Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Retreat of ReasonA dilemma in the philosophy of life$

Ingmar Persson

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199276905

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199276900.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019



The Retreat of Reason

Ingmar Persson (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter sets out the second dilemma or conflict between the rationalist aim of having rational attitudes and the satisfactionalist aim of fulfilment-maximization. Since it has been found that the bias towards oneself is irrational, rationalists must strive to rid themselves of it. It goes without saying that prudentialist maximizers whose goal is to see to it that their own life contains as much fulfilment as possible should retain this bias. But this chapter argues that it is irrational, even for those satisfactionalists who accept the requirement of universalizability and endorse the universal fulfilment-maximization goal of utilitarianism, to strive to rid themselves of this bias.

Keywords:   bias towards oneself, fulfilment-maximization, rational attitudes, universalizability, utilitarianism

SINCE the notion of our identity involves false assumptions about our bodies, to the effect that they are identical to the subjects of our experiences, the O-bias, which is a bias towards an individual simply because that individual is oneself, cannot be cognitively rational. Moreover, this bias would not be rational even if animalism, some form of (matter-based) psychologism, or immaterialism were correct accounts of our identity. But a belief in identity is not in itself our reason for being O-biased. We exhibit this bias because the P-bias and the selectivity of our capacity for experiential anticipation make us represent what things are like for other affected beings less vividly. This causes us to violate RU.

It might be that if we were to conform to RU, we would still be in a position to favour the fulfilment of our own desires. But this favouritism would then no longer rest on a selective representation triggered by the belief that the being favoured is oneself, but on certain universal features which we believe ourselves to possess. This would no longer be the O-bias as I understand it, but would be a personally neutral attitude in concord with cognitive rationality.

Now, we cannot here raise a question with respect to RU which is parallel to a question that in Part III was asked about the rational requirement of temporal neutrality. There it was asked whether it would be relatively rational for prudentialists, who have subjected their goal to this requirement, to rid themselves completely of all temporal biases that naive or untutored prudentialists display, for example, when they succumb to weakness of will in the shape of choosing a smaller, closer good. It was concluded that, though it would be relatively rational for these prudentialists to try to become more cognitively rational by restraining their natural temporal partiality towards the present and near, it would not be relatively rational for them to try to live up more fully to the requirement of temporal neutrality, by ridding themselves completely of all temporal biases, for the gains, if any, in respect of fulfilment when this goal of temporal neutrality is attained could not possibly outweigh the sacrifices incurred on the way to this goal. Thus, relatively to prudentialism, it will be rational only to try to check inborn temporal biases to (p.370) some degree, to internalize or instil some rules demanding a limited temporal neutrality. Consequently, prudentialists will part ways with rationalists who of course are rationally required to strive to be fully cognitively rational, whatever the cost in respect of their inter-temporal fulfilment.

We cannot here raise a parallel question as regards the rational requirement of personal neutrality. For, unlike the requirement of temporal neutrality, this requirement dissolves the prudential goal with its personal bias. If this requirement of personal neutrality is imposed, this goal will transform into the goal of inter-personal maximization. So we should not be asking to what extent it could be relatively rational for prudentialists to try to comply with the requirement of personal neutrality. In some unusual circumstances, it may be rational for them to achieve some compliance in this respect. This might be so if they were placed in a society of altruists to whom their motives were transparent and who possessed effective means to retaliate on anyone cheating.

The question we should be posing is instead whether it is rational for inter-personal fulfilment-maximizers, who have imposed the requirement of personal neutrality, RU, along with that of temporal neutrality, on their satisfactionalist aim to try to rub out their O-biases completely. We shall arrive at a conclusion analogous to the one drawn in Part III with respect to prudentialism and temporal biases: relative to this aim, it is rational to restrain these biases, but not to make the great effort of totally obliterating them.1

Rationalists will not ultimately strive to make themselves, their own attitudes, as cognitively rational as possible, but to make it the case that there is as much rationality in the world as possible. Thus they may fulfil the rationalist aims of others no less than their own. Suppose, however, as I think may well be true, that they can promote the rationality of the world most efficiently by improving in the first instance on the rationality of their own para-cognitive attitudes. Then it will be relatively rational for them to seek a perfect attitudinal compliance with the requirement of personal neutrality.

It would not be rational for inter-personal fulfilment-maximizers to seek this. Granted, if these maximizers could instantaneously purge themselves of the O-bias (and of temporal biases), it might be relatively rational for them to do so, because they would thereby transform themselves into more efficient instruments to the cause of inter-personal maximization. But, of course, such instantaneous changes are not actually possible. Quite the contrary, it is obvious that we are so thoroughly infected with personal and temporal biases that to disinfect ourselves we must spend a great part of our lives single-mindedly or fanatically pursuing a rigorous programme of self-training. It does not seem unreasonable to conjecture that during this period one's contribution to satisfaction overall will be so far below one's maximum that it will not be compensated for by one's later possible prowess as a do-gooder. Add to this that, since the state of neutrality is so hard to attain, one must reckon on a sizeable risk of failing miserably and causing oneself to suffer some sort of mental breakdown or disorganization. It will then be realized that, (p.371) with the possible exception of some extraordinary specimens who can be confident of their exceptional moral fibre, it will be relatively rational for aspiring inter-personal maximizers to set their aim lower than that of having para-cognitive attitudes that are perfectly personally neutral.

Like prudentialists who strive to combat temporal biases only to the extent that they manifest themselves in harmful instances of akrasia, the would-be personally neutral maximizers should try to internalize rules that prevent merely the grossest forms of neglect of the fulfilment of others. These agents should not attempt to be motivated only by reasons that pass such requirements as RU. In order for it to be relatively rational for one to attempt to abolish the O-bias completely, it is necessary for one to endorse rationalism as an ideal. It is not rational relatively to the master-aim of fully neutral fulfilment-maximizing, that is, satisfactionalism bridled by the rational constraints of temporal and personal neutrality.

At this juncture, it might be interjected that not even the most devoted rationalists could rationally strive to conform to RU because it imposes obviously excessive demands on the powers of imagination: we cannot ever completely neutralize the P-bias and represent the phenomenal world of one other being as vividly as our own, but nonetheless RU requires that we put ourselves into the places of hordes of other individuals! As already remarked in Chapter 27, however, RU requires nothing as grossly impossible as our simultaneously having big clusters of phenomenal worlds before our minds. In order to find out whether my initial preference to favour myself at the expense of several other (not relevantly dissimilar) beings passes the test of RU, I could proceed as follows. I first imagine what, subjectively, the favoured course of action would be like to one individual in this collective. I then compare the strength of this subject's aversion to the treatment proposed with that of my original preference for it. Suppose that the latter comes out slightly ahead. It is then most unlikely that it will come out ahead if the number of other parties is more than one. So, in all likelihood, my initial preference will prove not to be a rational one.

It may be true that we cannot entirely counteract the P-bias, by representing the inner worlds of others as vividly as our own present one, and that this fact is likely to make us prey to a selfish partiality that will distort our generalizations and consequent moral judgements. Still the hardest part is, I think, to stick to these impartial judgements in action and not give in to the P-bias. Imagine that one reaches the conclusion that, rather than relieving one's own excruciating pain, one should relieve the equally acute pains of several others (this is not a conclusion that is difficult to arrive at). When the pain is at its worst, it requires an almost superhuman effort not to backslide and relieve one's own pain. It is this task, of making personal neutrality motivationally dominant by keeping the relevant judgement steadily before the mind, that will present the greatest obstacle to prospective rationalists.

It might be helpful to end with a review of possible stances as regards personal and temporal neutrality. By nature, we are naïve prudentialists who are in the grip of cognitively irrational personal and temporal biases. From this point of departure, there are (p.372) the following stages of ascending rationality:

(1) prudentialists who are cognitively rational to the extent of imposing the requirement of temporal neutrality on their satisfactionalist aim and who restrain their temporal biases to the extent that is rational relative to this aim;

(2) inter-personal maximizers who are cognitively rational to the greater extent of imposing also the requirement of personal neutrality on their satisfactionalist aim and who put a restraint on their temporal and personal biases to the extent that is rational relative to this rationally purified fulfilment aim;

(3) rationalists who uphold rationalism as an ideal and who suppress their temporal and personal biases to the extent this aim makes relatively rational, for example, even when this conflicts with the satisfactionalist aim stated in (2).

In this fourth part I have claimed, first, that there is a requirement of cognitive rationality demanding personal neutrality. Secondly, that this requirement will not lead to an acceptance of inter-personal fulfilment-maximization unless we are satisfactionalists. Thirdly, that it is rationally permissible to endorse rationalism as an ideal that contravenes the satisfactionalist aim. Fourthly, that whereas this ideal makes it relatively irrational not to try to overcome the O-bias completely, this is not so given the satisfactionalist goal of inter-personal maximization. On the rationalist alternative, reason forces us into a retreat far from everyday life and feeling; on the satisfactionalist alternative, reason itself is forced to retreat from the claim to shape our para-cognitive attitudes fully.

In the next part it will emerge that there are further deep-seated attitudes, that have to do with desert and responsibility, which reason in the form of cognitive rationality demands that we sacrifice. The outcome of this fifth part will be that the goal of inter-personal (and inter-temporal) maximization is rationally defective in leaving out of consideration justice in the form of equality.


(1) Cf. Parfit on how theories like the self-interest theory and consequentialism may be “indirectly self-defeating” (1984: ch. 1).