“Rationalizing” and “Sitting Bolt Upright in Alarm.”

This is (sort of) a re­sponse to Blatant lies are the best kind!, al­though I’d been work­ing on this prior to that post get­ting pub­lished. This post ex­plores similar is­sues through my own frame, which seems at least some­what differ­ent from Ben­quo’s.


I’ve no­ticed a ten­dency for peo­ple to use the word “lie”, when they want to com­mu­ni­cate that a state­ment is de­cep­tive or mis­lead­ing, and that this is im­por­tant.

And I think this is (of­ten) tech­ni­cally wrong. I’m not sure ev­ery­one defines lie quite the same way, but in most cases where I hear it un­qual­ified, I usu­ally as­sume it means “to de­liber­ately speak false­hood.” Not all de­cep­tive or mis­lead­ing things are lies.

But it’s per­haps a failure of the en­glish lan­guage that there isn’t a word for “ra­tio­nal­iz­ing” or “mo­ti­vated cog­ni­tion” that is as rhetor­i­cally hefty.

If you say “Carl lied!”, this is a big deal. Peo­ple might get defen­sive (be­cause they’re friends with Carl), or they might get out­raged (if they be­lieve you and feel be­trayed by Carl). Either way, some­thing hap­pens.

Whereas if Carl is mak­ing a mo­ti­vated er­ror, and you say “Carl is mak­ing a mo­ti­vated er­ror!”, then peo­ple of­ten shrug and go ’I dunno, peo­ple make mo­ti­vated er­rors all the time?” And well, yeah. Peo­ple do make mo­ti­vated er­rors all the time. This is all dou­bly slip­pery if the other peo­ple are mo­ti­vated in the same di­rec­tion as Carl, which in­cen­tives them to not get too worked up about it.

But at least some­times, the er­ror is bad or im­por­tant enough, or Carl has enough so­cial in­fluence, that it mat­ters that he is mak­ing the er­ror.

So it seems per­haps use­ful to have a word – a short, punchy word – that comes pre-cached with con­no­ta­tion like “Carl has a pat­tern of ra­tio­nal­iz­ing about this topic, and that pat­tern is im­por­tant, and the fact that this has con­tinued awhile un-checked should be mak­ing you sit bolt up­right in alarm and do­ing some­thing differ­ent from what­ever you are cur­rently do­ing in re­la­tion to Carl.”

Or, al­ter­nately: “It’s not pre­cisely a big deal that Carl in par­tic­u­lar is do­ing this. Maybe ev­ery­one’s do­ing this, and it’d be un­fair to sin­gle Carl out. But, the fact that our so­cial fabric is sys­tem­at­i­cally caus­ing peo­ple to dis­tort their state­ments the way Carl is do­ing is real bad, and we should pri­ori­tize fix­ing that.”


The mo­ti­vat­ing ex­am­ple here was a dis­cus­sion/​ar­gu­ment I had a cou­ple weeks ago with an­other ra­tio­nal­ist. Let’s call them Bob.

(“Bob” can re­veal them­selves in the com­ments if they wish).

Bob was frus­trated with Alice, and with many other peo­ple’s re­sponse to some of Alice’s state­ments. Bob said [para­phrased slightly] “Alice blatantly lied! And no­body is notic­ing or car­ing!”

Now, it seemed to me that Alice’s state­ment was nei­ther a lie, nor blatant. It was not a lie be­cause Alice be­lieved it. (I call this “be­ing wrong”, or “ra­tio­nal­iz­ing”, not “ly­ing”, and the differ­ence is im­por­tant be­cause it says very differ­ent things about a per­son’s char­ac­ter and how to most use­fully re­spond to them)

It didn’t seem blatant be­cause, well, at the very least it wasn’t ob­vi­ous to me that Alice was wrong.

I could see mul­ti­ple mod­els of the world that might in­form Alice’s po­si­tion, and some of them seemed plau­si­ble to me. I un­der­stood why Bob dis­agreed, but nonethe­less Alice’s wrong­ness did not seem like an ob­vi­ous fact.

[Un­for­tu­nately go­ing into the de­tails of the situ­a­tion would be more dis­tract­ing than helpful. I think what’s most im­por­tant to this post were the re­spec­tive epistemic states of my­self and Bob.

But to give some idea, let’s say Alice had said some­thing like “ob­vi­ously min­i­mum wage helps low in­come work­ers.”

I think this state­ment is wrong, es­pe­cially the “ob­vi­ously” part, but it’s a po­si­tion one might earnestly hold de­pend­ing on which pa­pers you read in which or­der. I don’t know if Bob would agree that this is a fair com­par­i­son, but it roughly matches my epistemic state]

So, it seemed to me that Alice was prob­a­bly mak­ing some cog­ni­tive mis­takes, and failing to ac­knowl­edge some facts that were rele­vant to her po­si­tion.

It was also in my prob­a­bil­ity space that Alice had know­ingly lied. (In the min­i­mum wage ex­am­ple, if Alice knew full well that there were some good first prin­ci­ples and em­piri­cal rea­sons to doubt that min­i­mum wage helped low-in­come work­ers, and ig­nored them be­cause it was rhetor­i­cally con­ve­nient, I might clas­sify that as a lie, or some other form of de­cep­tion that raised se­ri­ous red flags about Alice’s trust­wor­thi­ness).

With all this in mind, I said to Bob:

“Hey, I think this is wrong. I don’t think Alice was ei­ther ly­ing, or blatantly wrong.”

Bob thought a sec­ond, and then said “Okay, yeah fair. Sure. Alice didn’t lie, but she en­gaged in mo­ti­va­tion cog­ni­tion. But I still think” — and then Bob started speak­ing quickly, mov­ing on to why he were still frus­trated with peo­ple’s re­sponse to Alice, ag­i­ta­tion in his voice.

And I said: (slightly para­phrased to fit an hour of dis­cus­sion into one para­graph)

“Hey. Wait. Stop. It doesn’t look like you’ve back-prop­a­gated the fact that Alice didn’t blatantly lie through the rest of your be­lief net­work. It’s un­der­stand­able if you dis­agree with me about whether “blatantly lie” makes sense as a de­scrip­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing here. But if we do agree on that, I think you should ac­tu­ally stop and think a minute, and let that fact sink in, and shift how you feel about the peo­ple who aren’t treat­ing Alice’s state­ment the way you want.”

Bob stopped and said “Okay, yeah, you’re right. Thanks.” And then waited a minute to do so. (This didn’t rad­i­cally change the ar­gu­ment, in part be­cause there were a lot of other facets of the over­all dis­agree­ment, but still seemed like a good move for us to have jointly performed)

It was dur­ing that minute, while I was mean­while re­flect­ing on my own, that I thought about the open­ing state­ment of this post:

That maybe it’s a failure of the en­glish lan­guage that we don’t have a way to com­mu­ni­cate “so-and-so is ra­tio­nal­iz­ing, and this pat­tern of ra­tio­nal­iza­tion is im­por­tant.” If you want to get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion and get them ag­i­tated, your rhetor­i­cal tools are limited.

[Edited ad­den­dum]

My guess is that a new word isn’t ac­tu­ally the right solu­tion (as Ben­dini notes in the com­ments, new jar­gon tends to get col­lapsed into what­ever the most com­mon use case is, re­gard­less of how well the jar­gon term fits it).

But I think it’d be use­ful to at least a have as shared con­cept-han­dle, that we can more eas­ily re­fer to. I think it’d be good to have more af­for­dance to say: “Alice is ra­tio­nal­iz­ing, and peo­ple aren’t notic­ing, and I think we should be sit­ting up and pay­ing at­ten­tion to this, not just shrug­ging it off.”