1. Weighing all pros and cons.
2. Weighing some (not all) pros and cons.
3. Weighing the right pros and cons.
4. Weighing the pros and cons that I want you to.

Socrates argued that we all want to better our circumstances. No one is out to get less of what they want. When people appear to want to undermine themselves, it’s not because they want to make things worse, but because their version of ‘better’ is different. According to Socrates, people have their reasons.

The words ‘reason,’ ‘rational’ and ‘ratio’ share a common root. A ratio compares two values, which is just what we do when we evaluate something reasonably or rationally. We consider costs and benefits, weigh our options and assess our priorities.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Every value we weigh is itself a ratio, a comparison of two things, a preference for one thing over another, a grade we give something by comparing it to a standard. Being reasonable or rational means working with these ratios.

Rarely if ever do we evaluate a single ratio in isolation. Consciously or unconsciously we compare a multitude of considerations—short and long term benefits, personal, family, social, and global benefits; psychic, health, financial, benefits. The list goes on.

It would be impossible to weigh all potential considerations. There are simply too many. And the list of possible considerations changes. Today’s key consideration becomes tomorrow’s trifles. Today’s trifles become tomorrow’s keys. Our minds are too small to encompass it all. Weighing a partial list of considerations is all any of us can do. All behavior consciously or unconsciously weighs option. Even to ignore options is rational, since one thing we must all consider is how much attention to give to considerations. Being reasonable or rational is therefore weighing a selected short list of considerations values and options from a near infinite list of possible considerations.

Which raises a question about what it means to be unreasonable or irrational. Taken literally these words would mean not weighing, but that can’t be right. And they can’t mean partial weighing, because that’s what reasonable and rational mean.

In practice, we apply the terms unreasonable and irrational to people whose considerations and weightings are different from ours, and whose actions have led or will lead, we predict, to unfortunate consequences.

Rational, reasonable, irrational, and unreasonable turn out to belong to a family of words that treat personal opinions as black and white truths. Like the words ‘optimist,’ ‘pessimist’ and ‘self-deceptive,’ these words are prescriptions masquerading as descriptions. You shouldn’t be a pessimist. But what is a pessimist? It’s not a fact, like being a doctor or a male. The term is always subjective and relative. A pessimist is someone who sees less potential than you or I do. Likewise, an irrational person is someone whose calculus is different from yours or mine, and not, as the word implies someone who doesn’t weigh options.

Funny thing about the word rational, it shows up in common usage as both a good and a bad thing. To weigh before you act is to be rational. To weigh after you act is to rationalize. Being rational is good. Rationalizing is bad. Here we seem to apply a rule of thumb that evaluating before we act is unbiased, but evaluating after we act is biased.

To weigh or not to weigh, it turns out is not the question. We all weigh, but some of us weigh for good and some for ill. Rationality itself is not a criterion for good or bad. Hitler was rational.

Of course we’ll continue to use this family of words the way we do. They are a rhetorical necessity, because one of the things we ask of rhetoric above all else is to lend weight to our personal opinions. There is no better way to do so though than to imply that our wishes are aligned with universal values, as we do when we declare someone to be irrational.

But what would it be like if we replaced these words with more honest ones? Words that would acknowledge an offensive thinkers rationality while disagreeing with it? What if instead we said ‘You’re being so Ick-rational.’ ‘You’re being so Ugh-reasonable.’?

August 3, 2004