“I just don’t have it in me after all. My father did, but I don’t. He was successful, and I’m not. I know it’s irrational to compare, but I can’t help it.”

Being rational means using ratios — weighing one thing against another: a numerator against a denominator, oneself against one’s dad. Irrationality, therefore, means not weighing, which we rarely do. Whatever else humans are, we are “difference engines.” We assess, judge, and measure, which can’t be done except against a standard, even when the standard is only assumed and implied. So, no, it’s not irrational to compare; it’s rational, though it may still be an error.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


One common error of rationality is to ignore what’s below the ratio’s bar, to forget to ask, “Compared to what?” Forgetting to ask doesn’t mean having no point of comparison. It means ignoring the possibility that an alternative denominator would be a better point of comparison. We often take the standard of comparison for granted, assuming whichever denominator comes to mind first, whether or not it’s an apt point of comparison. We fail to weigh the use of one point of comparison against another and decide which is best, and so end we up with counterproductive denominators. We get misdenominational. Should you still be comparing yourself to your brother? Though you used to share a bedroom with that daunting god, he is now 3,000 miles away and lives a completely separate and actually pretty mundane life. Why do you still fuss about who’s better? It’s not irrational; it’s misdenominational.

Another common misdenominational error is to take the opposite approach: Rather than fixating on a denominator, we become excessively flexible in shopping for our point of comparison, shifting from one denominator to another with a flightiness that keeps us from moving forward: “I don’t know. I think I should be trying for a better job, like Bill’s, but then I think maybe I should be more like the Buddhist master who says, ‘Accept life as it is,’ or maybe I should go back to school and become a landscape architect, like Jill, or, I don’t know. . .”

And then there are self-serving versions of both these errors. We sometimes fixate on a point of comparison because it buffers us against doubt and makes us feel good about ourselves: “No matter what I do wrong, I keep telling myself, ‘At least I’m not as bad as that total loser Alan.'”

Or we use a floating point of comparison to keep our heads held high no matter what – for example, when we meet new people, as one of the first orders of business, we find a standard of comparison that makes us feel better about who we are in comparison to them. We develop double, triple, and quadruple standards, making a priority out of any standard that makes us the winner.

All these errors are highly rational. They all depend on ratios. They all employ denominators — whether they’re good denominators or not.

Notice that the question of choosing the right point of comparison is itself a comparative act. Should you compare yourself to Bill, the Buddha, or Jill? Which is the better denominator? And then you could ask a further comparative question, weighing alternative standards for deciding which standard of comparison is better: “Should I compare these denominators by a standard that makes me feel better about myself immediately, or a standard that motivates me to try harder?” Comparisons breed comparisons in a potentially endless sequence. We can’t follow out this endless sequence of weighings, so, most of the time, we assume the rational standards that work well enough, rather than questioning our weightings.

We often hear it said that it’s wrong to judge, wrong to weigh — in effect, that if we weigh the act of weighing against the act of not weighing, not weighing is the better option. This self-negating or hypocritical rule must mean something, or we wouldn’t hear it, but, because it’s self-negating, it must mean something other than what it means at face value. It is probably an argument against weighing in a particular situation, as if to say, “On this issue, you would do better not to weigh.” What is the opposite of weighing? In practice, it’s not the weightlessness of not making comparisons. Rather, it is the state of operating from an existing weighting.

If you confess to a friend that you are having doubts about your chosen or inherited religion (in comparison to some alternative like, say, agnosticism or Greek Orthodoxy) or you are having doubts about your value (in comparison to, say, your father), and your friend says “Don’t be judgmental,” “Don’t weigh,” or “Don’t compare yourself,” what your friend really means is that it’s wrong to rejudge, that you should continue to operate from faith that your religion is your best bet or that you are of worth. In effect, your friend is saying, “Don’t wonder about something’s value. Have faith that you already know the value.” At the extreme, faith is a commitment to what could be called “read-only values”: values that you can never reweigh, values that you can read or refer to anytime but you can’t rewrite, values built into your ROM instead of your RAM, where you can randomly access and reassess them. Religions promote read-only values, but, then, so do our friends when they tell us not to be judgmental.

We also hear that it is wrong to prejudge, as though you should operate on faith that operating on faith is always worse than reassessing. This self-negating or hypocritical declaration is the complete opposite of the argument that you shouldn’t be judgmental. Its value (because we do keep hearing it) must really be as an argument that in a particular situation, you would be better off reassessing.

Why not say that, instead? Why all these references to universal though opposite laws? Why say, “Never preassess or reassess,” when those are the only two options?

Universal laws carry authority that conditional statements don’t. An argument about what you should do in a particular situation opens a can of worms: If your friend says that it’s wrong to judge just now, you can counter by asking, “Why not just now? What is it about just now that calls for acting on faith?” whereas an argument from an absolute — that you should never judge — if it can be made believable, doesn’t invite such challenges. Absolutes are read-only values that are simple to apply. Admonitions to never rejudge (“Don’t be judgmental”) and never prejudge (“Don’t make assumptions”) are bandied about like absolute read-only values. But in practice, they can’t be read-only values. The fact is, in some situations you are better off assuming you have the correct denominator, and, in other situations, you are better of shopping around for a better denominator.

Philosophers have wrestled with such issues for ages. Both Plato and Buddha were troubled by the imperfections of life, yet they came up with opposite solutions to the “compared to what?” problem. Plato said to cultivate your high standards, to notice more and more how much less than perfect we are in comparison to the ideal — comparing will motivate you toward perfection. Buddha said the opposite: Get over the comparison; focus on how imperfect it all is. That way, you’ll find peace and surrender yourself to what is, rather than wishing you were a landscape architect like Jill. Both Plato’s tradition of cultivating high expectations and Buddha’s tradition of cultivating low ones have had many famous followers over the millennia. And, no, they don’t split East-West, either. Spinoza employed a strategy like Buddha’s. Confucius utilized one like Plato’s.

And the Jews have a tradition on the “compared to what?” question, too:

Moishe: Oy, life is so hard.

Irving: Compared to what?

Moishe: Life is so hard that it would be better to have not been born at all.

Irving: Yes, but tell me, Moishe, how many among us can count ourselves so lucky? Maybe one in 10,000!