Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Spotting a Rationalization
by Joseph Rowlands

Recently I've had a couple opportunities to suggest that someone is rationalizing.  I hesitate to make those kind of statements since they make assumptions about the motives of a person.  When analyzing an argument, those motivations are irrelevant.  The argument stands or falls on its own merit, not on who's making it or why.

That being said, actual arguments or debates are not so clear cut.  You have to be able to make a decision at some point that the other person is not really arguing for the sake of the truth.  If you don't allow yourself to come to this kind of conclusion, you can get sucked into a debate that never ends.  It's also useful in that it helps you integrate and understand their arguments.  You can narrow in on the real source of the topic, instead of being sidelined by derivative issues.

Since I've actually made the statement that someone was rationalizing, I thought I should take some time to try to identify clearly what criteria would be needed to make that kind of statement.  Understanding one's methodology is generally useful.  I think it's particularly important when you're going to question the motivations of someone else.  That's true even if you keep those thoughts to yourself.  So this is my attempt at understanding and explaining a methodology for spotting a rationalization.

Criterion 1:  Tenuous Link

The first and most obvious part of a rationalization is the weak link between the reason given, and the conclusion.  A rationalization is an excuse for believing something.  Since our emotions do not necessarily reflect our reasoning, we're able to jump to a conclusion despite not having sufficient evidence.  And since we feel that the conclusion is right, and yet want it to be justified through reason, we have choice to fake the reasoning.  We have the choice to look for an excuse, and pretend that it is the reason for believing the conclusion.

Since the process is one of looking backwards for reasons, instead of following reasons to their conclusions, the reasons selected are not very convincing.  They don't have to lead to the conclusion, as they can't if the conclusion is wrong.  Instead, they merely need to support the conclusion, no matter how tenuous that support it.  When spotting rationalizations, the easiest sign is to see a very weak argument being upheld as a strong argument.

Criterion 2:  The reason given has stronger implications that are ignored

Since the rationalization looks backwards for a supporting argument instead of moving forwards from the argument, often you'll see that the supporting argument has much bigger implications.  If they had started with the supporting reason, they would have focused on the more significant implications.

In a recent discussion, it was said that the perpetuation of our species was the ultimate goal in life, and so we should focus on having happy children.  I made the argument that if we really started from that premise (which is false anyway), it would have led to radically different conclusions.  Not only was the link tenuous, but the far stronger implications were ignored.

Along the same lines, if the justification given ends up having consequences that the person explicitly rejects, again we can suspect a rationalization.  If the conclusion was drawn from a premise that they don't fully accept, which means accepting the other necessary conclusions, then it probably isn't the source of the conclusion.

Criterion 3:  The conclusion is stronger then the premise

When you're trying to rationalize a conclusion, you have to find some argument for it.  Usually any argument will do.  And if the conclusion is wrong (and thus needs a rationalization), the rationale given is probably weak or wrong itself.  The result is that weak arguments are often used to make the justification.  But since the conclusion is decided ahead of time, a strange development can occur.  The conclusion can be stated in more certain terms than the alleged justification.

We see this in the form of a very roundabout argument that somehow leads to an absolute conclusion.  The reason given is long, has many questionable premises and specific contexts that are critical to it, and in the end an unequivocal statement is made.  If it were really derived from the initial premises, we would expect the certainty of the conclusion to be no greater than the certainty of the rationale.

Criterion 4:  The original premise is ignored

Since the reason given is used as an excuse for the conclusion, it's often discarded and ignored immediately afterwards, even if it has many other implications.  In one discussion, some individuals tried to make the argument that esthetics is a derivative of politics, to fit with their conception of the organization of the 5 branches of Objectivism.  One argument given was that since the law may use artistic merit to judge whether something should escape censorship, obviously esthetics is derived from politics.  There's so many things wrong with that reasoning, but I want to focus on this one.  If the fact that the law uses some field of philosophy as a standard of judgment in some cases, then every branch of philosophy would have to be considered a derivative of politics.

The point isn't that the original premise is wrong, or that it's a weak argument, or that properly it should mean that politics is a derivative of esthetics.  It's merely that if the original argument is taken as true, it should be applied consistently.  If it's only a rationalization, then we would expect it to be dropped as soon as it performs its function.

Criterion 5:  If the stated reason fails, they resort to a backup.

During a TOC lecture a few years ago, a speaker gave a short story of a woman who believed in god.  She gave her reason for it.  It turned out to be one of the classical proofs for god that have been logically refuted.  When the speaker alerted her that the argument had long been refuted, she paused for a few seconds (according to the story), and stated one of the other classical proofs for god.

The conclusion was clear.  These weren't her reasons for believing in god.  If they had been, and she found out they were wrong, it should have had a significant impact on her.  But she moved along easily to the next.  This is a sign that the reason was not the cause of the belief.  It was a rationalization.

We have to be a little careful with this one.  Life is not simply one long deductive chain of reasoning.  We often have many reasons for believing something.  I may have hundreds of reasons for believing that Capitalism is a good idea.  Refuting one of these reasons will not change the overall assessment.  So just because a reason is refuted, and they move onto another, doesn't imply rationalization.  But if it's the main reason, or a necessary reason, or even a significant reason, we should expect that a refutation would make them go back and reevaluate the conclusion.  If they don't, it's probably fair to assume that the reason had no connection to the conclusion.

Criterion 6:  Opposite results.

Ayn Rand said,  "When a theory achieves nothing but the opposite of its alleged goals, yet its advocates remain undeterred, you may be certain that it is not a conviction or an "ideal", but a rationalization".

Sweet, simple, and to the point.  This could be discussing communists who claim to be for the people, and are undeterred by massive death.  This could be discussing Democrats who aim to help the poor, while their policies just hurt them.  At some point, you have to accept that their stated goals are just a rationalization for the policies.

So those are some methods by which we can spot a rationalization.  Not all rationalizations can be spotted in these ways.  Imagine someone rationalizing a loveless marriage by pretending to be happy with it.  These kind of cases require further speculation of the psychology of the person, and you quickly get to even shakier grounds.

The criteria listed really just apply to rationalizations when people are making arguments.  We can evaluate the quality of those arguments, and the consistency of their use.  We're able to see objective evidence, and make conclusions based on this.  As always, we need to accept that our knowledge is limited, and that we're drawing conclusions from indirect evidence, so we should  keep our minds open to new or better information.
Sanctions: 68Sanctions: 68Sanctions: 68Sanctions: 68 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (18 messages)