Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, September 03, 2007

Reasons and Rationalizations

Summer's over (not that it ever really happened in Vancouver), so time for a thought experiment. Say I put to you the following question:

Adults these days say that the younger generation lives in a world more technologically advanced and filled with material comforts than the world they grew up in. But their parents said just the same thing when today's adults were young.

Does this demonstrate:

a) That the world is constantly advancing technologically and providing more material comforts than before, so both generation were right to think that the next one along had it better than they did


b) That the world is not advancing technologically, it's just a natural human reaction to look back and say that you had it tougher than the previous generation.

Which seems more plausible, A or B?

Now, say I put a slightly different question:

Adults these days say that the young generation has looser morals and is more degenerate than they were when they grew up. But their parents said the same thing when they were young.

Does this demonstrate:

a) That our society has been degenerating and having looser morals for generations, so both generations were right to think that the next one along was less morally constrained than they were.


b) That society is not changing, it's just a natural human reaction to look back and say that things have gone downhill since the previous generation.

I guess my point is that I often see people argue B in the second case, even though they would never argue B in the first case. But what is the logical difference in the strength of the argument between the two cases - none that I can see. It makes me think that argument B is more of a rationalization than a reason for believing something, and that the real reason for belief is buried a little deeper.

When talking about abstract topics like politics where the reasons we have for believing things are not quite as clear as they are in daily life (e.g. why did you turn up the heat? I was cold.) I think we encounter these rationalizations posing as reasons a lot more than you might think (or more than I would have thought if you'd asked me back before I started blogging).

I see it all the time in arguments over electoral reform. Opponents to reform often trot out arguments which are easily disproven and shown to be nonsense (MMP will turn Canada into Italy!) but fighting these arguments and demonstrating their pointlessness does little or nothing to change the minds of opponents to reform. Because those arguments are just the public face hiding the real reasons beneath. Why the true reasons might be hidden likely varies from situation to situation.

While deliberate conscious deceit is a possibility (paid shills arguing against global warming or the harm cause by tobacco, for example), I suspect the majority of cases are less deliberate, with the people in question hiding their true reasons almost instinctively or unconsciously, perhaps because their reasoning is not suitable for a typical 'rational' blog post or column format (I personally believe that many opponents of electoral reform are simply afraid of changing the system at some gut level but don't feel this is a 'worthy' reason to put into an argument). Other times the true reasons are selfish and thus counter-productive to admit to (Liberals support the current electoral system because it gives them absolute power with 40% of the votes and marginalizes alternative parties).

It makes for a difficult proposition sometimes. It may be relatively pointless to respond to the publicly stated reasons (kind of like sending weapons inspectors to Iraq, I suppose) but it is a bit of a dodgy business to try and determine an author's true motives and respond to them when they haven't and won't admit that those are their real reasons, and you may indeed be incorrect in your guess as to what is animating their incorrect arguments.

Anyway, if this gets any more abstract, I'm going to start sounding like Michael Ignatieff, and that's never good, so I'll leave it at that.


  • Certainly each generation has a view of their own time and space which cannot be understood by the previous or the next. Just as so many over 30 couldn't understand Dylan in 1962, neither can we born in 1974.

    At any rate, I think that technological advancements have hardly made it a more "comfortable" world to live in. It's all perspective. Most of us now live in cities with concrete super structures and little ties to the environment. We live in virtual worlds and scarcely enjoy the natural one. Our forefathers had to work all the time just to put food on the table. Has it really changed so much? Only our distractions have changed. But our human needs remain constant.

    Do I think morals have become degenerate over time? Certainly yes, and no. Morality is a subjective truth. We can never understand whether a 15 year-old girl wearing a bikini to school is objectively morally debasing, or whether it is sexually liberated.

    In answer to your abstract question, you are really asking about correlation. The world is more technologically advanced than it once was. The humans which inhabit the earth are now different than the ones who inhabited it 100 years ago. The comforts provided by technology have made their lives easier. But is this an objective truth? Is there a correlation between technological advancement and human comfort? I would argue that happiness could have been found by the first human.

    So no generation has had it harder or easier than the previous one.

    With your theory about politics and rationale, I believe that the correlation behind policy and ideology is motive. The motive behind conservative opposition to global warming theory is purely economical. They then use junk science to "prove" it isn't happening. There is correlation between the junk science and global warming, it is the hidden fact that conservatives don't want to enter into a costly and ultimately purposeless Kyoto initiative (and who could blame them).

    When conservatives find homosexuals distasteful or reproachable, or don't like their lifestyles, they use "traditional definition" of marriage to justify their objection. In objective truth there is no reasonable correlation between the insignificant and meaningless "traditional" definition of marriage and homosexual marriage. The unspoken truth, the correlation can only be bigotry.

    I'm not bashing conservatives. I consider myself one. But I am agreeing that the reason behind a policy, and the rationale for it, often are not related in any manner.

    By Blogger Raphael Alexander, at 8:35 PM  

  • A thoughtful response.

    A couple of comments.

    "Is there a correlation between technological advancement and human comfort?"

    I think that it would be hard to go back in time and live without the various modern advancements that make life more comfortable. Whether this makes people living now happier now than those who lived in the past and didn't know what they were missing, I don't know.

    "Morality is a subjective truth."

    Don't agree here. Certainly there is an element of subjectivity, but I'd say there are lots of absolutes as well. You might as well say that we can never under whether a 15 year old girl killing another girl is objectively bad from a moral standpoint or she is just liberated with respect to violence.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:08 PM  

  • It depends on what you define as morality I suppose. While an absolute objective truth to morality is impossible, I think we have universal morals which transcend culture and religion. For instance, we all believe that rape, murder, theft, are immoral.

    But morality is a human concept. To an animal it has no context whatsoever. I think many of the people we call monsters who are locked up for murder are really people lacking this inherent base of morality.

    By Blogger Raphael Alexander, at 8:31 PM  

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