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What Is It To Be Rational?

by V.B. Shneider

What is it to be rational? An individual appears to be rational, rational being his actions. But what does it mean to act in a rational way? Let us turn to the notion of rationality as a characteristic of human activity and those phenomena the notion in question describes.

The wide-ranging understanding of rationality may cause a danger of inaccurate conveyance of a chosen meaning in various contexts and thus calls for being fixed in a definite meaning. This “fixation” presupposes formulation of an exact definition. To choose the basis for the definition of the kind is of no problem. The names of notions bearing, as a rule, no indication of being associated with this or that meaning, what arguments should be offered in defence of such a choice? There are two main ways to choose the basis for a definition.

The first one is to turn to language, to the established tradition of using notions in various contexts. The main danger on the way is that the conservation of an initial meaning may put an end to unconventional trends of uncommon interpretations of the notion used, narrowing thus the sphere of its creative usage. Any notion depends on context, on the system of its consideration. That is why although philosophical categories have definite meanings they are mostly relative and liable to change their content even within the scope of one and the same philosophical tradition, allowing for historical tradition, context and aspect of the problem. This is the situation as far as the notion of rationality is concerned.

In the XX-th century the problem of rationality has become one of the central problems of philosophical investigations. The wide-ranging manifestations of “rationality phenomena” and the variety of methodological approaches in continental and Anglo-Saxon social philosophy and in the philosophy of science define the great compass of meanings of the notion of rationality.

The second way is to turn to reality, to those phenomena for which there are no generally recognised terms, so that it is up to researcher to choose any name to denote them. Thus, an astronomer discovering a new comet is justified in calling it any name, however extravagant it may sound. But in a scientific investigation such a freedom is to a great extent restricted by the fact that a word of an actual language entails a train of meanings likely to distort considerably the understanding of those phenomena to denote which is used. That is why the second way necessarily involves the elements of the first one to provide the happiest notation for a given phenomenon.

Dictionaries of modern European languages, English, French, German being the basic ones, testify to the fact that “norm”, “reason” and “expediency” are registered among the most fundamental meanings of the word “rationality”. Hence, let us define rationality as reasonably based normativity which guarantees an expedient process of activity. Then the question “What is it to be rational?“ might be provided with the following answer, no matter how general it may seem. A man is rational in his actions if they are performed in accordance with some sensible reasons which make the aim he pursues possible of attainment. Let us clarify our meaning.

Any activity possesses a universal structure: aim – means – result. Being an ideal image of a final result, a reverberation of demands objectively existent, aim as an element of activity characterises its predictable result in the consciousness of an individual. It is a fundamental element of its structure, a mode of constructing activity, an integral principle of reducing various actions to a system which possesses a quality of an absolute value within the universal structure of activity and has an outward valuative basing, that is a valuative basing of activity itself. Means of activity in the broadest sense of the word include the whole complex of conditions, acts and things, methods and ways which make the attainment of the aim, its predictable result possible. Thus, result as an element of activity appears to be an incarnation of its ideal image and project.

According to the definition, human activity is expedient and since the phenomenon of rationality pertains exclusively to the sphere of human activity, hence everything rational is expedient. Expediency means an absolute submission of all the elements of activity to its aim, such a set of elements which necessarily result in the attainment of the aim. Let us turn to one of the aspects of rationality, i.e. normativity, which will make our study of the former phenomenon still more thorough.

There are two principal types of norms in cultural reality. The first type is a traditional norm which has spontaneously arisen in the process of social development which, as a rule, is anonymous and handed down by means of customs, imitation and so on. This type includes customs and informal norms of different groups. But side by side with such norms there are some other norms which have arisen as a result of reasonable activity of consciousness or traditional norms critically reflected by reason. Norms of this type do not appear spontaneously and have an author. These norms are textually formed and based on certain logical argumentation. For instance, different juridical laws, administrative rules, technological standards, “Code of Napoleon” etc. To this class we also include norms of moral and etiquette, although these norms possess traditional character in greater degree than legal or technological norms and have neither unambiguous and strict wording nor unit codificational origin.

We assume that such norms, socially reflected, textually expressed and based on logical argumentation underlie a rational activity of people. Hence, not every kind of normatively regulated activity may be characterised as rational one.

So a theoretic model of rationality is a model of human behaviour and thinking, human activity on the whole, realised in accordance with norms which find their substantiation in the procedure of analytical activity of human reason.

By reasonably based norm we mean such a norm the adoption of which follows from a certain reasoning. In an ultimate case a logical form of such a basing is a simple syllogism.

As a matter of fact there are two modes of a reasonable basing of norms: valual and normative. The first one addresses to the sphere of values and relation between norms and values. This way of reasonable basing of norms may be used in case of possible reduction of norms to values. For instance:

A good action is obligatory.
An observance of technological process is a good act.
Consequently, an observance of technological process is obligatory.

But it is possible to construct a procedure of basing of norms within the scope of normative sphere. This basis presupposes an introduction of normative postulates (or so called presumptions). For example:

An action in accordance with rules (law) is obligatory.
An observance of technological process is action in accordance with rules (law).
Consequently, an observance of technological process is obligatory.

It should be noted that the examples given above illustrate only the principal modes of basing of norms on the most primitive level.

With the term “rationality” we would like to embrace such aspects of human activity which refer to analytical ability of reason, methodological planning, pragmatic calculation and expediency. Such an activity is performed, to our mind, by using normative means of its utilisation.

There is no denying the fact that reason (in the most common sense) gives rise to “rational”. Reason as a human ability naturally spreads into the sphere of human activity and the latter acquires reasonable character. But rationality, in our opinion, largely characterises formal aspects of activity, its technological side. Rationality is connected with the analytical, systematising and calculating functions of human reason, with an idea of method and algorithm.

Thus, rational activity is a normatively realised activity, that is generally accepted as a due activity but only such an activity which is realised in accordance with reasonably based normativity, which with necessity guarantees the achievement of the aim of the activity. That is why this activity is expedient. Now we shall consider expediency as a character of rational activity which is normatively realised.

Let there be an aim of activity and a class of activity means providing the attainment of the aim. Then an expediency is a characteristic of activity which describes inevitable achievement of the aim due to socially normalised means of activity. In accordance with normative interpretation of expediency, means of activity in form of necessary conditions of activity, certain subjects, methodological rules and different prescriptions – are consistent with the aim because of their normative status. It is obvious that normative interpretation of expediency narrows it as a characteristics of activity by the sphere of influence of social normativity. Considering this, none of the normative activity is rational. Thus, expediency as a characteristic of rational activity presents a necessary achievement of the aim of certain activity which is based on normativity based in its turn on the processes of analytical activity of human reason. Reflected by reason and reasonably based normativity presupposes a calculation of procedure of realisation of rational activity, presence of expedient standards and rules of realisation, presence of actual algorithm.

Hence, expediency as a characteristic of rational activity means the achievement of the aim by means of normative programme, algorithm which necessarily implies this achievement. An algorithm is a strict, easy and unambiguously interpreted description of a consistently realised decision (by means of separate steps) of any task from a certain class of tasks. For example, procedures of addition, subtraction, algorithm of Euclid etc. Observance of the procedure with necessity guarantees a correct result from the point of view of rules providing thus utilisation. Reasonably based normativity underlies the base of production and utilisation of any algorithm. Characteristic traits of any algorithm are as follows: determinativity, expediency and popularity. Speaking about normativity of algorithms, we would like to underline that owing to a prescriptive-descriptive character of norms which underlie algorithms, the latter are not only descriptions but prescriptions, rules, recommendations etc.

Such a prescriptive determination of based norms guarantees expediency of algorithmic activity as a necessary achievement of the aim and, moreover, in the shortest way possible. These properties of algorithms determine algorithms as attributive means and characteristics of rational activity.

Thus, rational activity is an such activity which is substantiated by norms (which are reasonably based) and is realised corresponding to algorithmic programme of its accomplishment.

In conclusion we would like to call our reader’s attention to the problem of correlation between different normative systems as bases of rational actions in social reality. There are several main different normative systems in culture: moral, law, science etc. Every normative system is constructed, as a rule, without any contradictions between the norms. But norms of different normative systems may be contradictory (for example: certain norms of moral and law). There is no problem if an action is controlled by norms of one normative system or by norms which are not contradictory. But there are cases where an action may be interpreted (and really controlled) from different normative systems by contradictory norms. In such situations bases of rationality are relative and propose a choice of normative interpretation to act.

Let us clarify our meaning with an example. What should a man do if he gets to know that his best friend whom he owes his life has committed a serious crime? Should he inform against his friend to the police or should he conceal the criminal? Let us assume that he is well aware of the fact that this action of his can be proved. The Criminal Code of a number of the countries includes an article (norm) prosecuting for concealment, penalty however are different. In the USSR the article in question ceased to exist in 1990. In situation like that there is no point in appealing for such a characteristics of activity as rationality until an individual makes his choice of the basis of action.

In real life an individual participates both actually and potentially in various spheres of human existence and hence, using the terminology of the theory of games, he plays several plays at once, functions of his gains being different and regulated by various normative systems. In real life all is interlinked: means turn into aims and aims become its means. Let us assume that an individual is aiming primarily to get to his work on time. Let us assume that in order to do this he should cross the road but in this site one is allowed to cross the street by the underground passage only. In case he goes down to the passage he will surely be late for his work. Let us assume that this alternative is not his fault but objectively conditioned. What should he do? If getting for his work on time is his ultimate value we are justified in concluding that he will break the traffic rules and will cut the street across to get to his work in the shortest way possible. Let us assume a policeman on his guard in this same part of the road. Then we can imagine a situation when the individual, rational as far as his ultimate aim is concerned, should wipe out “the limb of the law” – an undertaking worthy of a madman in a fit of rage. We should better suppose that the individual will correct his aim turning thus to crossing the street in accordance with the traffic rules into an aim of its own. We might just as well assume that to be late for a work entails a severe reprimand whereas crossing the street in a wrong way (place) threatens him with a long term of imprisonment. It is quite possible that in a situation like this the individual – like a gambler who throws his cards on the table since stakes are monstrously increasing – will probably prefer to come late for his job than to take a risk even if there is no policeman in sight.

Thus, in a number of cases basings of rationality turn out to be relative. What normative system should be preferable? How to be rational? In a case like this the question about rationality is incorrect. A question of the choice of a basing and aspect of normative interpretation of any action appears to be outside the scope of rationality. In order to choose a normative basing for an action a hierarchy of social and individual preferences becomes of utmost importance. It should be noted that there are significant basings of the kind in the cultural context, that is judicial and moral sanctions secured by state and traditions. Yet there may be a world of difference between socially regulated and individual preferences. That is why the choice of a basing in a situation like this from the point of view of an individual is a matter of his preferences of vital importance. That is an existential choice of Yours!

© V.B. Shneider 1991

Vladimir Shneider teaches philosophy at the Sverdlovsk Mining Institute, Sverdlovsk, U.S.S.R.


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