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Rationalization is essential for clear thinking

Whenever we hold an opinion, or form a belief, a rationalization process is involved. What kind of process we use, and how well we use it makes all the difference in the world as to whether we holds true opinions or false beliefs, writes Tim Gier.

13 March 2011

Suppose that I liked to hunt deer. Suppose that I grew up in a family of hunters and that hunting was part of the ritual I went through on my way toward “becoming a man”. (This is purely hypothetical, other that a few half-hearted attempts at fishing, I’ve never hunted any living creature in my life.) But, suppose I was a hunter.

Now, when asked about why I was a hunter, what would be my likely response? Well, I’d probably respond by saying that hunting for food is an honored tradition, that has roots deep in my family history; that hunting is part of the natural cycle of life – we are all either predators or prey.

I might talk about conservation, ecology, “managing” wildlife populations for their own benefits, etc, etc. That’s all fine and dandy, but it shows a significant problem in my thinking.

Because I am (in this hypothetical) a hunter, my rationalization starts with some assumptions that any good reasoning ought to question. For example, is hunting a good thing, in and of itself? Are family traditions reason enough to justify a practice? Is it true that we are predators by nature, and if that is true, should the historical practices of our ancestors who lived in radically different circumstances from ours have control over our practices today? Does hunting serve conservation in some unique way which only hunting can serve?

These are the kinds of questions one must ask to develop a sound reasonable basis for the continuation of hunting. Without such questioning, the rationalization for hunting merely defends something one has already decided is worth defending. But without these kinds of questions, one has no way of knowing whether hunting really is defensible.

The superficial kind of rationalization most of us do about most things do not ask these kinds of questions.

For instance, when one says, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I’d never eat foie gras, it’s disgusting” this is the kind of rationalization being used. Foie gras is disgusting (or it at least it should be to any thinking person) but without examining the underlying reasoning for why foie gras is disgusting, one is left with an arbitrary justification for not eating it, rather than a well-considered reason for not eating it.

All we are doing in such a case is reacting against an idea or practice, and then finding reasons which support that reaction. What we ought to do is start by asking, “Is it a good or a bad thing to eat foie gras?” and then search carefully for the best case for and against and then make a decision. It’s the only way to come to a sound conclusion.

Now, one might say, I don’t need to think about the underlying good or bad about hunting or foie gras, I reject them both, out of hand, they are just wrong. I would ask people not to do that.

Better that we question even those things, perhaps especially those things, that we just know are wrong, than proceed without careful examination.

This isn’t about whether hunting is good or bad, or whether foie gras is disgusting. It is about how we think, and how we can best decide what is closest to the truth, and what is furthest away.

Whatever your opinions, whatever your beliefs, please question your assumptions, and look deeply for the answers.

Think about it.

Tim Gier is a vegan abolitionist writer whose former career in automobile sales management spanned 25 years. He writes about business, politics, human behavior and sometimes pop culture at his blog, where this post first appeared and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.




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