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What does it mean to be "rational"? This has been an ongoing preoccupation for us at Wisdom of Crowds, not just as it relates to Putin's allegedly unhinged behavior but as it relates to pretty much everyone and everything we disagree with, dislike, or hate. Are Trump supporters or anti-vaxxers "rational"? Were Republicans rational before Trump? Thomas Frank wrote an entire book wondering what was the matter with Kansas. Why would these blue collar folk, the reasoning went, vote against their own economic interests? The question itself may have been intriguing, but to frame it this way was ultimately silly and patronizing. It suggested that we know better, even though most of us have never actually been to Kansas. Of course, the quick and easy retort is likely to be something like: "Well, we do know better."
The other day, a friend who I've known for several years, confessed (seemingly by accident) that he hadn't voted for Trump in 2016 but voted for him in 2020. I was a bit surprised. Had he become less rational in my estimation, as a result of this new nugget of information? We had a laugh, and it quickly became a running joke. For him, it came down to stopping abortion by any (legal, democratic) means necessary. Is it irrational to vote for someone like Trump, who's otherwise terrible in various ways (as my friend himself acknowledged) just because they're willing to appoint supreme court justices who are likely to overturn Roe v. Wade? Yes, it would be irrational if you didn't think abortion was important. If, on the other hand, you think abortion is comparable to murder and you're something of a single-issue voter, then supporting Trump was, in fact, a rational thing to do—even if he is the worst person in the world.
Part of the confusion over rationality is that observers often assume it is about ends rather than means. Yet if we're talking about what political scientists call "instrumental rationality"—the idea that individuals carefully weigh costs and benefits in seeking maximum political utility—then it is the reverse; it is about means rather than ends. In other words, once we know what the actors' goals are, we can then work backwards and see to what extent they are acting "rationally" in the service of those goals. So, for example, if we're talking about, say, ISIS—arguably the most extreme group of recent years (if not decades)—then to assess their rationality, or lack thereof, we would first need to ascertain their ultimate aims. This isn't easy, because when we, as outsiders, try to assess a group's motivations, we can't help but make that assessment based on our own priors.
It might seem odd to bring up Barack Obama—in the midst of everything happening today, our memory of his reign seems to grow more remote, as if part of a parallel universe now lost to us—but the former president's attempts to divine the ends and interests of others are worth noting in light of today's tragic events in Ukraine. In 2014, Obama hypothesized that if he were "an advisor to ISIS," he would have released rather than killed American hostages, with notes pinned to their chests no less, saying "stay out of here." Obama should be lauded for being both able and willing to imagine himself in diverse political contexts, but the statement was remarkably naïve. Obama assumed that ISIS wanted America out, but what if they didn't, or what if they weren't sure?
In his intermittent role as analyst-in-chief, Obama regularly claimed that world leaders were acting against their rational self-interest, whether it be Vladimir Putin, with his "reckless" interventions in Ukraine and Syria, or the Israelis for failing to support an Iranian nuclear deal that Obama thought would make them safer. As for the Iranians, once the nuclear deal was struck, the hope, sometimes explicit but always somewhere underneath the surface, was that Iran would "moderate" and be induced to become a constructive partner in the resolution of regional conflict. Being "constructive" was in their interest, after all, just as it was in America's, and just as it was in Russia's.
Which brings us back to Mr. Putin. As the Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky noted in the lead-up to Putin's invasion of Ukraine: "If Putin does attack, the presumption of his rationality, which has been part of my analysis of his actions for the last 23 years, not just the past few weeks, will need to be thrown out the window."
As it was with Obama years ago, the lens of "rationality" is misleading, because it assumes certain things about how other leaders understand their interests. Economic interests aren't always paramount. It can still be "rational" for someone to tank their own economy if other things are more important to them. And so it appears to be the case with Putin.
To use an example that I think about a lot in my own work: If someone does something "irrational" because they want to, say, get into heaven, then that something is no longer irrational, if it can be deduced as making eternal salvation more likely for the individual in question. Of course, this is where it gets complicated, because if an analyst doesn't believe in heaven, then it will be harder to understand the motivation for reaching a place that doesn't exist.
Regarding heaven, I tweeted the other day that "I don't believe that believing in heaven is irrational. In fact, I think it's probably one of the most rational beliefs a human being can have." This was in response to someone who had said, "But believing in heaven is itself irrational, so at best you have explicable behavior in pursuit of irrational goals."
This is the problem with all debates around "rationality." There is no shared understanding of what constitutes a rational goal. We can't agree on this, because we don't (and won't) agree on the most foundational questions, which are questions of values and not empirical reality. In other words, something can be both rational and "untrue." Of course, to say heaven is false is itself a belief like any other, ultimately unverifiable—or at least unverifiable until one dies.
The belief in heaven, while having little to do with Putin (one knows not what is in the hearts of men), is mystical and emotional, but why should we discount the role of emotion in helping us perceive the world and perhaps the next world? If anything, the belief in heaven, however faith-based, is more popularly legitimate (and therefore more likely "true") than Putin's ambitions of reconstituting Russian greatness through various neo-imperial—or actually imperial—ventures. And it appears that this is what he wants above all else. This may not be the end, one hopes, but it may very well be his end.