In Larry Laudan’s Progress and Its Problems he writes,
“…when a thinker does what it is rational to do, we need inquire no further into the causes of his action; whereas, when he does what is in fact irrational – even if he believes it to be rational – we require explanation.”
He writes this in the context of a discussion about historical explanations. For Laudan, if the historian can show that the historical figure acted rationally, then no explanation is needed because acting rationally is an “expected state.” This doesn’t seem right to me.
What is it to act rationally? Presumably, it means that when a person does something, that person has reasons for doing what she does. And, presumably, these reasons must be good reasons. This implies, among other things, that I could do something rational that looks completely irrational to somebody unfamiliar with my situation but – once one understands why I did what I did – it becomes clear that I was acting rationally. So, already, Laudan seems to be wrong since I have to explain to my bystander why I did what I did, lest I look irrational. Running into a burning building may be rational or irrational, depending on the context.
Perhaps Laudan is saying that once we’ve described the entire situation that an action takes place in, it is at this point that we must decide whether further explanation is needed. Again, I don’t find this particularly helpful. Consider the following. Joe and Bob each live in separate homes and each of those homes are on fire. Joe and Bob also both have fathers who fought in the war and received the Purple Heart for being killed in the line of duty. Joe and Bob were both given their father’s Purple Hearts and the medal has a special significance to both of them. Both medals are in the houses that are burning down. Joe runs inside to get the medal while Bob doesn’t. Is Joe or Bob acting rationally? Both? Neither? Do we need further explanation for either, neither, or for both?
I think a lot of situations are like the one above – it is difficult to tell what action is rational and what action is irrational. Furthermore, it seems like we will often assume the person is acting rationally and use the actions taken in order to understand the reasons behind the action. For example, we might infer that the reason Joe ran in the burning house is because he felt that the sentimental value of the medal was worth the risk of getting burnt. This raises the question as to whether we can assume that people have good reasons for their actions, which I’ll address below.
In any case, it seems that the reason rational actions don’t need any further explanation is because in showing that an action is rational, we’ve already given the explanation.
Likewise, if I judge an action to be irrational, it means that there was either no reason or there were bad reasons for the action. Perhaps I can show that a person committed a fallacy in his reasoning and thus performed an irrational action. But what about the situation where an action doesn’t seem to follow from the context of the situation. Again, we might assume the person was acting rationally and then try to infer a “good reason.” But people don’t always do things for good reasons and people don’t always think things through before they do them. The person may indeed be acting irrationally. In this situation – where we’ve explained the context and we can’t give a good reason for the action – Laudan seems to miss the mark, too. All we can say is that we’ve explained the action as best we can and as far as we can tell, the person acted irrationally – no further explanation is needed.
Consider also this post. In it the author argues that the Amish are acting rationally when they forgive the shooter and his family. Perhaps this is so – let’s assume it is. In this case, then, it still seems that the actions of the Amish are in need of explanation since their acts of forgiveness are so different than what most people would do. Again, if it is true that the Amish are acting rationally, Laudan seems to be wrong.
I’m afraid that “acting rationally” is more often than not used as a code for “acting how I would act.” For historical explanations, this often results in anachronism. When judging the actions of other (contemporary) people, this often results in empty rhetoric.