Appreciating the Difference Between What’s Rational and What’s Right

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I think if people were given the choice between being rational and being right, they would choose to be right even if that risked sounding irrational.

But I think more to the point is that people really don’t understand rationality. We conflate it with a lot of things. Rationality is simultaneously a synonym for sanity but also a theory of self-motivated action. We quite literally conflate the two ideas in our definition of the word. To be rational is to be sane is to be self-interested. To be self-interested is to be rational and therefore sane.

There’s also a second way people use the word rational, generally, to mean “common sense.” Though you may want to be an artist who makes little dolls stuffed with ass hair, it’s more rational for you to go to law school and so that’s what you do.

“Am I being rational?” is a great question people ask themselves. If you weren’t being rational, you’d be — by definition — insane and thus your answer to that question would be moot because you’re insane. So you’re always rational save the moments when you are actually insane and then you have bigger worries on your hands than whether or not you’re being rational.

But like I said, I think if you asked yourself what you would rather be, you’d probably say you’re more concerned about being right than you are with being rational. After all, what’s the point of being rational about it if you’re going the wrong way? You can quite rationally drive a bus of orphans off a cliff. It might not be right, but you can go about it quite rationally.

So “am I being right?” is the better question we don’t ask ourselves nearly so often. It’s an altogether different question to ask yourself, “Is it right for me to go to law school?” than it is to ask, “Is it rational for me to go to law school?” One implicates you as a moral actor while the other a self-interested agent.

Obviously, I see this a lot with Hillary Clinton apologists who try to convert Bernie Sanders supporters with the argument that voting for Hillary Clinton is more rational. By this, they presume that whatever you think is right should be considered only after you think about what is rational. Which, again, I think if you asked people what they wanted, they’d tell you they prefer to be right than they do being rational.

In my mind, it’s a dangerous precedent when we start going around demanding people sacrifice their moral principles to an oppressive social order. Moral compromise is corruption and corruption is the rot that lets the rats get in. We need a moral foundation if we’re ever going to become strong enough to make a government that works for everybody. We should never be so cavalier as to ask someone to rewind their morality for the sake of expedience.

What’s equally distasteful to me is moral pandering. Morals aren’t things that should be crowd-tested. When they are, they cease to be moral and become rational calibration to a fucked up situation. When people tell me Hillary Clinton has evolved on issues, I want to believe them. But it’s just too convenient for me to recognize that her moral principles are always evolving alongside sociohistoric polls as if that’s how it works for anyone else. How often do you Google a poll to tell you decide how to feel about right and wrong?

Right, because that’s not how morality works.

We recognize moral relativism in our lives. By 30, I’ve come to realize that my friends are not all equally moral. Many have made and continue to make life choices that I would consider immoral, or at least amoral. As an adult who has now taken care of children, I’ve had to think about how you teach morality and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an concerted effort, requiring everyone at the ready at all times able to answer a child’s question: What’s the right thing to do?

But rarely is a child asking an adult, “What is the rational thing to do?”

And yet the rational answer is what we often give, isn’t it?

Do you even stop to think about what’s right?