Friday, April 29, 2011

Against Kant on Rationalization

Kant concludes the first section of his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals with a plea for the value of philosophical ethics as a bulwark against the self-serving rationalization of one's immoral inclinations:

Innocence is indeed a glorious thing; but, on the other hand, it is very sad that it cannot well maintain itself, and is easily seduced. On this account even wisdom -- which otherwise consists more in conduct than in knowledge -- still has need to science [i.e., scholarship], not in order to learn from it, but to secure for its precepts admission and permanence. Against all the commands of duty which reason represents to the human being as so deserving of respect, he feels in himself a powerful counterweight in his needs and inclinations.... Hence there arises a natural dialectic, that is, a disposition to argue against these strict laws of duty... and if possible, to make them more compatible with our wishes and inclinations.... Thus is the common human reason compelled to go out of its sphere and to take a step into the field of practical philosophy... in order to attain in it information and clear instruction respecting the source of its principle, and the correct determination of it in opposition to the maxims which are based on wants and inclinations, so that it may escape from the perplexity of opposite claims, and not run the risk of losing all genuine moral principles through the equivocation into which it easily falls (Abbott & Denis, trans., 1785/2005, p. 65-66 [404-405]).
The idea appears to be that without philosophical training, our moral judgments are easily led astray by our "wants and inclinations". We will concoct superficially plausible rationalizations to justify actions or principles that support our (often self-serving) desires. If I want to be able to steal a library book, I will concoct a superficial rationalization to justify that. If I am keen on Donald Trump, I will whip up a breezy story according to which his behavior is admirable. Philosophy, because it taps into the true moral law and has the power to see through bad arguments, can help protect us against those tendencies.

I feel the pull of that thought. Yet I worry that, empirically, things might tend in fact to run the opposite direction on average. Philosophical training might increase the tendency toward self-serving rationalization. It might do so in three ways: (1.) by providing more powerful tools for rationalization (more argument styles and competing principles that can be drawn upon), (2.) by giving rationalization a broader field of play (by tossing more of morality into doubt), and (3.) by providing more psychological occasion for rationalization (by nurturing the tendency to reflect on principles rather than simply take things for granted). Education in moral philosophy might be less a bulwark against rationalization than a training grounds for it.

This sort of claim is hard to test empirically, but I have two small pieces of evidence that seem to support this pessimistic view over the optimistic view of Kant:

First, in work forthcoming in Mind & Language, Fiery Cushman and I found that philosophers, more than other professors and more than non-academics, tended to endorse moral principles in labile ways to match up with psychologically manipulated intuitions about particular cases. (Ethics PhDs showed the largest effect size overall.) Participants in our experiment were presented moral puzzle cases in one of two orders: an order that favored rating the two cases equivalently and an order that favored treating the two cases as different. Later, participants were asked if they endorsed or rejected moral principles that favored treating the cases as different. Philosophers and especially ethicists showed the greatest order effects on their judgments about moral principles, suggesting a greater-than-average predilection for post-hoc rationalization of their order-manipulated judgments about the individual scenarios.

Second, in work under submission, Joshua Rust and I found that professional ethicists, more than professors in other fields, seemed to exhibit self-congratulatory rationalization in their normative attitudes about replying to emails from students. In our study, all groups of professors (ethicists, non-ethicist philosophers, and non-philosophers) were similar in several dimensions: In a survey, they all claimed very high rates of responsiveness to student emails (the majority claimed 100% responsiveness); and the large majority of all groups (84% overall) rated "not consistently responding to student emails" on the bad side of a moral scale; and all groups replied at the same mediocre rate (about 60%) when we actually sent them emails designed to look as though they were from undergraduates. Also, all groups showed the same very weak to non-existent correlation between self-reported behavior and actually measured email responsiveness and between expressed normative attitude and actually measured email responsiveness. Despite all these similarities, however, there was one very large difference between the groups: Ethicists showed by far the largest relationship between normative attitude and self-reported email responsiveness. One natural interpretation of these results, we think, is that professors tend to have very poor self-knowledge of their actual rates of responsiveness to student emails, but that ethicists will, more than other professors, rationalizingly adjust their norms to match their illusions about their behavior. (It's also possible, though, that ethicists were more likely to adjust their self-reports to match their previously expressed normative attitudes, thus exhibiting either more outward deception or more self-deception.)


Anonymous said...

What's wrong with rationalization? Once you've rationalized an action, you do have a reason for it - it's just not one you had when performing the action. If you can find better reasons after acting, isn't it healthier to focus on those? They might help you act better in the future.
In fact, some good philosophy is a lot like rationalization. If someone provides a theory of induction, aren't they trying to rationalize inductive practices?
I suppose there might be a concern that rationalizations are, in general, worse reasons than 'original' reasons, but I don't see why that should be - if anything, they might be more considered, since they come after the event. What's wrong with situations in which you rationalize your actions is that your original reasons weren't sufficient, and that you may deceive others and yourself if you pretend your rationalizations were actually your original reasons. The first of those issues isn't a problem with the rationalizations, but with the original reasons. The second may be harmful, but it's closely related to the practice of acting on intuition and only making the substance of that intuition precise when pressed later (cf. induction again).

Badda Being said...

What are the effects of your findings on your own tendency toward self-serving rationalizations

Paul Baer said...

Can you share the papers yet? I find your results plausible but am interested in the size of the effects.



Anonymous said...

Interesting provocation, anon 3:50.

I think one's overall view of (meta)ethics is going to matter here, and that by distinguishing various kinds of (meta)ethical philosophy, one will get different results.

If you think, for example, that all putative unconditional moral justifications are bound to be no good, then you're likely to think that certain corresponding kinds of first-order philosophical ethics, and the rationalizations which come with them, are corrupt - regardless of whether the rationalizations are post hoc or not.

This can be seen as a kind of radicalization of Kant: Kant says that all putative rationalizations not in keeping with the moral law are corrupt, and that philosophy helps one to realize this. Nietzsche might say that the next step in philosophy is to stop making this exception.

So, the Kantian view and the Nietzschean view would both have it that philosophy can help one avoid corrupt rationalizations, but in very different ways. According to Kant, this is because philosophy helps one to keep the true, eternal principles of morality in view. According to Nietzsche, this is because philosophy helps one to overcome the "error" that there are any such things.

Kant says: My philosophy is good because it keeps one from corrupt rationalizations, and keeps one on the path of true rationalization. Nietzche's philosophy is half-good, half-wicked because it keeps one from all rationalization, including the true. But Nietzsche says: My philosophy will keep you from the corruption of all ethical rationalizations.

Roman Altshuler said...

Ah, another Kant assault! I can't resist. What does he mean by "science" and "practical philosophy"? Science isn't just "scholarship" (why would you assume that?)--it's systematic scholarship. And Kant argues elsewhere that there is--and can only be--only one System. His System. Practical philosophy, moreover, isn't just any kind of thinking about practical matters. It's got to be systematic, once again. And systematic practical philosophy gets us not to just any old conclusion, but to the moral law.

This is important, because Kant isn't claiming (as I read him) that scholarship and haphazard practical philosophy will counteract our tendency to rationalization. Quite the opposite! If you spend your time engaged in virtue ethics, or Stoicism, or moral sense theory, or--horror of horrors!--utilitarianism, what you will in fact be doing is corrupting your reason further. You will be taking your ordinary human tendency toward rationalization and giving it more ammo. This should be pretty clear--after all, if we have a natural tendency toward rationalizing actions prohibited by the moral law, spending more time thinking about mistaken practical theories is much more likely to make us better rationalizers than to make us less likely to rationalize, and nothing Kant writes here says otherwise.

You interpret him as saying that philosophy can help "because it taps into the true moral law"--but of course not all philosophy does that! Witness the above examples. On the other hand, philosophy that *does* tap into the moral law--that is, proper and systematic practical philosophy--will make us more moral.

This isn't (incidentally) because we can't use the categorical imperative as just another rationalization (witness Eichmann's use of the CI). It's because to think morally, you have to keep the moral law in focus, so to speak. Kant spends a lot of time in the Groundwork--and the Second Critique--debunking other moral theories by showing how they are either systematically flawed, or require the CI as their foundation, or both. This by itself should show that science and practical philosophy--conceived as just scholarship and thinking about practical matters without guidance from the CI--will be insufficient to set us on the right moral course.

Badda Being said...

@Anonymous 7:29

I don't see that Kant and Nietzsche lead us along different trajectories here. The "true, eternal principles of morality" in Kant (retroactively) transcend specific situations and therefore do not count as rationalizations in so far as the latter draw from situational predicates to modify those principles; therefore they are not susceptible to a Nietzschean overcoming but instead represent the same concept -- that of being true to a moral decision. So in Eric's experiments, if you react to a moral dilemma in a certain way and justify your reaction post hoc, your justification is a rationalization only if you had decided on a principle beforehand which has then been modified. Otherwise it is itself a decision, subsequent to which justification is matter of fidelity

Badda Being said...


I suspect that Eric agrees with Kant but doesn't know it

Baron P said...

Is it rationalization to posit that it's not unethical to consider that if you've told a lie for good reason, you need not consider that a self-reportable lie?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

@ anon Fri 3:50: I guess my thought is that rationalizations tend to be sensitive to the wrong kinds of things (such as one's desires), adding a noise into the process that on average will reduce the likelihood of truth.

@ Badda: Right. I don't exclude myself!

@ Paul: Sure thing. Those two papers are both available from my main website
One is "Ethicists' and Non-Ethicists' Responsiveness to Student Emails", the other is "Expertise in Moral Reasoning?"

More replies to comments in a bit!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon 7:29: Interesting meta-ethical thoughts! I suppose I am most tempted to the idea that as long as the moral principles are the right ones, it doesn't matter so much where they came from -- but if your reasoning about principles is post-hoc self-serving justification that will tend on average to serve you less well in getting to the right ones -- neither Nietzsche nor Kant, I think. (Or maybe close to Kant, if it degenerates anti-pluralistically into the single one right principle.) Compare biased evaluations of evidence in epistemology or philosophy of science.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Roman: That does seem a reasonable thought about what Kant might say. I wonder, though, if you have in mind some passages where he does in fact say it, or something close to it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Badda seq.: I guess my thought is that if the endorsement of the principle is post hoc, driven by a self-serving bias or a desire to save face in light of experimentally-manipulated prior judgments, that's enough to call it rationalization, even if you haven't *changed* a previous principle.

But I do need a clearer theory of "rationalization" before I go much farther with this!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Baron P: It might be. My thought is that it would depend on the psychological processes by which you arrived at that principle. If you were just searching around for any plausible principle to justify your actions, that would be rationalization (even if the principle you arrive at is in fact good). However, if you arrive at that principle in a way that is sufficiently stable and unbiased (I'm not sure exactly how I would articulate these criteria), then that wouldn't be rationalization.

Baron P said...

Eric, I would arrive at that principle by noting that virtually every human culture has some form of acceptable deception as an expected practice.
Which goes for animal cultures as well if we're looking for its evolutionary history.

Badda Being said...

@Eric 2:15

That's fine. What we include under the rubric of 'rationalization' is arbitrary anyway. But including justifications of decisional judgements -- judgements that emerge incalculably from the situation, judgements not derivable from any known principles -- elides the possibility of a rigorous understanding of universality, as well the fact that you are with Kant more than you are against him.

Justifications of decisional judgements are necessarily post hoc. If we call all post hoc justifications rationalizations, then we must admit that not all rationalizations lead us astray, since justifications of decisional judgements do not lead us astray: they only ever occur when there is nothing to stray from, when there are no known principle that could have oriented judgement in the first place, when making a judgment was like making a wager.

But, on the other hand, such "rationalizations" are not, strictly speaking, justifications either. They are pronouncements, the laying-down of principles according to which future judgements are to be justified

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Badda: That's a nice way of framing it. Crucial in my mind would be clarifying when such post-hoc justifications are primarily self-serving rather than truth-tracking (or otherwise meritorious).

Badda Being said...

Is there a reason to think that self-serving and truth-tracking justifications are mutually exclusive, or are you just exercising your will to a universal principle

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Badda: It would just be too much of a coincidence if they consistently pointed the same direction, is my thought.