Social prerequisites of rationality

Sum­mary: it is a pre­req­ui­site that you think you are en­ti­tled to your own be­liefs, your be­liefs mat­ter, you think your ac­tions fol­low your own be­liefs and not from com­mands is­sued by oth­ers, and your ac­tions can make a differ­ence, at the very least in your own life. This may cor­re­late with what one may call ei­ther equal­ity or liberty.

Reli­gion as not even at­tire, just obedience

I know peo­ple, mainly old ru­ral folks from CEE, who do not think they are en­ti­tled to have a vote in whether there is a God or not. They sim­ply obey. This does NOT mean they base their be­liefs on Author­ity: rather they think their be­liefs do not mat­ter, be­cause no­body asks them about their be­liefs. They base their be­hav­ior on Author­ity, be­cause this is what is ex­pected of them. The Big Man in suit tells you to pay taxes, you do. The Big Man in white lab coat tells you to take this medicine, you do. The Big Man in priestly robes tells you to kneel and cross your­self, you do. They think form­ing their own be­liefs is above their “pay grade”. One old guy, when asked any ques­tion out­side this ex­per­tise, used to tell me “The Pater­nos­ter is the priests’s busi­ness.” Mean­ing: I am not en­ti­tled to form any be­liefs re­gard­ing these mat­ters, I lack the ex­per­tise, and lack the power. I think what we have here is not ad­mirable epistemic hu­mil­ity, rather a heavy case of dis­em­pow­ered­ness, in­equal­ity, op­pres­sion, lack of equal­ity or liberty and of course all that in­ter­nal­ized.

Em­pow­ered­ness, liberty, equality

Sure, on very high lev­els liberty and equal­ity may be en­e­mies: equal­ity be­yond a cer­tain level can only be en­forced by re­duc­ing liber­ties, and liberty leads to in­equal­ity. But only be­yond a cer­tain level: low and mid-lev­els they go hand in hand. My im­pres­sion is that Amer­i­cans who fight on­line for one and against the other sim­ple take the level where they go hand in hand for granted, hav­ing had this for gen­er­a­tions. But it is fairly ob­vi­ous that on lower lev­els, some amount of liberty pre­sumes some about of equal­ity and vice versa. Equal­ity also means an equal­ity of power, and with that it is hard to tyr­an­nize over oth­ers and re­duce their liber­ties. You can only suc­ces­fully make oth­ers un-free if you wield much higher power than theirs and then equal­ity goes out the win­dow. The other way around: liberty means the rich per­son can­not sim­ply de­cide to bul­l­doze the poor per­sons mud hut and build a golf range, he must make an offer to buy it and the other can re­fuse that offer: they ne­go­ti­ate as equals. Liberty pre­sumes a cer­tain equal­ity of re­spect and con­sid­er­a­tion, or else it would be re­ally straight­for­ward to force the lit­tle to serve the big, the small per­son goals and au­ton­omy and prop­erty be­ing seen as less im­por­tant (in­equal to) the grand de­signs and ma­jes­tic causes of the big peo­ple.

The ba­sic min­i­mal level where equal­ity and liberty goes hand in hand is called be­ing em­pow­ered. It means each per­son has a smaller or big­ger sphere (life, limb, prop­erty) what his or her de­ci­sions and choices shape. And in that sphere, his or her de­ci­sions mat­ter. And thus in that sphere, his or her be­liefs mat­ter and they are em­pow­ered to and en­ti­tled to make them. And that is what cre­ates the op­por­tu­nity for ra­tio­nal­ity.

Hark­ing back to the pre­vi­ous point, your per­sonal be­liefs of the­ism or athe­ism mat­ter only if it is difficult to force you to go through the mo­tions any­way. Even if it is just an at­tire, there is a differ­ence be­tween don­ning that vol­un­tar­ily or be­ing forced to. If you can be forced to do so, plain sim­ply the Higher Ups are not in­ter­ested in what you pro­fess and be­lieve. And your par­ents prob­a­bly not try to con­vince you that cer­tain be­liefs are true, rather they will just raise you to be obe­di­ent. Nei­ther a blind be­liever nor a ques­tion­ing skep­tic be: just obey, go through the So­cially Ap­proved Mo­tions. You can see how ra­tio­nal­ity seems kind of not very use­ful at that point.

Sili­con Valley Rationalists

Paul Gra­ham: “Ma­te­ri­ally and so­cially, tech­nol­ogy seems to be de­creas­ing the gap be­tween the rich and the poor, not in­creas­ing it. If Lenin walked around the offices of a com­pany like Ya­hoo or In­tel or Cisco, he’d think com­mu­nism had won. Every­one would be wear­ing the same clothes, have the same kind of office (or rather, cu­bi­cle) with the same fur­nish­ings, and ad­dress one an­other by their first names in­stead of by hon­orifics. Every­thing would seem ex­actly as he’d pre­dicted, un­til he looked at their bank ac­counts. Oops.”

I think the Bay Area may already have had this fairly high level of liberty-cum-equal­ity, em­pow­ered­ness, maybe it is fairly easy to see how pro­gram­mers as em­ploy­ees are more likely to think freely about in­no­vat­ing in a non-au­thor­i­tar­ian work­place ath­mo­sphere where both they are not limited much (liberty) and not made to feel they are small and the busi­ness owner is big (equal­ity). This may be part of the rea­son why Ra­tion­al­ism emerged there (be­ing a mag­net for smart peo­ple is ob­vi­ously an­other big rea­son).


Hav­ing said all that, I would be re­luc­tant to en­gage in a pro­ject of push­ing liberal val­ues on the world in or­der to pre­pare the soil for sow­ing Ra­tion­al­ism. The pri­mary rea­son is that those val­ues all too of­ten get hi­jacked—liber­al­ism as an at­tire. Con­sider Boris Yeltsin, the soi-dis­ant “liberal” Rus­sian leader who made the office of the pres­i­dent all-pow­er­ful and the Duma weak sim­ply be­cause his op­po­nents at there, i.e. a “liberal” who op­posed par­li­a­men­tarism (ar­guably one of the most im­por­tant liberal prin­ci­ples), and who as­saulted his op­po­nents with tanks. His “liber­al­ism” was largely about sel­l­ing ev­ery­thing to Western cap­i­tal­ists and mak­ing Rus­sia weak, which ex­plains why Putin is pop­u­lar—many Rus­sian pa­tri­ots see Yeltsin as some­thing close to a traitor. Similar “sell ev­ery­thing to Western­ers” at­ti­tudes meant the demise of Hun­gar­ian liber­als, the Alli­ance of Free Democrats party, who were ba­si­cally a Ge­orge Soros Party. The point here is not to pass a judge­ment on Yeltsin or those guys, but to point out how this kind of “ex­ported liber­al­ism” gets hi­jacked and both fails to im­ple­ment its core val­ues and sooner or later falls out of fa­vor. You can­not cook from recipe books only.

What else then? Well, I don’t have a solu­tion. But my ba­sic hunch would be to not im­port Western val­ues into cul­tures, but more like try to tap into the egal­i­tar­ian or liber­tar­ian el­e­ments of their own cul­ture. As I demon­strated above, if you start from suffi­ciently low lev­els of both, it does not mat­ter which an­gle you start from. A so­ciety too mired in “Wild West Cap­i­tal­ism” may start from the equal­ity an­gle, say­ing that the work­ing poor do not in­trin­si­cally worth less than the rich, do not de­serve to be mere means used for other peo­ple’s goals but each per­son de­serves a ba­sic re­spect and con­sid­er­a­tion that in­cludes their be­liefs and choices should mat­ter, and those be­liefs and choices ought to be ra­tio­nal. A so­ciety stuck in a rigid dic­ta­tor­ship may start from the liberty an­gle, that peo­ple de­serve more free­dom to choose about their lives, and again, those choices and the be­liefs that drive them bet­ter be ra­tio­nal.