On Acting Rationally in More Ways than One

Rationality is an essential element for successful thinking and acting. It serves, at bottom, to prevent internal contradictions; it allows us to choose means that are suited to the attainment of our chosen ends. I come not to bury rationality, but to praise it.

Yet rationality alone cannot guarantee anyone a successful life. This limitation exists not only because contingencies of time and circumstance may thwart the success of anyone’s plan, however rational its formulation may be, but, more importantly, because successful living in the deepest sense requires that we chose our ends wisely. Doing so carries us into the domain of what we might call meta-rationality.

Ted Bundy was rational. He used his considerable intelligence to select means for successfully avoiding apprehension by the police during the years he devoted to kidnapping, raping, and killing young women. His chosen end, however—carrying out a series of heinous crimes—foreordained that the conduct of his life would be anything but truly successful. His instrumental rationality was excellent; his meta-rationality was abysmal beyond imagination.

Modern thinking elevates instrumental rationality to the apogee of stipulated criteria for successful thinking and acting. Certain groups worship it—one of them ceaselessly uttering the mantra A=A to express its devotion—imagining that its embrace alone will allow people to live successfully. But unless people devote serious, sustained effort to consideration of the wisdom of attaining particular ends rather than others available to them, they may be ever so rational, yet make a hash of their lives—and of others’ lives along the way.

Unfortunately, when people are setting their courses for life during their young adult years, many of them find themselves for years on end in academia, where they encounter the apotheosis of instrumental rationality alongside disregard or depreciation of meta-rationality. Indeed, mockery of traditional sources of guidance—religion and folk wisdom—often attends any discussion of these sources, which are held to be agglomerations of foolishness and superstition. As for wisdom, one is seemingly advised only to keep an open mind—that is, to regard all sorts of ends as equally worthy and as simply a matter of personal taste. Thus, ill-prepared to live a truly meaningful life, young adults set sail on the seas of time and circumstance, reacting to one tempest after another in their careers and their families, yet never knowing where they are heading or whether they might better have sailed in a very different direction.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.

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