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).]

Nov 9, 2008

Asymmetrical Debate?

[This question arose on Study Groups for Objectivists in discussions of Yaron Brook's and Onkar Ghate's insightful "Cultural Movements: Creating Change" lectures (available on the website of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, under the headings Participate/Activism).]

Here is a problem for students of the history of ideas, intellectual history, or cultural history: Reason is difficult and rare, but mysticism--in all its many forms--is easy and common. How can reason ever win?

Reason is difficult because it requires effort to be aware, to define a problem, to select a method, to persist in seeking information, to check the results for contradictions with already-held knowledge, and so forth. Mysticism is easy. If it is subjectivist, ideas are whatever the mystic wants them to be, regardless of facts. If it is intrinsicist, ideas simply arrive, either from the subconscious as intuition or from God as revelation.

In debate between advocates of reason and mystics, those who support reason do research, think about their results, formulate answers to essential questions, consider the nature of their audience, and so forth. Mystics need only blurt out whatever they feel.

Consider a contemporary example. In general, the conservative and leftist enemies of a culture of reason are mystics of one sort or another. They do not offer reasoned arguments. If I say I am pro-choice on abortion, a conservative may show me a picture of a dead fetus. A picture is not an argument, that is, not a reasoned process leading from facts to conclusions. It is an appeal to emotion. If I am to win the debate (held before a worthy audience) then I may need to go through a step-by-step argument identifying the problem underlying my opponent's last statement and offering a solution. My conservative opponent, if typical, next responds by screaming that I am a baby-killer. This is mysticism vs. reasoning--in debate.

(Intellectually, no debate is possible between mystics and advocates of reason, but socially such debates occur frequently before audiences that are, one hopes, at least mixed: Some members of the audience are at least implicitly advocates of reason but may not yet agree with a particular pro-reason position on a particular issue.)

Consider another contemporary example. You try to explain a principle of economics--that state interference (aggression) in the home-finance marketplace has long-term destructive consequences--and why. Your opponent responds with a bizarre false-dichotomy based on unspoken hints of egalitarianism and altruism: "But we are just using this bailout as a way of protecting Main Street against Wall Street!" You then must (1) determine what he is talking about in reality, if anything; (2) prepare your conclusions in terms and in a form that a rational but ill-informed audience listening to the debate would understand; and (3) offer an objective alternative based on principles you want to disseminate.

At first sight, the odds seem stacked against advocates of reason ever winning in their struggles with mystics. Yet, advocates of reason have won issue after issue, in some places and in some times. How can that be true when the odds against them seem so high?

I do not have a fully integrated answer to this problem yet, but I can suggest elements. First is the fact that in some societies there have been enough decision-makers and decision-influencers who were rational enough (in most areas of their lives) that advocates of reason and its products had a chance to win enough support, or even merely acquiescence, to at least make progress. Galileo lived in Italy. His ideas were censored there, but he managed to smuggle his writings out to lands where they met an eager audience. Perhaps the political fragmentation of Europe--from the Greeks up to the European Union--usually provided a refuge somewhere for advocates of reason.

Second is the fact--at least in Western culture--that rational people creating rational products have always had an effect far beyond their public numbers. Think again of Galileo. On the short-term he lost in his struggle with the Church in Italy in the mid-1600s. But his ideas ultimately did win wide acceptance among intellectuals. His ideas were presumably persuasive to dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of often nameless individuals in the following decades. In this manner, Galileo's ideas won. The people advocates of reason need to reach are not only the tiny number of Galileos and their peers, but also the thousands (out of millions) of rational individuals who will integrate and propagate, if not originate, rational ideas. An advocate of reason does not need to reach everyone or even a majority.

Only a few people set the direction of a culture. If advocates of reason can persuade, or even just neutralize, half of those people, then the advocates of reason can start making cultural changes within one generation. I have seen this process of changing the views of the powerful minority happen in business. On a committee of twelve people, two to four people either directly make the decisions or influence decision-making. Most of the others on the committee swivel their heads back and forth as each debater in turn presents his case pro or con.

In summary, I do see that reasoned presentations can indeed win support from rational members of one's audience, even in a "debate" against a mystic--but only in a culture already accepting a philosophy of reason to some extent; and only over the long term, which is the time required to analyze problems, develop solutions, figure out the best way to present the solutions, and actually make one's case to the intended audience (narrow or broad).

As a long-term student of history, I would love to have the time to investigate at least one case of such a victory: Galileo's ideas on astronomy, Darwin's ideas on evolution, Locke's ideas on politics, the idea of freedom of speech, or others.

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