Rational policy?

The political versions of religious nonbelief usually include affirmations of rationality in public policy. The recent Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life has “We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.”

All this assumes that there is a single agreed upon form of rationality. Maybe it also assumes that people who share in this form of rationality will, if well enough informed, converge upon a single policy. And it certainly seems to assume that we would be collectively better off if everyone were to behave rationally.

All of these assumptions seem dubious to me.

Rationality is notoriously difficult to pin down. Is it the rational utility-maximization of agents in economic theories? A deeper rationality that is capable of determining aims as well as letting us choose means? There are many proposed forms of rationality, and their demands can conflict with one another. If we work with less ambitious (and thus more reasonable) concepts of rationality, which allow a plurality of sometimes incommensurable sets of aims or ways of life, then we also cannot demand that all rational people must converge on some kind of agreement. In such situations, why should policy not be informed by any common forms of faith that may happen to exist, including religious traditions?

Moreover, rationality may not, collectively speaking, be all that good an idea. Rationality in individual choices can cause a society to collectively jump off a cliff. Some of this “irrational rationality” was easily observable in the recent global financial crisis. The incentives in many financial markets were such that financial actors had to follow the herd, even when it was clear that in a slightly longer term, disaster was extremely likely. So long term public policy, it would seem, should include mechanisms that work against individual rationality. Religion, with its often communitarian focus, and anti-rational thrust, might be just the sort of public policy instrument we need.

In any case, nonbelievers need some sort of argument that our form of rationality is a good idea, instead of treating it as some kind of self-evident fact.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Taner, I don't deny that the concept of rationality is much less straighforward that many people think. But I don't see anything wrong with the statement you quoted.

    It's true that any rational policy analysis must start from a set of goals which the policy aims to fulfill, and our ultimate goals are just whatever they are. They cannot be rationally justified. But I don't see that the Copenhagen Declaration implies anything else. Since the declaration specifically opposes "evidence and reason" to "dogma", it can be seen as referring only to matters of fact and not to the setting of ultimate goals.

    And yes, public policy may conflict with the most rational policies of individuals. That's why (among other reasons) we have the law to enforce collective policies. But again the Declaration does not imply anything else.

    >Rationality is notoriously difficult to pin down. Is it the rational utility-maximization of agents in economic theories? A deeper rationality that is capable of determining aims as well as letting us choose means? There are many proposed forms of rationality, and their demands can conflict with one another.<

    You've only listed two forms there. And the latter appears to be based on the false claim that ultimate goals can be rationally justified.

    It seems to me that practical rationality (rationality of actions) is a matter of determining the policies that are likely to fulfill a set of goals to the greatest extent. If someone's only goal is to have God's will done, then the rational policy for him is the one which is most likely to get God's will done (as far as that can be determined). What other form of practical rationality can there be? I don't think it's fair to fault the Declaration for failing to explicitly exclude all false ideas of practical rationality. This was a declaration of principles, not a philosophy paper!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    P.S. Let me clarify my position. Philosophers have a number of views on the nature of practical rationality. It doesn't follow that there are multiple forms of practical rationality, i.e. that there are multiple concepts that can correctly be called practical rationality. I would argue that only one basic view of practical rationality is correct. And I don't think the writers of the Declaration needed to state which philosophical view they were taking. That would be an unnecessary level of detail.

    And perhaps I should clarify that I'm opposing practical rationality (rationality of actions) to theoretical rationality (rationality of beliefs). I believe these are standard philosophical terms.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    RichardW: "You've only listed two forms there. And the latter appears to be based on the false claim that ultimate goals can be rationally justified."

    I agree that's false. But having general agreement on that is yet another matter.

    In any case, what I had in mind was based more on work in psychology and behavioral economics, not so much philosophy. (Though that is multivocal about rationality in its own way.)

    And it's my mistake if I came across as griping about the Copenhagen Declaration in particular. It actually seems like the kind of thing I'd sign if it came my way. I'm just using it as an example to mount my own hobbyhorse.