Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Among the definitions of "rationalize" put forth by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary are: "to attribute (one's actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of true and especially unconscious motives" and "to provide plausible but untrue reasons for conduct." And this fits in with the way Americans normally speak about rationalizing something. In common usage to "rationalize" is seen as a variety of deceptive self-justification; a way of taking an action that one understands to be wrong and filing off the rough edges until it fits (even if this takes some effort) into the slot labelled "Right."

Overall, the general understanding is that rationalization is a bad thing, leading, as it does, to people convincing themselves that wrong is right; accordingly cautions against it are not difficult to find.

[Art] Caplan draws a wise lesson from the Nazi doctors: Beware the human weakness for moral rationalization. But part of that weakness is the illusion in each of us that we have escaped it.
William Saletan ("Natural-Born Killers" Slate Magazine, 4 April, 2005)
But part of the knock on rationalization is the assumption that people are capable of creating workable moral and ethical frameworks that are 100% objective constructs and need have no recourse to a person's understanding of what it should look like. Given that people tend to resist purely mathematical expressions of morality and ethics, this strikes me as a standard that few, if any, will reach.
Now, normative cultural relativism might sound pretty good to you; it does at first to a lot of people. Because it seems like it’s all about inclusiveness and tolerance. Who am I to tell other cultures how they should live, right? But this view actually has some pretty big flaws.

If every culture is the sole arbiter of what’s right for it, that means no culture can actually be wrong. It means Nazi culture actually was right, for the people living in that culture. A dissenting German voice in, say, 1940, would have just been wrong, if it had claimed that Jewish people deserved to be treated the same as other Germans.
Hank Green "Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32"
Mr. Green's statement that normative cultural relativism "has some pretty big flaws" due to the fact that it allows Nazi culture to right, at least as far as the Nazis themselves were concerned at the time, could also be understood to be a form of rationalization. After all, Mr. Green was teaching a course on Philosophy, and not is own personal understanding of right and wrong. Yet he allowed himself to challenge the concept of normative cultural relativism, and by extension, all of the Moral Antirealist stances, not based on the some inherent contradiction that he noted in them, but because they didn't automatically condemn the Nazis as wrong, and in doing so, he allowed himself to work backwards from the desired endpoint of Nazi wrongness to a moral viewpoint; selecting one for himself that agreed with the preconceived notion that some acts are inarguably wrong.

And I'm okay with that, leaving aside the fact that it's poor form as teaching. Because for many people, this is how moral and ethical viewpoints are reached. People understand what they want to be inside and outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior, and they select a moral viewpoint that comports with that. And it's possibly this habit that Mr. Green had in mind (whether he was aware of it or not is a different story) when he confidently told his audience "most people you know – including yourself – are committed to some form of moral realism."

The idea that some items are morally wrong simply as a matter of moral fact can be a comforting and useful one. But there may be some value in the idea of an individual actually deciding to elevate themselves to the post of moral arbiter, rather than outsourcing that to nature, a society or an institution.

In this cartoon, the left-hand speaker, acting as an author avatar, decides that the simple act of holding a flag from Nazi Germany should be considered a form of incitement, and thus ineligible for free speech protections, based on little other than their own moral intuitions. The person holding the flag has no dialog within the graphic: they never speak and we, as the audience, are never let into their thoughts. Likewise, we never see the flag acting as an incitement, there is no one to respond to it. The two interlocutors who observe it, however, are clearly not at all inspired to recreate the Third Reich - outside of wanting to punch the flag carrier in the face and strip them of free-speech rights, they are not moved to action. In the end, the character with the flag may as well simply be a statue or a projection; they're static and show no impact on the world around them. We are meant to infer the evidence against them from real-world events, which are themselves not referenced.

Because of this, the incitement argument strikes me as a rationalization, and that rationalization is born of the fact that effectively saying "I find would-be Nazis so awful that I think the rules shouldn't apply to them," is somehow off-limits, despite the fact that loudly proclaiming that one would simply punch them in the face is often considered acceptable. The number of people in my social media circles who have done so is substantial. Rather than putting time and energy into a mental gymnastics geared towards finding would-be Nazis to always be guilty of incitement so that acts against them may be reasonably judged self-defense, it seems more constructive to simply declare them persona non grata for being deplored, and when challenged, simply trust in the accuracy of the moral sentiment in question.

Because that appears to be what's actually going on. And its what always goes on. In part because American society always manages to convince itself that it should be above such things. But that's not how people work. I suspect it's better to be okay with that than it is to hide it under a pile of unnecessary rationalizations. To the degree that people trust their moral intuitions, let them trust them. We'll have a more honest society for it.

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