When I argue with someone, try and justify a belief or a moral, or try and convince myself to do something I know isn’t really great (it’s okay to eat that muffin – I went swimming this morning), I rationalise. It’s a terrible habit, probably innately human, yet it’s useful to at least be aware of when I’m doing it (or others are doing it) – as it usually conceals, hides or otherwise smuggles away truth.
Rationalising isn’t the same as being rational
I’m using the word rationalize in a very particular way here. Here’s the Oxford Dictionary definition:
attempt to explain or justify (one’s own or another’s behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate
It’s an interesting dictionary definition which captures the connotation of “even if these are not true or appropriate”.
Rational, on the other hand, is:
based on or in accordance with reason or logic
So being rational is doing like Spock does – taking the facts, the premises, and applying logic, moving us towards reasoned conclusions.
Rationalising is almost the opposite – and that’s what’s fascinating. You’re starting with a behaviour (me eating a muffin) and attempting to justify it with some plausible reasons (yeah, I exercised this morning).
Example: Morality, and art appreciation
There are a number if researchers investigating morality – how we reason about morality, come by our morals, how morality differs amongst cultures, what universal moral laws exist and so on. It’s fascinating stuff – and many now believe that we make moral judgements without recourse to reason. In other words, we judge whether some act is good or bad or permissible or forbidden based on some intuition, not conscious reasoning.
So it appears we make moral judgements without rational reason. But if you were asked about the judgment afterwards (“explain sir, why is it wrong to stab someone in self defence”), and given the time to think about a moral judgement, you would rationalise. It’s difficult to be entirely rational here – we don’t have a formal, consistent set of moral foundations.
I believe I read something similar about art appreciation. Intuitively we may like a piece of art. If asked afterwards why we like the piece, we rationalise – providing plausible reasons (oh, the colour is just lovely darling).
Rationalising and self-deception
Being rational starts with facts/premises and works to a conclusion, while rationalising sort of starts with the conclusion, and tries to find supporting premises.
In my experience, those supporting premises just have to be “good enough” for me to support some behaviour. I’m pulling the wool over my own eyes – which makes me think rationalising is a key part of self-deception.
A pet theory of mine is that when we create these supporting premises as part of rationalising, we do it in a way that maintains consistency with our view of the world. More on that in the future…
I’m sure I’ll never stop rationalising, but I wonder if it’s a useful exercise to recognise it a little more often than not – especially because those “plausible reasons” are not necessarily truth.