If You Can Give Reasons For Your Actions, Does That Mean That Your Actions Are Rational?

Rationalism is always a deeply fascinating topic to write about. What do we mean by it?

spocOn the surface, it is a thought process based on deductive or intellectual reasoning, not sensory responses, a concept studied by some of the greatest minds, such as German philosopher Max Weber. But this doesn’t really get at the heart of the idea, the soul of the concept. Rational thought is the act of drawing conclusions and making decisions based on logic, not on impulse. Logic. The notorious and sacred cognitive tool of the Vulcans . . .

Initially, therefore, it seems that the answer to this question would be yes, if you can indeed give reasons for your actions, then through the very act of reasoning itself, it follows that you are thinking within the definition of rationalism, and that your actions are rational. However, as I said, this seems to be the ‘surface’ view of the matter. There is more to rationalism than simple reasoning.

So what do we mean by reasoning then? If a person is trying to justify their actions, does the very fact that they are offering up reasons mean that these reasons are valid? For if the only criterion for rational actions was giving reasons for them, then surely every action could effectively be claimed as rational? The person could simply justify it with the weakest or most superficial of reasons.

Let’s look at an example to clarify this. If someone decided to take their own life, say, through jumping off a cliff, and they left a suicide note listing their reasons for doing this, would it automatically make this reckless action rational, just because they have given reasons for it? Say the first reason was that they were unhappy: this is surely classed as ‘a reason’, but on closer inspection, is this not based on a sensory reaction? Would this be a logical justification for ending your life? What would Spock say?

Perhaps not, for if the situation was analysed at a deeper level, new avenues would emerge.

The person would carefully consider why they were unhappy, and, to rectify this problem, they would try and deal with the root causes, perhaps a bad marriage. Logic suggests that the rational course of action in this case would be to get a divorce, or attend relationship counselling to try and reconcile the issue. It would therefore seem that committing suicide is actually the ‘cop-out’, an impulsive action taken by a mind which was overwhelmed and emotional and therefore unable to think rationally. If we deemed them ‘unable to think rationally’, then it would follow that any of the reasons they came up with should automatically be discounted.

But are we qualified to make that decision? What if the person was indeed thinking clearly and had worked out every possible scenario and deduced that taking their life was the best possible action? If they had gone through every option logically, basing their decision on intellectual reasoning, then perhaps this means that their actions are rational.

spock 2It undoubtedly seems, however, that impulsive actions are irrational if based on sensory and emotional feelings. And even if superficial reasons are given, these reasons could very well be fashioned by a mind utterly swept up in the moment, and even by someone who is unable to think clearly.

Therefore, the aforementioned question should be answered in the negative, if you can give reasons for your actions, it doesn’t mean they are rational. The term ‘reasons’ is too vague; it covers too broad a definition of factors. Rationalism is all about basing decisions on logic and knowledge, but ‘reasons’ could also refer to those instigated by an emotional response.

In conclusion, the answer to this question is: no. There is more to truly rational actions than having ‘reasons’ for them.

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