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.