[extropy-chat] Rational thinking

Chris Hibbert hibbert at mydruthers.com
Fri Dec 1 00:47:18 UTC 2006

Jef Allbright wrote:
> Chris, I'm going to insert here two directly relevant lines from my
> post that somehow you neglected to include in your reply:

I hope I don't have to quote everything relevant in your message in 
order to be understood to be taking that as context.

Your main point seems to be these
> (1) The rationality of any act can be assessed only according to its 
> effectiveness toward achieving specified goals (creating the desired 
> future) within context and has no direct correspondence with good or 
> bad, right or wrong.
> (2) However, actions that are seen to work over increasing scope are 
> seen as increasingly good -- as they increasingly promote the values
> of the assessing agent.
> (3) And actions that are seen to work over increasing scope are seen
> as increasingly moral -- as they increasingly promote the values of
> the assessing population.

I think I agree with you that we attribute more moral weight to more 
carefully considered decisions of increasing scope.  I don't agree that 
rationality equates to effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes.  I 
prefer to use the term when decisions take into consideration the 
likelihoods of desired and unwanted consequences.  Sometimes rational 
choices produce the wrong outcomes, but that doesn't mean a lucky gamble 
is rational in hindsight.

The point I was trying to make in my earlier post was that it is hard to 
tease out what the relevant distinctions are between your two examples. 
  In one, you chose a group we hold in high regard, sitting calmly in a 
large gathering, explicitly considering matters of deep philosophy and 
distant impact, and who seem to have made choices that turned out well 
for us, and have made them into heroes.  In the other, you choose old 
enemies, caught up in the moment, under heavy pressure to go along with 
the group, and making decisions which seemed to have been bad for them 
and not to have helped their society.

Is the difference in apparent rationality due to the social pressures of 
the situation, or the cause for which they fought?  Do we have 
preconceptions based on who they were, how the battle turned out, or the 
results they achieved for themselves or their posterity?

It's all a tangle.

If you had replaced either party in the original comparison with WW II 
troops on suicide missions, we'd learn very different things from what 
we conclude from your contrast,  and the emotional weights wouldn't 
prejudice the conclusions so much.

The country's founders had time to make more considered decisions than 
combat soldiers entrusted with a suicide mission.  We respect them more 
highly, but the soldiers' decisions in context are set up by earlier 
choices.  The founders were making context-setting choices.  I think 
this is the point you were trying to make.  The point seems much clearer 
without the emotional weight of hero vs. enemy, winner vs. loser, and so on.

I'm not sure what to conclude from a comparison of allied troops, who 
also sometimes were sent on suicide missions, with the kamikazes.  The 
social pressure is seen to be less (few would say of them "the shame 
would be much worse than an honorable death"), but is present.  They had 
more access to news about the context of the battle.  We believe that 
they were fighting on the right side, but I don't know whether, in the 
context of a conversation on extropy-chat, it makes sense to give one 
side credit for knowing they are on the right side.  But both groups 
made similar decisions--to give up their lives for something larger. 
Was one group more rational than the other because they were on the 
winning side?  Are members of a suicide team more rational when their 
raid succeeds in its goals than when it fails?

re: your rock climbing example.  I'm a climber, and perhaps I'm reading 
details into the example that you didn't intend.  If I'm at the bottom 
of a rope, and convinced that the rope won't hold three people, the 
conclusion is that it's a choice of the other two surviving or none 
surviving.  I'd sure look hard for other choices, but sometimes you're 
just the person at the bottom of the rope, and you can only save any 
lives by giving up your own.  There are other situations in which you 
end up with the conclusion that you cut the rope and let your partner 
die because there's no way to save him, and if you don't cut him loose, 
you'll die, too.  It's not obvious to me that there are trade-offs to be 
made in these situations.  You can rail against the unfairness, but if 
you wait too long, everyone dies.  If you value the lives of the others, 
sometimes you have to give up your own life in order to not cost them 

I think I'm agreeing with you when I say that it's not particularly an 
altruistic act.  In this case, to follow your terminology, it's rational 
within the context.  It's mostly a local issue, so it doesn't bring in 
much of morality.

> I would give the founding fathers a great deal of moral credit for
> their rationally considered actions to create a better future for
> posterity. I wouldn't think of assigning credit for the "situations
> the pledge led them into."  I'm not even sure any of us know what
> that might mean, although the pattern is a familiar idiom in popular
> thought, as in "that was wonderful how you avoided all those
> obstacles and got the car back on road after falling asleep at the
> wheel."  My point is that it makes sense to give credit for
> intentional acts, not those which are accidental or
> contra-intentional [better word here?].

To try to find some common ground, I agree that the founders get a great 
deal of moral credit for what they did during the constitutional 

When I mentioned the "situations the pledge led them into", I was only 
pointing out that like other soldiers in other wars, many of them ended 
up having to make choices in context, that their earlier choices led 
them to.  I guess it's fair to evaluate the rationality, morality, or 
innate goodness of a battlefield decision within its context.  But if 
you want to compare the actions of the founders with those of the 
kamikaze pilots, I don't see why it makes sense to evaluate one only in 
its local context, and the other with regard to it's global effects.

That's why I pulled these words of yours out of the original message:

 > A key difference between the sacrifices of the founding fathers and
 > those of the kamikaze pilots was that the founding fathers were
 > taking action on behalf of a wide sphere of self-identity to promote
 > their values into the significant future, while the kamikaze pilots
 > were acting within the narrow sphere of individual identity in fear
 > of societal pressure and dire consequences in the very near term.

Even when I look at that paragraph in its original context I see many 
levels of distinction.

It is easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup, but not so
easy to turn fish soup back into an aquarium.
-- Lech Walesa on reverting to a market economy.

Chris Hibbert
hibbert at mydruthers.com
Blog:   http://pancrit.org
Prediction Market Software:  http://zocalo.sourceforge.net
Skype: ChrisHibbert
Yahoo Instant Message: ag_cth

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