Monday, February 12, 2007

What is "Rationalization"?

Kant concludes Chapter One of the Groundwork suggesting that the value of formal moral philosophy over "common" moral reasoning is this: It serves as a counterweight to our tendency to be led astray in our moral thinking by wishes and inclinations. One might say it helps us guard against rationalizing.

On the other hand, one might worry that moral philosophy actually gives such powerful tools for rationalization that we're better off going with our common-sense gut feelings about right and wrong.

I don't aim to addres that (partly empirical) dispute now. But it does raise the question, What exactly is rationalization, in this pejorative sense? Philosophers haven't discussed this much (though Al Mele has a nice piece in PPQ 1998).

Here are two first approximations:
(1.) A moral conclusion that X is permissible is a rationalization if it flows from a reasoning, or quasi-reasoning, process with the goal (conscious or not) of justifying X. [The "goal" account.]
(2.) A moral conclusion that X is permissible is a rationalization if it flows from a reasoning, or quasi-reasoning, process that was bound to result in the judgment that X is permissible, largely independently of the quality of the reasons for that conclusion, because the reasoner is influenced by non-moral considerations. [The "predetermination" account.]

(1) and (2) are often related: If you aim to justify doing X then you might not be very sensitive to the quality of the reasons in its favor. But the two can come apart.

(A.) Goal without predetermination: I start thinking about whether it would be okay to ask a co-worker out on a date. I think about the question primarily because I want to come to the conclusion that it is okay. And I do come to that conclusion. However, it actually is morally permissible in this case, and had it not been I wouldn't have come to the conclusion that it was.

(B.) Predetermination without goal: I am so enchanted by the idea of a communist revolution that I can't think straight about it. I sincerely want to reject a particular act of communist revolutionizing if it's morally wrong, but I can't give it a fair hearing in my mind; so almost regardless of how poor the reasons, I will endorse it.

It seems to me that (B) is more usefully (and intuitively) thought of as "rationalizing" than (A), thus favoring the predetermination account.

Note by the way that neither account appeals to the quality of the reasons. For example, no matter how sound my justification for the permissibility of the revolutionizing, if my goals and sensitivities in employing that reasoning aren't right, I'm still rationalizing.

(These ideas arose in conversation with UCR grad student Joshua Hollowell and are as much his ideas as my own. I post them here with his permission.)


Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Out of town for a couple and not sure this is still an active post, but I like the questions you raise.

Some thoughts:

I think 'rationalizing' may be ambiguous, but that might be my rationalization for failing to choose between your accounts.

I think it is often implied that the purported reasons be significantly different from the motivating reasons that explain (or the motivating reasons that urge the performance of) the action or event being rationalized.

Example: to rationalize my arriving late, a failure explained by my lethargy, I might cite the slowness of the bus or the bad weather. It might be true that these things I cite explain my lateness - perhaps they would have caused me to be late even if I had the mojo to leave on time - but I cite them in order to evade taking responsibility for the event in question and the part of the equation under my control which would have made me late even if the weather and bus had cooperated.

In general, this suggests that rationalizations are motivated by a desire to evade responsibility or to cover over motives that we are embarrassed or ashamed about, do not take to track real reasons, or, more generally, from which we are alienated (in some sense).

One good way (but not the only one) of distancing oneself in this way is to adopt the goal of justifying the action - if your real motives do not do that, something else needs to be cited as a sort of smoke screen.

I guess that puts me in the augmented goal account camp, but one that seems able to screen out A -- because in that case you are not trying to think up a rationalization in order to evade responsibility or cover over a motive from which one is alienated.

Reporting an intuition: B does not sound like rationalization to me - just bad reasoning.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Brad! I like your suggestion that rationalization involves your purported reasons for an action (or conclusion?) differing from your motivating reasons for that action -- especially if one is evading responsibility or covering up motives one is alienated from.

I still have the sense that some cases worth calling rationalization may not involve this mismatch between purported reasons and real motivating reasons. I agree that my case (B) isn't a great case, though. I've been struggling now for a while to come up with a better example, but it's eluding me. So maybe I'll have to give up on the idea!

I also worry, though, that part of the problem with developing such an example is that our notion of what it is to be "motivated by reasons" is pretty pliable.

I'll have to think about it more....