Are you Rational? Probably not.

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Can you really be considered rational without deliberation and careful desicion-making?

“One can act for good reasons without knowing that one is acting for good reasons,” (Arpaly, 50). 

Philosopher, Naomi Arpaly argues that dissociation from one’s decisions, actions and beliefs does not always signify irrationality. She further uses examples such as the tennis Player, and Candide to articulate those sorts of cases in which an individual can act without deliberating, yet still be considered either rational or irrational for the action. While Aristotle would agree that an individual can perform morally good actions without realizing the reasoning behind the action, he would dissent from Arpaly’s view that these actions are a reason to consider an individual to be rational or irrational. Rather, Aristotle would state that the actions are a result of natural virtue, and cannot be considered as true morality. However, Arpaly effectively makes an argument for those cases in which people might act rationally by means of fast action, belief formation, and unconscious deliberation.

In her example for cases of rationality without deliberation, Arpaly notes the example of the tennis player who reacts on the tennis court, reactions which the audience will then identify as an amazing feat or as a terrible choice of play. Arpaly mentions that this is a case in which the tennis player is not actively deliberating her moves but is still considered to be rational or irrational based on the outcome and desirability of her decisions during gameplay. Arpaly further identifies that, “it is not a previously deliberated-upon decision that makes an un-deliberated-upon action rational, but something about the ‘instinct’ itself which the agent follows— whether it is the right reasons that trigger the action,” (53). It is not the case, Arpaly notes, that the tennis player actively decided beforehand to follow her instincts in certain circumstances, but rather her ability to act within a game for good reasons. I only slightly agree with this statement. I would argue that some sort of deliberation during practice is what makes an individual acquire such an instinct to be able to act rationally without deliberating during a match. (Therefore, a player needs to display a certain amount of pre-instinctual deliberation in order to gain such an instinct in which the player does not need to deliberate at all.) Players do not simply gain an instinct for a game without deliberating on the exact instinct they want to acquire. For example, soccer player Carli Lloyd, an Olympic two-time gold medalist, used to practice her skills and technique anywhere from six to eight hours during certain points in her career. Further, Lloyd often explains that in addition to her training, she typically visualizes certain imaginary plays which could possibly occur in her next soccer match. This allows her to run through different plays in her head and decide how to react in advance. While I would agree with Arpaly on the idea that the player does not consciously acknowledge the fact that she will use her instincts during the game, and also on the fact that the player can be considered to be making a rational or irrational decision during gameplay based on her reasons for making a decision— I would argue that a player is regarded as having rational or irrational instincts based on the fact that she had already deliberated during training in order to habituate herself to be a skilled player in all instances. The only reason an athletes decisions can be regarded as rational or irrational is the fact that her decisions are compared to the circumstance in which she acts. For example, it would not be rational for a soccer player to pass the ball back to the goalie while the offense of the opposing team is attacking her net, but it would be rational to do so in order to switch the field of play and open up space for an attack on the opposing team’s net (in order to score). The player is aware of this deliberation, though, and often recognizes her actions as rational or irrational even in the heat of gameplay.

Arpaly further acknowledges cases in which the individual forms a belief without deliberation, but the action resulting from the belief is still considered to be rational. Perception, according to Arpaly, is a perfect case in which the individual acts without deliberation, (53). When one believes that she sees a black cat in front of her, Arpaly explains, she is not deliberating about what she sees, rather, she simply acknowledges it. This is considered to be a rational belief under normal circumstances. Arpaly continues this argument with the idea that certain beliefs simply dawn on an individual without deliberation, but still result in a rational belief or realization, (54). Arpaly discusses the example of Candide, in which the character views the world in an extremely optimistic way, stating that this is the best of all possible worlds. After a long period of experience within the world, he begins to experience instances in which the world proves to be a malicious and violent place. If we assume that Candide has not deliberated once during his lifetime on his belief that this is the best world, we can still say that the moment it dawns on him, that this is not the best of all worlds (due to the large amount of injustice he has faced), we still consider his sudden belief to be rational. Arpaly further states, “Dawning processes are perhaps the main way in which people change their minds, especially concerning subjects they regard as important,” (55). Dawning processes, which result largely from experiences which counter against one’s initial beliefs, are the sort of thing which cause an individual to face reoccurring cognitive dissonance in regard to her original point of view. Thus, the individual eventually replaces her old belief with the new rational one as a result of gradual exposure to differing experiences. For example, a girl who was once a racist, may eventually realize that she has changed her mind. While the she never actually deliberates about this belief, we would still consider her decision on racial equality to be a rational one.

In contrast to Arpaly’s initial argument, Aristotle would argue that one cannot truly be considered to be rational if one is not aware that his decision is the most rational choice. Aristotle states, “For in both children and beasts, the natural characteristics are present, but they are manifestly harmful in the absence of intellect,” (Aristotle, book 13, page 133). Without acknowledging that one’s actions are rational, can one truly be considered rational? Aristotle would claim that it is not possible. If an individual does not take the time to habituate himself to always chose the virtuous action, he can never be considered virtuous. Further, any virtuous or rational action cannot become a part of an individual’s essence without the individual recognizing the reasoning and quality behind the action. Humans are born with natural virtue, but it is intellect and acknowledgement of what is the most virtuous and rational that guides their actions, allowing them to achieve true authoritative virtue. Moreover, Aristotle points out that virtues exist separately from prudence, but it cannot be present without prudence. For one cannot know which reasons are correct without also possessing prudence, just as one cannot deliberate and investigate which actions lead to prudence without intellect. Simply doing good things without realizing that they are good, or realizing why they are good, is just as useless as not doing them at all because they will not stick to one’s character unless intellect is also present.

It is true that knowledge-based actions are more permanent than those that are acted upon by chance, natural instinct or emotion. While it is possible for an individual to accomplish a morally good action without recognizing that it is good, there seems to be no significant meaning in a good action if the individual does not, by some standard, come to acknowledge that the action was rational (and good), and thus the action is not as praiseworthy as an action performed by someone who knows the reasons behind why and how her actions are considered to be the right ones. However, Arpaly does make a good logical point by stating that the act of deliberation itself does not require one to deliberate about deliberating and is still considered to be a rational action. Further, Aristotle also states that one should be able to habituate himself to become virtuous, meaning that one should not need to constantly deliberate about the value of an action—virtue should be part of one’s nature after a long period of habituation. One case in which an individual choses the morally good decision without actually having the proper judgement, is Huckleberry Finn in his refusal to turn Jim in, even despite thinking he will go to Hell for disobeying the law. This serves as an example of an individual who had been raised with the wrong morals, but also an individual whose morality lies deeper than simple habituation. Finn’s morality seems to be a result of experience and unconscious belief formation which suggests that morality does not only result from acknowledgement, but rather is also an innate part of certain individuals.

Based on Arpaly’s writing, it would seem that rationality is based on an individual’s ability to react to certain experiences and ability to respond to moral reasons with consistency; this is what truly identifies the individual as a rational being, (72). These individuals might be described as having a sort of innate goodness much deeper than that claimed by accident.


Writing based on book, Unprincipled Virtue by Naomi Arpaly.


Author: R. Lederman, Spring 2016. Please Cite any use of this article. Thank you.

Copyright 2016-present.

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