The Contours of Teleological Rationalism
On different occasions, Moran gives the impression that what he is after is to provide a theory about how transparency is related to being a rational agent. In the beginning of his book, Moran for instance describes his project as one of “trying to do justice to a certain tension in our thinking about the possibilities of self-knowledge” and “the distinctiveness of the first-person perspective more generally” (2001, xxx). Elsewhere, he writes that what is central about transparency is not that one normally arrives at one’s beliefs by asking world-directed questions, but merely that “there is logical room for such a question” (2001, 63). In response to the objection that his approach is hyper-intellectualistic, he stresses that his aim was only to make a “modest claim”, “something the denial of which would be equivalent to denying that people ever actually reason to a conclusion” (2004, 458). It is not entirely clear, though, what the status of claims like these is exactly. Happily, in one of his papers, Matthew Boyle sets it has his “principal aim” to “clarify” the rationalist conception about “the nature of belief and judgment and how concepts of agency relate to them” (Boyle 2011, 4).
Rational creatures, Boyle writes, “are distinguished by their capacity for a special sort of cognitive and practical self-determination, a capacity which makes their relation to their own mental lives fundamentally different from that of a nonrational animal” (2011, 1). Clearly, for Boyle, ‘transparency’ is not first and foremost a psychological ‘procedure’ (effective or ineffective) but rather an essential capacity. Or, as he typically puts it, a “power” that is distinctive of the sort of beings we essentially are. Elsewhere, Boyle writes: “I want to understand what sort of distinction writers in the Aristotelian tradition meant to be drawing when they distinguished rational from nonrational minds, and what sort of depth they were claiming for this distinction” (Boyle 2015, 346). What would make such claims normatively interesting, though? We need an answer to this question if rationalism is to be normatively immune to standard objections.
Here we can consider some suggestions by other Aristotelean thinkers. As Martha Nussbaum writes, when we speak of our human nature we are considering aspects that are “in the broadest sense, ethical”, because we are considering beliefs “about what is worthwhile and worthless, liveable and not liveable” (Nussbaum 1995, 101). A natural interpretation (not explicitly considered by Boyle but which would make sense the references to Aristotle), would be to understand Moran’s and Boyle’s claims as part of what Julia Driver refers to as “the well-functioning view”, that is, the view that “a creature flourishes when it functions well” where the definition of functioning well involves determining the functions that are distinctive of the creature (Driver 2001, 96). In order for teleological rationalism to be sufficiently normative, that is, normative enough for rationalism to be immune to standard objections, we might take the teleological rationalist to claim that a distinctively rational creature would only flourish, function well or lead a life that’s worthwhile, if it has the capacity to “obey transparency”.
Evaluating Teleological Rationalism
Teleological rationalism, as I have briefly reconstructed it, would have some obvious advantages. The view first of all makes exegetical sense. It makes sense of the claims that rationalists like Moran and Boyle have made about how transparency is related to deliberative agency and our rational nature. A more important advantage is that the view appears, on the face of it, to be able to claim normative immunity. After all, saying a capacity is essential to human flourishing is compatible with the idea that it is not a capacity we routinely exercise, or that it is not the most effective way of acquiring self-knowledge. In fact, it’s in principle compatible with our never doing so at all. The normative claim is that we either ought to have the capacity or ought to exercise it more often (this difference will become important in a moment).
So far so good. However, there are two possible objections which call into question teleological rationalism’s true normative potential. One might first of all think the teleological rationalist’s “specification of the essence of humankind” (Boyle 2012, 399) is inaccurate. Cassam for instance points out that if psychologists and behavioural economics are right that human beings often make irrational decisions, act on ‘auto-pilot’, suffer from self-ignorance, implicit biases and all the rest, then that makes it hard to keep insisting that our true essence lies in our capacity for practical reasoning or transparent question-settling.Footnote 9
A second but related worry is that teleological rationalism may be insufficiently considerate about, if not to say disrespectful towards, individuals who engage in non-transparent varieties of self-understanding. If teleological rationalism makes normative claims about what is valuable or worthwhile (and it’s not clear how else one might claim normative immunity) then this would appear to have the uncomfortable implication that those who are either unable or unwilling to ‘make up their minds’ would be leading less worthwhile or valuable lives.
Rather than discussing the possible ways for the teleological rationalist to reply to these objections and evaluating those replies, I want to highlight instead the dialectic that will inevitably occur between rationalists and their critics (inferentialists, mostly). In responding to objections like those above, the teleological rationalist will have to weaken her claims, as a result of which normative immunity against standard objections is likely to be lost. Consider the objection that our true nature may not be ‘rational’ at all. The teleological rationalist will in all likelihood stress that they only meant to make a very “modest claim” (cf. Moran 2004, 458), and will point out that their claims about our true essence were meant to be psychologically non-committal and perfectly compatible with all (replicable) results from social psychology and behavioural economics. Nussbaum for instance explicitly mentions that her account about the significance of practical reasoning “excludes only people who live without planning and organizing their lives at all: the sort of creature, we might say, who would be the survivor of a frontal lobotomy” (Nussbaum 1995, 117). Rationalists might similarly say that only survivors of a frontal lobotomy are unable to conform to “transparency as a normative demand” (Moran 2001, xvi).
The good news is that pretty much everyone can meet these demands. The bad news is that, ironically, meeting the transparency condition turns out not to be too demanding, as critics originally claimed, but not demanding enough. If everyone except for people suffering from frontal lobotomies can meet the demand whatever they do, then it’s hard to see what value ‘obeying of the transparency condition’ has, since it’s not clear how one might fail to obey it.Footnote 10 Also, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the sort of creature who survived a frontal lobotomies (or creatures who just don’t happen to have the relevant capacities, like rabbits or robots) would be ‘irrational’ or that there would be value for them if they were capable of making up their minds, if indeed they had minds.
Again, there will be ways – good ways – for rationalists to respond. But notice that againthe teleological rationalist is likely to stress the modesty of their claims. By saying that obeying transparency is “valuable” for creatures or that it is important to living a flourishing life, they meant something weaker than our folk notion of value or flourishing. In fact the rationalist will probably want to drop the claims about flourishing and living worthwhile lives at this point. Instead what we should say is simply that the relevant capacity is inevitable: it is a necessary condition for being rational or minded at all. A normative rationalist will thus probably retreat to a transcendental or constitutive rather than a teleological claim.Footnote 11
However, this transcendental/constitutive claim is – in spite of being much more ambitious, metaphysically speakingFootnote 12 – at the same time normatively speaking potentially rather underwhelming. In any case it looks like the rationalist can no longer claim normative immunity from standard objections. Imagine an inferentialist questioning the transparency method by pointing out we hardly ever make up our minds in order to acquire self-knowledge, and the rationalist responds by saying ‘perhaps so, but without the capacity we would not be rational’. That would be a bit disappointing. Consider also Moran who emphasizes that “what is essential ... is that there is logical room for [deliberative] questions” (2001, 63). Taylor Carman rightly responds by saying that “it is important to recognize how weak that claim is”, since it tells us only that “one can raise them without threat of inconsistency” and it “says nothing about the relevance or propriety of such questions” (Carman 2003, 404 emphases added). Relatedly, John Christman remarks that “a mere capacity to reflect is too weak” because a person might well have “a capacity to reflect on herself”, or answer world-directed questions, “but never does” (Christman 2005, 334). The rationalist needs more than just logical rooms and certain deliberative powers to be immune to objections.
To be sure, none of this makes the teleological project trivial or worthless by any means. Boyle has done more than anyone in working out a detailed account of rational agency and offering a novel and intriguing metaphysics of mind. The worry in the present context is that an intriguing metaphysics of mind does not make rationalism, as such, sufficiently normatively robust. The dialectic sketched above leads to the following dilemma for the teleological rationalist: either teleological rationalism is too weak in that the transparency condition is ironically only worth obeying for creatures who suffered a frontal lobotomy, or else it’s too strong and ends telling people who engage in non-transparent methods of self-knowledges as not properly flourishing.
There is one way of dealing with this dilemma, which is to focus not on the value of having a capacity to make up one’s mind and answer world-directed questions, but rather on the value of actually exercising that capacity, and to claim that not exercising the capacity on specific occasions is (normatively) problematic. It is unclear which claim rationalists are actually after – hence the main aim here is meant to lay out the theoretical options – but there is some exegetical evidence for the “exercise” view. For instance, in recent work Boyle writes: “Where transparency does not obtain, we can say that a person is alienated from her own belief: she is not capable of knowing it from participant’s standpoint, so to speak” (Boyle 2015, 341). Here, Boyle is talking not about powers but about cases in which the relevant capacity was not exercised, and that’s what’s problematic. And this certainly looks like a substantially normative claim, assuming at least that alienation is never a good thing.Footnote 13
But now a new problem arises, for we must now ask how the “exercise” claim relates to the “capacity” claim. Are you alienated with respect to your essential rational nature if you frequently fail to make up your mind, or are you already alienated if you fail to conform to transparency just once (as Boyle seems to suggest)? Do you suffer from alienation if you perform an implicit association test, infer your emotions from your diary, or if you take a friend’s or therapist’s testimony about what they think you want as good enough evidence for what you in fact want? In each of these cases, you still have the power to make up your mind, i.e. to obey transparency. It’s just that you are unwilling or unable to do so on a specific occasion.
These are difficult questions, and normative rationalists will no doubt have interesting things to say in response to them. But notice that we have now moved from claims about the significance of there being “logical room” for asking certain questions and the inevitability of having a certain capacity, to claims about the value of exercising that capacity on specific occasions. But these are distinct claims, and the one doesn’t follow automatically from the other. One might after all say that what defines us is a capacity for transparent question-settling and yet say that frequently exercising that capacity is prudentially or morally speaking a bad idea. The two claims may well be connected in interesting ways, but they are distinct, and must be evaluated separately. I therefore now turn to this second conception of normative rationalism, which involves a claim about actually exercising our capacity to make up our minds.