What Does it Mean to be 'Irrational'?
Monday Notes
What Does it Mean to be 'Irrational'?
The Anti-Vax Movement and the Limits of Reason
Published on: Jan 3, 2022  |  

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“Rationality” and “reasonableness” are notoriously difficult words to define, because they rely on circular reasoning. Rationality requires, well, “being agreeable to reason” or “common sense.” Fair enough. But this only raises more questions. In a society as divided as ours, who exactly decides what is held in common or what is sensible? Reason itself cannot answer such a question; only power can—the power to decide and to impose a particular understanding on society through pressure or coercion.

Take anti-vax sentiment. Should we tolerate it? What if anti-vaxxers are actually crazy or suffering under mass psychosis? Even if it were true—which I don’t believe—it would suggest a dead end. It would also suggest viewing 30 to 45 percent of our fellow Americans as beyond the pale. I just can’t get behind that, and, more importantly, I wouldn’t want to. It is unclear how a pluralistic society survives if we insist on seeing a particular current of society as dumb, deplorable, and dangerous, all at once. Our rationality—expressed through appeals to The Science—is wielded as a political cudgel, stifling debate in the process and enforcing something akin to clerical authority.

The problem is that we’re all irrational but in different ways. People are crazy—in the colloquial rather than medical sense—and they always have been. Is it rational for someone who’s triple-vaxxed to descend into panic and let Omicron upend their life? If you counter that at least they’re not hurting anyone with their weirdness, that’s not quite true either, certainly not on the aggregate level. COVID-alarmism has profound societal effects. Overzealous school closures affect millions of Americans in very tangible ways, leading to learning gaps that can have long-lasting effects. Not being able to experience childhood, see friends for long stretches, or even bury the dead are harder to quantify, but they are destructive nonetheless.

Much of this has less to do with science and more to do with personal assessments of risk and idiosyncratic approaches to cost-benefit analysis. A 60-year old unvaccinated Egyptian (or American) might say: ‘Well, there’s a 25% chance I get COVID and there’s a 0.5 percent chance I’ll die.’ They may be comfortable taking on that risk. I know many who are. If that sounds unreasonable, you might be right, but where would you draw the line, and do you have any confidence that there could be any consensus on where to draw it? If 0.5 percent is crazy, what about 0.1 or 0.01 percent, and so on, once we start talking about other age groups and controlling for comorbidity factors. As Freddie DeBoer notes, “Your risk calculus might be different, but that’s all it is, a little back-of-the-envelope math. Dealing with Covid is just acting as your own private actuary. That’s it.”

(And it’s not necessarily a question of education. The most conspiracy-minded Egyptians I know tend to be highly educated elites, including doctors and others who have PhDs. They think they’re smart, and apparently they think they’re smarter than everyone else).

In turn, how we perceive risk and how we choose to live with that risk is intimately tied to what we hold dear. And what we hold dear is tied to culture and religion, including how we contend with our own mortality. Death is a constant; how we perceive death is not. And how we perceive it is an inherently irrational thing, if by rational we mean that a decision must be taken without recourse to impulse, emotion, or deep feeling.

The Unreasonable Reasonableness of John Rawls

For the nerds among you, I was revisiting the philosopher John Rawls’ essay “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” the other week. Rawls is perhaps the paradigmatic liberal theorist of the twentieth century. He writes:

Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity.

Hmm. This is where Rawls traps himself in a tautology. If it sounds too clever, it’s because it probably is.

Essentially, Rawls is saying, why, of course, comprehensive doctrines shouldn’t be attacked—as long as the doctrine in question is reasonable. But what if its very comprehensiveness is what makes it appear irrational to others?

A similar problem arises with Rawls’ notion of “reasonable pluralism.” The very fact of pluralism means that there is limited shared understanding of what is “reasonable” in the first place. To say that pluralism is fine but that it must be reasonable basically renders pluralism null and void.