Why the accusation ‘irrational’ is generally bogus
There is often a sort of dishonesty to the accusation that someone or something is ‘irrational’. It presupposes that the person making the accusation knows how the other person or group of people should act in order to be rational. It means taking the place of others and claiming authority over what they should be doing, on grounds of knowledge.
I’ve put ‘knows’ and ‘act’ in italics above because the idea of rationality combines these two generally different notions. Knowing something is a passive condition. It generally means knowing facts, so something that has already happened. Action is a different condition. By definition it is active, affecting the world and projecting into the future.
The idea of rationality connects the two, projecting knowledge into the future, going beyond the sphere of facts and connecting to ideas of causation: that when I do this something else follows. In football if I kick the ball in the direction of the goal I am more likely to score a goal than if I aim at the corner flag. This is rational, logical thinking. You may base it on evidence of an experiment in which players variously aimed at the goal and at the corner flag, so it has some basis in knowledge and fact, but it is still projecting into the future. When the time comes around when I kick the ball, there may be other factors intervening that your calculation didn’t take into consideration – like my foot turning inwards or a very strong wind blowing.
In this way, your rational instruction to aim at the goal isn’t completely secure. But it is still reasonable – and rational – for me to aim at the goal if I want to score a goal. You would be well justified in calling me ‘irrational’ for aiming at the corner flag.
The idea of rationality makes good sense in this situation precisely because it is a limited situation, because there is a specific goal in mind – to score a goal – and actors involved in action trying to achieve that goal. It is an isolated, strictly bounded situation with relatively few variables involved. The aim is clear and not contested.
Applied to politics, this idea of rationality starts to fall apart. After all, in politics our aims are often contested. The situation is not isolated and bounded like on a football field or in an experimental laboratory. Rather it opens out to the whole world. For Britain in June 1940, was the intention to achieve peace or to defeat the Nazis? Many chose the former and followed a perfectly rational course in wanting to come to an accommodation with Hitler. They had a clear goal in mind. But what about others, like Churchill? Were they being ‘irrational’?
The accusation could certainly be made, but would be unfair because Churchill was not aiming for peace at any cost. He had other things in mind, like defeating tyranny, maintaining Britain’s standing and independence in the world, and also personal glory. No doubt, some rationalists at the time claimed that these goals were themselves irrational, but was peace at any cost rational? Here we find the sphere of action, of causation and of different considerations widen out so far that rationality loses its moorings. Once we start trying to examine goals according to rationality, we enter an infinite regression, like the child endlessly asking ‘But why, Daddy’ until Daddy gives up and says, ‘Just because I say so’ or ‘Because it’s the right thing to do.’
Rationalists in politics tend to avoid asking these questions, of why they are trying to achieve what they are. It has already been decided (which is different to that they have decided) and they have work to do. They accuse others of being ‘irrational’ when these others have different intentions to theirs, as if other forms of activity and justifications are illegitimate. They are a bit like a football coach who breaks the bounds of the football field to demand rugby players stop playing rugby because playing rugby is a poor way of putting the ball in the back of the net.
Like this, rationality in politics relentlessly narrows down the possibilities of politics by only admitting certain forms of ‘in-order-to’ justifications. It implies a strict limitation of the ends that can legitimately be sought. Any alternatives appear as ‘irrational’ because they are not directed to the correct ends and are therefore unlikely to be effective at achieving them. But the rationalist is generally not self-aware enough to see this, so continues in all seriousness.
The dishonesty – and political power – in this approach relates to how the accusation is expressed, for accusers do not generally draw boundaries and narrow down to a particular situation of trying to achieve a set goal. The accusation that someone is being ‘irrational’ invariably stands alone, as absolute and universal, covering the whole of politics and of life. It claims the authority of knowledge, of causation, not bounded by the equivalent of the football field, but taking everything into account.
It is bogus, but it feeds into a sort of religious yearning we all have for certainty, for security – and for faith.
In this way, rationalism in politics is inherently irrational, which is a philosophical weakness, but a political strength, for it allows assertions to be made readily. It puts up a constant challenge to opponents to respond, which they may not be in a position to do. Claims of rationality often require intellectual challenge. This takes time, attention to detail, the right language to engage politically and access to public life.
At present, our political life is pretty dreadful at doing this challenging and facilitating it. For the most part, in the immediate situations of politics, assertions of rationality and accusations of irrationality pass by unchallenged, their authority unquestioned. I think we need to do better, and we could do worse than start with these three basic questions:
- Whose rationality?
- What are they trying to achieve?
- What are they implicitly ruling out in the process?
Brexit is of course posed as the ultimate irrational act by many people at the moment. But who are they? What are their motives? What self-interest do they have in stopping it? On the level of their arguments, what do they think politics should be trying to achieve, and why does national self-government rule this out? What is it about national democracy that they would like to exclude from political life, and why?
Once these things start to emerge, then we can start having a more honest political debate.
There is a lot more to be said on this, but that is more than enough for now. Some of these thoughts were jogged into being by listening to the philosopher John Gray’s Desert Island Disks the other day. It’s well worth forty-five minutes of your time, both for the reflections and the music.