The third of the Virtues is rationality, a crucially important but often overlooked element of the virtuous life. I do not mean to say that being a good person requires being an atheist or a skeptic – for obviously, someone can believe in all manner of pseudoscience and superstition and still be a generous, benevolent and loving person. As always, how one treats one’s fellow human beings is the only true marker of morality. Nevertheless, I believe that all else being equal, the rational person is more virtuous than the irrational one. In this post, I will explain why that is.
Being rational means wanting to know what is true and taking steps to find that out for oneself. The intellectually lazy complacency that is all too common among humanity, in which we are content to accept the received wisdom without examining it too closely, is at best a path to stagnation, at worst a short road to self-delusion. Instead, we should live our lives in a fearless and honest quest for knowledge, absorbing and building on the expert work of others, but never accepting another’s word as the final authority without question or dissent. A life of learning and tireless seeking after truth, where we perceive the vast weave of history that lies behind every event and the subtle connections that tie everything together, brings far more opportunity and far more potential for true happiness than the unvarying obedience to small and inadequate dogma.
Being rational means being skeptical of every radical new claim. The all-too-common desire to have something for nothing, when paired with rejection of the tenets of evidence-based thinking, leaves us open to deception by all manner of frauds and charlatans. Not only does falling victim to these impostures harm us and those who depend on us, it also rewards and enriches the snake oil salesman and con artists who may use their ill-gotten gains to launch more malevolent plans. The public good, not just private good, compels us to make reasonable doubt a virtue.
Being rational means relying on evidence to guide one’s decisions, and not guesses, faith or assumptions. When the choices we make have the potential to affect the lives of our fellow human beings, whether for the better or for the worse, it is even more important that those choices be the right ones. And the only way to make good choices, those which are based on and accurately reflect what exists in reality, is to examine the facts and let them guide us. Reality will not bow to our desires, and when decisions are based on faith, or tradition, or wishful thinking, or any other method that does not have a built-in ability to track the truth, they almost always end in disaster and cause harm to ourselves and those around us.
Being rational means respecting the right of others to disagree with you, and encouraging fair and open debate among informed equals in the assurance that the truth will prevail. Allowing only one side to have their say, no matter how much confidence we may vest in their opinions, will inevitably lead to degraded partisanship, hollow professions of loyalty made out of self-interest, and an institutional blindness and complacency that will lead us to overlook new and potentially important ideas just because they clash with conventional wisdom. The rational person trusts that, no matter how tenaciously any one side may cling to its favored opinions, from the cut and thrust of free debate the truth will inevitably emerge.
Most of all, being rational means focusing one’s time and effort on the real world, the only one that exists and therefore the only one that is truly important. As I wrote in the post “Why Do We Care?“, in the end everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter takes away from the things that do. When we dedicate our lives to bowing to the altars of superstition or chasing after mirages of unreason, we divert energy and resources that could have been spent improving this world for ourselves and our fellow human beings. Such a waste, especially when engaged in by people of vast resources who otherwise could have made a great and meaningful difference, is lamentable and even potentially immoral. There is need here, now, in this world, and we should all be working to quell it rather than turning away from our fellow humans to live in an imaginary and ultimately pointless realm that bears no correspondence with reality.
Other posts in this series: