Breeched Wales Bloviating in the Hot Sun

Location: Long Island, New York, United States

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Attempted Assasination of the Word "Rational"

Over at Catallarchy I had commented on an article titled “Gerin Oil Addiction”, which was itself a comment on an article by Richard Dawkins titled "Opiate of the Masses" . I only mention this to point out that I came across someone in the comments there who seemed to have a serous issue with rationality. He seems to think of rationality as a source of evil. His name is Brian W. Doss and he has since posted an article titled “As if reading my mind” in which he advances the notion that the word rational has been stripped of meaning and should be discarded in favor of other more descriptive terminology.

In the Gerin Oil comments I was getting the distinct feeling that Mr. Doss was confused as to the meaning of the word rational when used by us rationalists. I didn’t however want to get into long discussion at that point. Now that he has declared war not only on rationality but also on the use of the word rational I am going to have to take issue.

The article “As if reading my mind” is in itself thin on argumentation and instead it extensively quotes another article at Crooked Timber, comments in that article, and quotes from an economist, Ludwig von Mises, on rationality. All the quotes he uses were on the term “rational” as used in economics.

Yet Doss uses these quotes to try to bolster the idea of getting rid of the use of the word “rational” in everyday language. I think I am justified in this interpretation because he links to the “Gerin Oil” comments, in his post thusly:

As if reading my mind
…or reading the blog comments, John Quiggin reposts a quick meditation on how ‘rational’ has been stripped of meaning and should be discarded in favor of more directly descriptive terminology:
Those comments were not about economics and thus the word “rational” was being used with a common language definition and not an economic one.

The common language meaning of rational, as used by rationalist, and the economic meaning as used by economists are different. Thus, none of the quotes cited by Doss count against the rationalists in the “Gerin Oil” blog comments. Trying to use them this way is committing the fallacy of equivocation.

I don’t know if this is intentional or not but by the end of the article Doss admits something I suspected all along.
“That word you keep using. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
NB: This applies to me equally.

He admits he doesn’t know what rational means. So perhaps we can forgive him his equivocation.

I think that was enough to put a bullet in the argument put forth by Doss but I would like to clarify why I disagree not merely with his argument but also his position. I don’t agree that the word “rational” is confused to the point of meaninglessness in common usage. I also would like to state why I agree with the article he quotes.

First I’ll tackle common usage.

Common Usage
When I use the word rational in the phrase “rational behavior” in everyday conversation I mean the following:
Rationality consists of recognizing the possibility of error in our beliefs and actions, then using every method available and commensurate with the situation to reduce such error.
As you can see this definition is in the realm of human behavior. It is used in categorizing human behavior. It may not draw a crisp line between categories but it is useful nonetheless. In this way it is like the word “bald” with regards to hair loss. There are degrees of baldness and there are degrees of rationality.

As a simple example one can clearly categorize these behaviors with regard to rationality in relationship to the situation.
Situation: A Catholic woman desires to meet a man for a serious relationship that leads to marriage and children. She is beautiful and intelligent and wishes to raise her children as Catholics.
Categorize these behaviors as to rationality if they are motivated by her desire to meet such a man.
1) She goes to a Catholic church
2) She goes to the library
3) She goes to a bar
4) She moves to Alaska. There is little competition for men there.
5) She goes to a Synagogue.
6) She goes to a Mosque.
7) She works at a strip club where she can meet lots of men and they can evaluate her assets.
Now I think we can all agree:
That 1) is the most rational behavior given her situation.
That 2) and 3) are fairly rational and that she can take addition steps to ensure success. That for various reasons 4) may or may not be rational.
That 5) 6) and 7) are irrational.

So given her situation and goals we can say that certain behaviors are more prone to error and are less likely to lead to satisfaction of those goals. Assuming that people wish to attain their goals, the definition of a goal, then we can see that rational behavior is the best means to that attainment. One can use less rational means to attain a goal but such behavior is less likely to result in success.

Note that this doesn’t mean that one cannot attain ones goals through irrational behavior. If our imaginary woman where working at a strip club and someone told her she was behaving irrationally, then that would not be the same as saying she could not find a husband that way. It’s possible that she would, it’s just not likely.

Using the fact that rational behavior leads to success in the attainment of goals we can derive normative statements. Thus we can say that, rational behavior in the attainment of ethically good goals is good, and that irrational behavior used to further such goals is bad. Thus in my example, given her goals, going to church is good behavior while being a stripper is bad behavior.

The objective facts also effect rationality. If there were no churches, bars, libraries, or state of Alaska, and such then being a stripper would certainly appear more rational. You'd have to eliminate lots of options however to make being a stripper look like a good option for meeting desirable men.

Since rationality has to do with human behavior which is in turn effected by knowledge it is only natural to expect rationality to depend upon knowledge. Thus in my example, if she were not aware of churches, libraries, and the state of Alaska, then going to bars would move up on the list of rational behavior and might be considered rational to her goals, given her knowledge.

The fact that rationality is relative to a persons situation and knowledge means it is in a sense subjective. However due to the fact that subjective situation and knowledge can change due to objective facts it is also in a sense objective. What was once a rational decision in ignorance of a fact may become irrational in light of that fact, or vice versa.

So I disagree with Doss. The word “rational” is useful (although a complex concept). The particular meaning of the word I have discussed here is clear. Not only that but that particular meaning describes a concept that is not only useful in it’s own right but also integrates well with other concepts such “good”, “bad”, “error”, “efficient”, “goal”, “behavior”, etc.

Usage by Economists

The prior discussion was all within the framework of common language usage. Let me move on its usage in economics and why I agree with the Crooked Timber article.

Often, scientists use common language words but give them a different meaning within their discipline? Thus when physicists name the charm particle that doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with transmitting aspects of personality. In this case it is merely being used as an identifier with no other meaning, and was probably done to make an otherwise boring topic more humorous. Scientists aren’t the only ones with specialized vocabularies either. Many other groups have developed special language suited for their discipline for various reasons. Examples run from fry cooks to gang members.

That economists would use this word in a special discipline specific way doesn’t bother me. Nor does it bother me if they give it a completely different meaning as per above. Both are compatible with the needs of specialized vocabularies. What does bother me however is the following:
1) Economics studies human behavior, not some esoteric thing like particles. This presents two problems
a) The word “rational” defined in terms of human behavior in both common language and economics. This causes confusion that is not likely in a discipline such as particle physics. When economists are talking about human behavior we cannot be sure which meaning of rational to take. When physicists are talking about human behavior we know what meaning of the word charm to take.
b) It is likely that the common language definition of the word would be useful to use in economics, since it does bear upon human behavior. People do act rationally and irrationally using the definition I gave above. Thus by redefining the word economics loses a powerful concept.
2) Economists from different sub-disciplines give the word different meanings. The Austrian concept of rationality is quite different from the Neo-Classical one.
3) Even within a particular economic discipline the word is not used consistently.
The reason these issues bother me is that they can and do lead to error. Since economists are free to coin new terms there is no reason I can see for them to continue in this behavior. To do so would be irrational.