Nov 30, 2008

Rationalization--What is it?

INITIAL DEFINITION. As an accusation, the term "rationalization" appears in casual conversations, weblog posts, and formal essays. Examples I have heard are: "Her explanation sounds like a rationalization to me." "Is what he said really true, or is it just a rationalization?" "His whole theory is a rationalization!"

A mundane but classic example of rationalization, is: "'I bought the matzo bread from Kroger's Supermarket because it is the cheapest brand and I wanted to save money', says Alex (who knows he bought the bread from Kroger's . . . because his girlfriend works there [and he wanted to see her but without admitting his interest])."[1]

As an initial definition then rationalization refers to someone justifying what he is doing with an explanation that he knows--at some level in his mind--is not the true reason for his action, but one he made up to make his behavior appear to be more acceptable.

STANDARD USAGES OF THE TERM. Wherever possible, I prefer using terms/ideas as they are conventionally used--to make communication easier. My home dictionary offers this primary conventional usage of "rationalize": "1. to ascribe (one's acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that superficially seem reasonable and valid but . . . actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less creditable or agreeable causes."[2] This usage captures the fact (1) that a rationalization is a statement; (2) that the statement is false; and (3) that the statement is designed to make the speaker's behavior appear to be acceptable.

An online dictionary of psychology defines "rationalization" thus: "A defense mechanism where one believes or states an acceptable explanation for a behavior as opposed to the real explanation." And defense mechanisms are: "Psychological forces which prevent undesirable or inappropriate impulses from entering consciousness (e.g., forgetting responsibilities that we really didn't want to do, projecting anger onto a spouse as opposed to your boss)."[3]

An online philosophical dictionary describes the fallacy of rationalization thus: "We rationalize when we inauthentically offer reasons to support our claim. We are rationalizing when we give someone a reason to justify our action even though we know this reason is not really our own reason for our action, usually because the offered reason will sound better to the audience than our actual reason."[4] 

AYN RAND'S VIEW. Ayn Rand, who developed Objectivism, the philosophy that I have adopted, also classifies rationalization as a psychological phenomenon, "a process of providing one's emotions with a false identity, of giving them spurious explanations and justifications--in order to hide one's motives, not just from others, but primarily from oneself."[5] "Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one's emotions." Further, Ayn Rand notes, as the term/idea applies to a person who is taking a particular philosophical position, rationalization means: "I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true."

WHAT RATIONALIZATION IS NOT. "Lying" is not synonymous with "rationalizing." Lying, which is consciously making false statements to gain or keep a value, is the general case. Rationalizing, if done consciously, is differentiated from other cases of lying by its purpose: making one's own actions appear to oneself or others to be morally acceptable. A con man may lie to his victim to get the victim's life savings, but the con man, in that instance, is defrauding not rationalizing. The con man might rationalize later in a courtroom by telling himself and the judge that we live in a rotten world and that scams are the only way to earn a living.

Nor is rationalization innocently providing a merely false explanation developed through an error in information or in method of handling the information. Rationalization, whether done consciously or subconsciously, is goal-directed not inadvertent. In this way, I would suggest, rationalizations are arbitrary not false. There is no connection to reality, not even a "broken" one that arises from error.

PROOF OF RATIONALIZATION? How can I know someone is rationalizing? In other words, what constitutes proof of this behavior? To even suspect that a person is rationalizing, I must know the person well (even if only through his writings, as with Kant) or I must have enough knowledge of the situation he is describing (that objects must conform to our a priori knowledge of them) to doubt his explanation (which conveniently serves to "make room for faith").

For example, in the case of Alex, named in the example at the beginning of this post, I would need to know him well enough to doubt that he would ever spend time going to a particular store merely to save money on one product--because I already know he is disorganized, uncaring about the future, and an impulse buyer who pays little attention to prices.

If I suspected rationalization, based on my knowledge of the person and the situation he is describing (in a way that makes his behavior seem credible and creditable), then I would need to inquire further, either by asking him questions (and observing his manner of handling them--such as evasiveness or incoherence) or by investigating the situation further (for example, by asking his friends if Alex has any connection to Kroeger's).

For the realm of philosophy, Ayn Rand offers two leads for uncovering rationalization. First: "When a theory achieves nothing but the opposite of its alleged goals, yet its advocates remain undeterred, you may be certain that it is not a conviction or an 'ideal', but a rationalization."

Second: When a person uses false philosophical catch phrases to excuse his reprehensible beliefs then he might be rationalizing. Ayn Rand identifies six common philsophical catch phrases rationalizers use: "Nobody can be certain of anything . . . It may be true for you , but it's not true for me . . . Nobody is perfect in this world . . . Nobody can help anything he does . . . It may have been true yesterday, but it's not true today . . . Logic has nothing to do with reality . . . ." These catch phrases provide a philosophical justification for taking an intellectual position that is not otherwise creditable or even credible.

CONCLUSIONS. Rationalizing is fake reasoning for the purpose of convincing oneself or others that one's actions are proper--done either consciously (in which case it is immoral) or as an automatic and hidden act of the subconscious (in which case it is a form of mental illness). The actions being justified may range from social behavior to taking a particular intellectual position. Even mere implausibility of an explanation can be grounds for suspicion, but proof of rationalization requires argumentation based on detailed evidence gained through inquiry. In most cases, fortunately, one need not prove another person is rationalizing; rather, the suspect carries the burden of proving his statements--if the situation is serious enough to demand proof.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For the matzo example: "Rationalization" in the "Fallacy" article of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy[2] Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., unabridged. I am ignoring radically different uses of the term "rationalization" in mathematics, architecture, and economics. [3] From "Rationalization" and "Defenses (Defense Mechanisms)," AllPsychOnline[4] "Rationalization," listed in the "Fallacy" article of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy[5] This and subsequent references to or quotations from Ayn Rand come from: Ayn Rand, "Rationalization," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, citing Ayn Rand, "Philosophical Detection," Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 21 and 24(hb) or pp. 18 and 20 (pb).]


Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is part of a brief comment left by someone who did not follow the rules of etiquette (e.g., stating his name and avoiding foul language). The ellipses and square brackets show my editing:

"The way you describe 'rationalization' . . . . Lying is conscious. Yet people who 'rationalize' . . . to themselves or to others do belie[ve] the conclusions of their endeavor, however invalid [they are]. Excellent."

Burgess Laughlin said...

Lies in general and rationalizations in particular both involve falsehoods. What distinguishes a rationalization from other lies is the motive: To make the speaker appear (to himself and/or others) to be morally acceptable.

Ryan said...

I've used the word rationalize to mean arguing without a proper connection to reality. This is mostly because of the philosophy of Rationalism. I'm not arguing that it's the most proper definition, but I wonder if it's at all proper.

Burgess Laughlin said...

There is indeed a lot of variety of usages around terms such as: "rational, rationalize, rationalistic," and "rationalism."

Very briefly here is the range of meanings I have seen in my readings of history of philosophy (and theology):

- rational means "uses reason," but in different philosophies that means different things. In some philosophies "reason" means only the act of forming inferences (also aptly called "arguing without a proper connection to reality"). In other words, it means only thinking in propositions. That is certainly a major part of what reason does, but it ignores the crucial role of concept formation as an initial, logically prior step. It also ignores the necessity of starting with sense-perception.

In Objectivism, reason means the whole process of integrating (in the broad sense of the term) the data provided by sense-perception: formation of concepts, propositions, theories, and whole philosophies--including processes of integration in the narrow sense (finding the one in the many), differentiation, deduction, induction, reduction, and so forth. Note that in Objectivism, reason is directly connected to sense-perception, but in some other philosophies "reason" simply infers from whatever information "somehow" got into the mind.

- rationalism is often used in the traditional history of philosophy to mean a dedication to reason. ("-ism" means a belief in something.) But "reason" is variously defined, depending on which philosophy you are looking at, and it is not always connected to reality.

In Objectivism, the term "rationalism" (see The Ayn Rand Lexicon, "Rationalism/Empiricism") names one of two false alternatives in the trichotomy of objectivity, rationalism, and empiricism. In this meaning, within the context set by Objectivism, to be "rationalistic" is bad because one's "reasoning" is not starting with sense-perception. Rationalism is indeed "arguing without a proper connection to reality." However, I think the more consistent verb form would be something like "to be rationalistic" rather than "rationalize," which has the special meaning Ayn Rand (and others outside of Objectivism) are naming, as described below.

- rationalizing is also used (outside of philosophy mainly) to mean various things--such as special meanings in economics, math, and perhaps other specialized sciences. But speaking philosophically (in the context of Objectivism) and psychologically, as my original post suggests, rationalizing is always bad. That is because, whether it is done consciously or subconsciously, it is the process of providing a phony justification for something. Being phony is not good.

I would recommend using the term "rationalize" to name that restricted meaning. (See "Rationalization," ARL.) I would instead recommend saying someone or some argument is "rationalistic" when one means the ideas are not anchored in sense-perception even though they may be "syllogistically correct" in form.

As always, what matters most in the long-term is being able to define one's own terms objectively, which includes, in part, being consistent with the rest of one's philosophy. However, also note that one value a philosopher offers is a consistent set of terminology that enables people, who agree with the philosophy, to talk to each other efficiently--because they are using the same basic terms in the same way. (See Intro. to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 74 for the philosopher's role in "keep[ing] order in the organization of man's conceptual vocabulary" and performing other functions.)

If I haven't answered the original question clearly or fully, please ask again