Friday, December 11, 2009

Sense and nonsense about "evil" and "rationality"

As I noted a few days ago, when Andrew Sullivan posted that interview with a Taliban-trained suicide bomber from Pakistani TV, he described it, appropriately, as a case of "Interviewing Evil".

One of the contributors to the Economist's "Democracy in America" blog wrote a response that included the following passage:
Mr Sullivan calls this an interview with "evil", but that is an abstract way of looking at it. Although the would-be terrorist's answers may sound absurd, he appears to be a very rational actor (based on what he believes) who is not accustomed to being confronted with dissonance-causing information. (An interesting paper from earlier this year looked into the rationality of suicide bombers.)
Actually, this response consists of a string of non-sequiturs leading up to a foolish and illogical conclusion. It might not be worth paying attention to, except that the perspective underlying it, and the moral and logical confusions that go with it, are all too representative. These are precisely the kinds of misleading clich├ęs and pseudo-sophisticated fallacies one often gets from people seduced by the peculiar form of naive rationalism that currently labels itself the "rational actor" approach.

Sullivan didn't suggest that this suicide bomber and his world-view were absurd, but that they were evil--not the same thing at all. The DinA writer appears to believe that if some course of action can be described as "rational" (in a sense that appears to mean it's coherent and goal-directed), then ipso facto it can't be considered "evil". But that's silly.

Let's suppose that I make a living by murdering people for their money. Or let's suppose that I make a practice of systematically murdering people on the basis of a coherent and internally consistent world-view, backed up by appropriate authorities, which tells me that they are agents of a Martian conspiracy. Or let's suppose that I systematically capture, torture, and murder random individuals just because doing so gives me satisfaction (or utility, in economistic language), and I'm able to do so successfully and with a low risk of getting punished. In any of these three cases, the DinA writer could describe me as being, in his terms, "a very rational actor". Well, so what?

Instead of actually facing up to the real issues, this response just uses pseudo-scientific jargon to obscure then. (As Gerry Mackie correctly remarked via e-mail, one aspect of the syndrome represented here is a "typical flight from values.") That's not unusual, I'm afraid. This "rational actor" nonsense has infected discourse so pervasively, inside and outside the academy, that it's often a good idea to be suspicious, or at least alert, when someone tosses the word "rational" into a discussion.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. I am gratified to see that this item has been picked up and posted on the intelligent, enlightening, and intellectually stimulating website Butterflies&Wheels.com - Fighting Fashionable Nonsense. I do what I can in that effort.
(And no, one doesn't have to agree completely with every item posted on B&W to recognize that it's an unusually valuable and admirable enterprise.)

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