Thursday, May 26, 2016

Empty Box Rationalization

A hypothetical from Darrell Rowbottom, in conversation: Suppose you are a perfect moral rationalizer. Suppose you know that for any action you want to do, you are clever enough a moral theorist that you could find some plausible-seeming post-hoc justification for it. Would you actually need to come up with the justification? Maybe it's enough just to know in advance that you could come up with one, and not actually do the work?

Think of the savings of time and cognitive effort! Also, since self-serving rationalizations might tend to lead one away from the moral truth, you might be epistemically better off too. With or without an actual filled-in rationalization, you'll be able to feel fine about doing what you want.

Call this Empty Box Rationalization. Why bother to fill the box with an actual rationalization? Simply postulate that a plausible-seeming justification could be found!

Of course, few of us are clever enough moral theorists to take advantage of Empty Box Rationalization without limitation. As skilled as we may happen to be at justifying our actions to ourselves, there will be some actions beyond the pale, which we are incapable of plausibly rationalizing.

However, we might be able to take advantage of Limited Empty Box Rationalization. Limited Empty Box Rationalization differs from full Empty Box Rationalization by confining itself to a range of rationalizable actions. For any action within a certain range, I know that I am clever enough a rationalizer to devise, if I want, some plausible-seeming justification which I would accept upon reflection; and thus I can postulate that such a justification is out there to be found.

Here's an example. Suppose I'm always fifteen minutes late. Every time I show up late, I always manage to find a satisfactory excuse. Sometimes it's traffic. Sometimes it's that I really needed to finish some important task first. Sometimes it's that I got lost. Sometimes it's that I was detained by someone else. I always find some way to let myself off the hook, so that I never feel guilty. Now imagine that today I find myself arriving fifteen minutes late for a meeting with a graduate student. I could, hypothetically, go through the effort of trying to concoct an excuse. But maybe instead of wasting that time, I can just postulate the existence of some plausible excuse or other, so that we can get straight into the meeting without further delay.

(Sure, maybe an actual filled-in excuse from me would serve some kind of function for the other person. I set that aside for these reflections.)

People will differ in their degree of cleverness and thus differ in their working ranges of Limited Empty Box Rationalization. Some will be clever enough reliably to justify 15 minutes of tardiness; others clever enough reliably to justify 30 minutes. Some will be clever enough to justify reneging on wider ranges of commitments, to justify wider ranges of gray-area misconduct, perhaps even to justify, to their own satisfaction, what the rest of us would judge to be plainly morally odious. For one especially skillful example, consider Heidegger on Nazism.

Of course, this isn't fair. If only we were more clever we too could rationalize such actions! Perhaps for any action that I've done or that I'd really like to do, a clever enough moral theorist could, with enough work, come up with some plausible-seeming justification of it that would satisfy me. But then -- maybe that's good enough! If I know that a cleverer version of myself would believe A, then maybe that knowledge itself suffices to justify A, since who am I to disagree with a cleverer version of myself, who could of course get the better of me in argument?

Advanced Empty Box Rationalization begins with that thought. Advanced Empty Box Rationalization widens the range of Limited Empty Box Rationalization beyond the boundaries of one's own actual rationalizing capacities. For some range of actions wider than one's usual range of rationalizable actions, one justifiably accepts that either one could come up with a plausible-seeming justification that one would accept upon reflection, given that one is motivated to do so, or a cleverer version of oneself could devise such a justification. Perhaps as a limiting case one could accept that an infinitely clever version of oneself could hypothetically justify anything in this manner.

Application of these thoughts to current and past scandals in the profession is left as an exercise for the reader.


  • Schwitzgebel & Ellis (forthcoming), Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought.
  • [image source]


    howard berman said...

    All rationalization takes place in a social context. There are other forms of persuasion than rationalization. There are ways of charming and cajoling people, and using carrots and sticks that can be used in addition to rationalization.
    Still it seems you're conducting a thought experiment isolating rationalization.
    Still my point remains

    Callan S. said...

    I think there's something to that that reaches out to a broader context. But for myself for now I'll answer in the smaller context - surely this is terrible? Surely one wants to make an appeal that one is following a set of principles still, or is at least close to doing so and has not deviated significantly. And the same set of principles as followed before, not changing them/shifting the goal posts (which is part of rationalization)

    Who is the rationaliser trying to convince when it comes to empty box rationalisation? Themselves? Enough to give enough swagger to their step to make others think they must be doing what they've done for good reasons?

    John Baez said...

    Quite generally one could ask: why actually do something when you already know you could do it? For some actions, knowing you could do them is not an adequate substitute. But for others - for example, doing something you shouldn't do - it might be.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Howard: Of course I also privately rationalize to myself -- I don't think you mean to be denying this?

    Callan: I'm imagining themselves as the target audience. Right, it seems that there's no real goalposts if they are that shifting and flexible, which is part of the absurdity of it.

    John: A complicated issue! I like the candy bar example you mentioned on Google+. Arguably, if I could vividly enough imagine eating a candy bar, *maybe* that would be as good as eating it. (Somehow, I think not, but save that concern for another time.) If rationalization similarly just serves the function of satisfying a certain craving, then maybe imagining that one *could* rationalize would be enough. The absurdity of empty box rationalization lies (at least) in conceptualizing the attempt at moral self-justification in that way, instead as a kind of responsiveness to genuine moral considerations.

    Arnold said...

    A splinter toward Casuistry, if so, leave the splinter In for 'responsiveness in kind'...

    Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

    From Steve Martin's classic LA Story:

    "I know there's something that would make you stay. I know it. I see you play the tuba I sensed that about you. There is some move I could make, the right word, attitude, plan… but these are all tricks; these are just things I would think up and try. But let's forego that! Let's assume that whatever that thing is, that whatever it is that you secretly know would make you stay, has occurred, that it has happened, that my hand has already gone down your throat and grabbed your heart and squoze it!"