Complex Ethics


9. Morality as an Example of Orienteering

Before taking my first class in philosophy (before learning that it was supposed to be about the existence of absolutes or not), I thought that it should answer three important questions. The first of these was this: What is the difference between reasoning and rationalizing? Especially in relation to getting what we want, how are they different? Back in high school, I had a friend with the ability to talk himself into the correctness of believing and doing anything he wanted, even to a degree that a fool like me (I was younger, which makes a difference growing up) could tell that here was strange behavior, indeed. I can’t give too many details (because he is a real person and that wouldn’t be “fair,” although if it was the other way around, he would rationalize a reason to make it fair). But let’s just say that he ended up crashing his car into a tree while staring at a girl walking by. So observing him started my interest in philosophy, because I decided that I really did want to know: Just what is the difference, anyway, between reasoning and rationalizing? And how does it work out, using one way or the other?

Can we get away with whatever we think we want, or does the world have a say in the matter?

In college science courses, I quickly learned that rationalizing isn’t even necessarily full of negative connotations (here is some truth for you). The common perception is that learning to do science entails working calculations, and that is certainly the case, but in addition there are a lot of assigned homework problems starting with the word “rationalize,” such as “Rationalize how charge goes with electromagnetism.” In other words, when a new theory is introduced, students are expected to fiddle with it in the sense of explaining how it fits with what we already know, and that process is called “rationalization.” It is very self-consciously to admit that maybe we are just forcing the ideas to get along together (although a good rationalizer can make them seem to fit seamlessly). But not to leave out reason, students are also told, just as self-consciously, to discuss the “logic” of a setup, as in the lab question, “Explain the logic of this experiment.”

So imagine me as an undergraduate, in my confusion, because science turned out to be frank (surprisingly frank) about using both reason and rationalization. And before long I met advocates of so-called “social construction”—who weren’t scientists—but who ended up shockingly siding with rationalization (“Just make it up”), as if rationalizing was a good thing (as if they had never met my friend from high school).

Maybe I just had good teachers, but I found myself not at all worried about the advocates of social construction (because they seemed so clueless regarding nature), but I was quite a bit concerned about how science is full of both reasoning and rationalizing. And shouldn’t we be looking into that with more scrutiny, philosophically? Weren’t there details and definitions to examine? To me (back then), the point of philosophy was to find that explanation.

Today, I of course see the issue in terms of mbo’s and orienteering and how they can help us to find our way through life. So how do reasoning and rationalizing go with acquiring our bearings and with making our decisions accordingly? I will here use morality as an example of orienteering because in what other area of knowledge is the temptation for rationalizing so tempting or the need for reasoning more pronounced? Or is it the other way around? (We can misuse reason by very coolly thinking we know the truth that is best for someone else). Do both reasoning and rationalizing make contributions to being oriented? And when are we just fooling ourselves?

Morality, like truth, is a very big subject—entire books could be written on the propriety of just one course of action on just one subject—so here, as with truth, I will limit my discussion. I will sketch the major traditional approaches to morality and then discuss how orienteering is an alternative to them . . . especially as it pertains to reason versus rationalization.

In the earlier section on truth, I wrote about it in terms of how I see science dealing with truth. But I cautioned that it is a mistake to try to “be scientific” about truth, especially in the sense of plugging into equations and other traditional perceptions about science, because to me science isn’t about facts and “plugging in” to equations in the first place. And the same argument applies to morality. I am not going to suggest that we “be scientific” about it but rather that we learn a lesson from science. I see science as taking an approach to life—it is to walk through life with a certain attitude—and it is in that sense that we can learn from science about morality. To be moral is to adopt a special way of dealing with our decisions. It is to take account of life’s little nuances and to see how they are adding up to values and to the moral life.

For instance, it’s to care about the difference between reason and rationalization.

[And it goes on to describe an approach to ethics which is entirely different from the traditional ones.]