say by dressing up. (Monogamy itself may be another example.) I assume none of these would be necessary if people were just a bit more reasonable. But if our pessimistic predictions are accurate -- as they often are -- is that enough to justify acting on them?

I suggested before that the assumption of unreason denies agency to the target. Sure, people are often unreasonable. But not inherently so. Anyone could do better, if they made the effort. And wouldn't they be the better for it? The choice is theirs, and insofar as people live up (or down) to expectations, we should do our bit to help them make the best choice, by expecting nothing less of them.

The alternative is to treat them as a mere object, disrespecting their rational autonomy. By taking it upon yourself to effectively make their decisions for them, you turn them into something less than fully human. Unless, I suppose, they were already that way to begin with. If someone truly is unreasonable, then they have no rational autonomy for you to usurp. They are animals already; you may as well make them comfortable.

What about the more realistic case of a person who is merely unreasonable in a few particular respects? (That presumably covers all of us!) Are we to pretend that we're all perfectly rational agents? That seems dishonest, and silly besides - the pretense surely wouldn't last long. Still, it at least seems like an ideal to aspire to; and cause for mild embarrassment insofar as we fall short. Anyway, the question is: how should others relate to us in those specific cases where we are predictably unreasonable? Two responses suggest themselves.

(1) They could accommodate our unreasonable natures, as is standard practice. But, as noted above, this seems disrespectful -- at least if they cannot be certain that we wouldn't have risen to the occasion.

(2) They could demand perfection from us. (It would be ridiculous to expect perfection always, of course. Nobody can deliver that. But perhaps it is reasonable to demand the best in each particular case, even recognizing that there's no way we can manage this in all of them. Note the difference: we are bound to screw up sometimes, but not any time in particular.)

Given the fundamental value of autonomy, perhaps what really matters here is ensuring that we improve in this respect as much as possible. It's then an empirical question what the most productive response to failure is.

Or is it unreasonable of me to place such value on reason?


  1. Richard-

    Depends, do you think reason has boundaries? Or can reason encroach on emotionally upsetting events? I like Seneca in this regard: unreason is given its say, but ultimately the agent relies on reason for political action. Seneca's letters to Serenus are notable on this point; Seneca urges his student to practice temperance and return to the political sphere with well-thought out responses to his detractors. I think also that Seneca is among the first to use the image of the convalescent to describe the philosopher--not someone cured of unreason, but, using Nietzsche's term, overcoming his unreasonable impulses. This leaves art open to tirades of unreason, and Seneca's plays are absurdly violent and full of mad characters.

    Another question is, and I'm sure you've talked about it, I just don't remember, is if you can have an emotional response to a reasoned argument. I think so, but it is hard to imagine one intending to have that effect. In Kant's Judgment, if I remember correctly, this is the aesthetic effect created by a well-ordered system. Like Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier the remarkably mathematical quality gives rise to a heightened feeling. But does this also border on unreason?

    Lastly, Foucault wrote a huge book, History of Madness, that explored the historical shift from recognizing the sublime in figures like St. Teresa of Avila to the filling of mental hospitals around the time of the Enlightenment. Foucault ended up retracting most of what he wrote because his ideas of deraison were, frankly, untenable to a philosophical audience--basically he didn't want to sound too French to English readers. But just last year the full book was published in English. Basically, the possibility that an accusation of unreason "denies agency" is one of the biggest and most controversial claims of the book.

    Might I suggest a third response? Allow for other's unreasonableness when it falls short of influencing political behavior.

  2. Hi Jared, I don't think emotions are necessarily unreasonable. It all depends on whether the emotion reflects an accurate appreciation of the normative features of the situation. For example, it's perfectly reasonable to feel scared when you're in danger, or angry when you've been wronged, etc.

    So, in response to the question whether "reason [can] encroach on emotionally upsetting events", I'd say yes, definitely. It is the role of reason to determine whether said event is worth getting upset about. (I wish more people would realize this with regard to alleged "offensiveness", for example.)

  3. Interesting post.

    I think it is understandable for someone to feel "x" after an "y" action. However, I think it may hold that our emotional response may obscure our rational/logical thinking, or reasoning, when it comes to reacting in a way than if we had another emotional response.

    I also think that there may be some fine distinctions that need to be worked out between 'reason,' 'rational,' and 'logic,' in order to come to a better understanding.

  4. extent should one go to in order to insure one does not manipulate people on the assumption that they are unreasonable?

    I see a massive area of grey between the pure life where you don't influence people at all subconciously to the extreme where you 'play them like a fiddle'.

  5. To be a good person, to live a good life, does not entail the same activities at all times and in all situations. We are embedded in social structures: These structures are different from one another. Self-actualization is therefore different in different times and in different cultures.
    Therefore, crucial to being the best you can be in a possible social situation are an understanding of the society, and an appreciation for the people's sensitivities and the way they think, whether rational according to this or that (vacuous) definition or not.
    But it is true that when one's agency is not respected, one feels disrespected.
    What about cases where a person really does not have agency, but you make her feel like she does? (one of the ways a good boss and a bad boss can be different.) Shouldn't you feel good about what you're doing anyway?
    Thought provoking.
    This is the first comment I have left anyone on the Blogger service.

  6. though I may simply not understand what you are asserting. It seems to me that except in the most unusual circumstances a person should expect what appears most likely to the degree to which it appears most likely. Expecting the best choice when evidence favors the expectation that a person will make some other choice is, from a Utilitarian, legal, or common sense ethics perspective, bad policy. For what it's worth, I have sympathy for the attitude you seem to be presenting, but consider it, upon reflection, to have been unwise. There is a quotation, "that which can be destroyed by the truth should be", which now sounds to me fairly similar when spoken by an atypically rational person, to "he who can be destroyed by a lion should be, leaving more mates for those who cannot be" spoken by the tribe's strongest warrior. Agency seems to me to be a sometimes useful simplification of the real world, (especially in the assignment of blame, which is often practically useful, but generally an ignoble impulse) but agency or "mere object" status are far from an exhaustive enumeration of moral possibilities. Human reality is complex, composite, largely non-conscious and still more largely non-volitional. "impress[ing] people through non-rational means, say by dressing up" is frequently referred to as 'courtesy', and most people wish to be so treated. Most people, emphatically do NOT aspire to be perfectly rational agents, just ask them, explaining clearly what you mean and they will tell you this. For any meaning so strict as to object to being emotionally and hence behaviorally effected by people dressing up I certainly don't want to be a perfectly rational agent either (tentatively invoking Hume, the "slave to the passions" though even here, irrevocably fragmented human that I am, what this really means is that the neural processes now directing my typing don't want that, some other processes are, as you can see protesting in a manner capable of influencing my verbal stream).

  7. I guess the basic problem is that I don't want to be a slave to my passions. I recognize that I'm swayed by all sorts of influences (social biases, really) that I would really much rather not be swayed by. Maybe most people are just happier to embrace their flaws, but there seems something incoherent about that. (How can you recognize something to be a flaw and yet not want to be rid of it?) Unless you mean to suggest that most people do not consider their irrational biases to be "flaws" at all, but that just seems... irrational.


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