Your Rationality is My Business

Some responses to “Lotteries: A Waste of Hope” chided me for daring to criticize others’ decisions; if someone else chooses to buy lottery tickets, who am I to disagree? This is a special case of a more general question: What business is it of mine, if someone else chooses to believe what is pleasant rather than what is true? Can’t we each choose for ourselves whether to care about the truth?

An obvious snappy comeback is: “Why do you care whether I care whether someone else cares about the truth?” It is somewhat inconsistent for your utility function to contain a negative term for anyone else’s utility function having a term for someone else’s utility function. But that is only a snappy comeback, not an answer.

So here then is my answer: I believe that it is right and proper for me, as a human being, to have an interest in the future, and what human civilization becomes in the future. One of those interests is the human pursuit of truth, which has strengthened slowly over the generations (for there was not always Science). I wish to strengthen that pursuit further, in this generation. That is a wish of mine, for the Future. For we are all of us players upon that vast gameboard, whether we accept the responsibility or not.

And that makes your rationality my business.

Is this a dangerous idea? Yes, and not just pleasantly edgy “dangerous.” People have been burned to death because some priest decided that they didn’t think the way they should. Deciding to burn people to death because they “don’t think properly”—that’s a revolting kind of reasoning, isn’t it? You wouldn’t want people to think that way, why, it’s disgusting. People who think like that, well, we’ll have to do something about them . . .

I agree! Here’s my proposal: Let’s argue against bad ideas but not set their bearers on fire.

The syllogism we desire to avoid runs: “I think Susie said a bad thing, therefore, Susie should be set on fire.” Some try to avoid the syllogism by labeling it improper to think that Susie said a bad thing. No one should judge anyone, ever; anyone who judges is committing a terrible sin, and should be publicly pilloried for it.

As for myself, I deny the therefore. My syllogism runs, “I think Susie said something wrong, therefore, I will argue against what she said, but I will not set her on fire, or try to stop her from talking by violence or regulation . . .”

We are all of us players upon that vast gameboard; and one of my interests for the Future is to make the game fair. The counterintuitive idea underlying science is that factual disagreements should be fought out with experiments and mathematics, not violence and edicts. This incredible notion can be extended beyond science, to a fair fight for the whole Future. You should have to win by convincing people, and should not be allowed to burn them. This is one of the principles of Rationality, to which I have pledged my allegiance.

People who advocate relativism or selfishness do not appear to me to be truly relativistic or selfish. If they were really relativistic, they would not judge. If they were really selfish, they would get on with making money instead of arguing passionately with others. Rather, they have chosen the side of Relativism, whose goal upon that vast gameboard is to prevent the players—all the players—from making certain kinds of judgments. Or they have chosen the side of Selfishness, whose goal is to make all players selfish. And then they play the game, fairly or unfairly according to their wisdom.

If there are any true Relativists or Selfishes, we do not hear them—they remain silent, non-players.

I cannot help but care how you think, because—as I cannot help but see the universe—each time a human being turns away from the truth, the unfolding story of humankind becomes a little darker. In many cases, it is a small darkness only. (Someone doesn’t always end up getting hurt.) Lying to yourself, in the privacy of your own thoughts, does not shadow humanity’s history so much as telling public lies or setting people on fire. Yet there is a part of me which cannot help but mourn. And so long as I don’t try to set you on fire—only argue with your ideas—I believe that it is right and proper to me, as a human, that I care about my fellow humans. That, also, is a position I defend into the Future.