I recently recommended a book to a friend. We were online chatting in Gmail and a few moments after I endorsed the book, he replied that the book had earned “only mediocre reviews on Amazon.” I was a bit stymied. After all, I myself, his close friend of several years, had just endorsed the book to him specifically, based on a somewhat intimate knowledge of his intellectual proclivities. I added a few more reasons for the book’s worth, but he still seemed nonplussed. I don’t know if he will give the book a shot.
I mention this in order to ponder the nature of rationality. On the one hand, it is respectably rational to go by a close friend’s specific endorsement of a book, or, say, a movie or a restaurant. On the other hand, this being a largely stochastic, statistical world, it is respectably rational to heed the statistical pattern of yea’s and nay’s for the book, film, or restaurant. But which method of discernment is more rational? Isn’t my friend being irrational by ignoring my personal recommendation, specifically raised to target his known interests, in favor of a basically anonymous pool of reviewers from who knows what kind of background? Or, isn’t he being irrational by just taking my word for it and not betting more in line with “the odds” (i.e., if the average readers gives it a 6 out of 10, he’ll probably give it a 6, and that would be a waste of his money/time). He may know what “all the people on Amazon say” but he doesn’t know all the people on Amazon, so he has to add some other layer of rationality to their reviews in order to respect them in the first place. On the other hand, he knows me better than anyone on Amazon, and yet seems to complicate that “rational purity” by superimposing another layer of rationality concerning mass psychology and his own tastes as a socially formed reader.
What splits the decision in terms of ideal rationality? Personal testimony or mass appraisal?
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From a different angle, we might ask, “Which is more important: heeding the ‘demands of reason’ or sticking to your values and ideals even when they demand irrational measures? Can––should?––values control our rationality, or should it only be a one-way street? Should we be rational above all, and then see what existential room is left for our values, or can––should?––values be the bedrock guides which control just how “rational” we are?
Fortunately, it’s a false dilemma. For reason itself, that is, rationality as an existential tool, is itself a value. You have to value being rational in order to live consistently rationally. What reason, aside from your basic desire for it, unilaterally grounds your adherence to reason in the first place?
As Michael Heller notes in Creative Tension, for the Greeks, rationality, logic, etc., were forms of public faith, forms of public piety. Greece became what it became because it, more or less collectively, chose to put reason high in its pantheon of public well-being. The fact that not all societies did likewise, but still flourished, indicates that there is no intrinsic connection between public well-being and Greek rationality. The good man in Greek ethics should be rational. Yet, paradoxically, the good man must first value being good, which then entails being rational. Being good, however, is not a purely rational decision. It is its own category of value, and cannot be adduced from pure reason.
Once we “betroth” ourselves to reason as a fundamental value, we can then emply it to order, challenge, refine, and even jettison our other values. Interestingly, however, we might also be able to suspend the strict obligations of reason for the good of great value, such as suspending the demand for proof in order to preserve our life when a stranger in a lobby exhorts us to follow him to safety from an as yet unseen fire. It is valuable, desirable, to be rational, but it is also rational to promote our highest values. If pure reason cannot always promote those values, so much the worse for pure reason. Hence, my friend’s juggling act between the rationality of statistical likelihood and relational values is itself a question of how he wants to order his values on a case by case basis.
P.S. I think readers might enjoy both the thread that developed at my blog when I posted a first draft of this post there and this related post there about rational, irrational, and non-rational actions.