Philosophy, Politics, recent

Politics and Rationality: On the Uses and Limits of Science

How rational is your politics, and how rational could or should politics be, in general? What is, and what ought to be, the role of reason and of science in policy-making or in campaigning? To answer such questions in a reasonable or scientific way, it would first be necessary to define such terms as “rationality,” “reason,” and “science.” That’s a nice Socratic-style challenge, anyway, and I’m not confident that people mean anything very clear or specific by them on most occasions. And, whatever they mean, the things themselves—conceived as faculties in people’s heads or as a series of procedures or guidelines for how to gain knowledge—have little to do with why anyone has the politics they do. People who think their own politics are rational and those of their opponents irrational (that is, more or less everybody) are engaged in a self-congratulatory self-delusion.

A traditional account of the faculty of rationality might be that it encompasses the canons of deductive and inductive reasoning and perhaps the scientific method (which it then is incumbent on the rationalizers to characterize in a general way). That is, rationality is an array of techniques, variously related, for getting true conclusions from true premises, or probable conclusions from probable premises, or data from experiments, or well-tested hypotheses from mere guesses: the rational procedures are the truth-preserving or truth-conducive procedures.

Then again, the alleged science of economics deploys a seemingly completely distinct conception of rationality, oriented to actions and agents rather than to generating true theories. Here, a rational person is one who pursues their own interests (conceived by economists, of course, as economic interests) by means that are most likely, or very likely, or fairly likely, or more likely than not, to be helpful in achieving those interests. In other words, a rational person is defined (admittedly this is comparatively clear) as one who knows how to get his, or who has effective techniques for securing resources, or, in short, who makes a whole bunch of money.

These two, or several, or many, senses of “rationality” may go back to Aristotle, who defined humans as “rational animals,” which raises doubts about whether he had ever met any of us. Aristotle defined “practical rationality” in terms of a certain style of deliberation, known as the “practical syllogism”: “I want thing X; action A will help me get X; so I’ll do A.” Of course, that leaves it entirely open what X is: it could itself be an irrational or evil goal.

Aristotle thought that we all had the same goal—happiness—and that the same means (study and friendship, for example) could help us each achieve it. But he did not give any rational reasons to prefer happiness to various other possible ultimate goals (union with God, for example, or a life of self-sacrifice), nor could he. Our goal, he thought, was built into our nature. Maybe so, but that does not in itself make it any more rational than any other goal. Also, it doesn’t make it clear what happiness (or, as contemporary versions have it, well-being) is, or why we should prefer it to other candidates for ultimacy; it just insists that happiness—itself an awfully vague concept, or a variable that just means “everything we want all at once”—is in fact our goal. But Aristotle at least connects what we might call “cognitive” and “deliberative” rationality, or perhaps logic, experimental science, and economic modeling, into something like the same conceptual structure, which is as much as anyone has done since, really.

As to the scientific method, which is supposed to be something clear enough for a teacher to scribble briefly on a blackboard: a general characterization is going to have to encompass the techniques, for example, of astronomers (instrument-aided observation), psychology (questionnaires), experimental chemistry (hypothesis and reproducible test), medicine (double-blind placebo studies), anthropology (immersion and empathy), and of course economics (statistics), among many other procedures. Good luck boiling it all down, or figuring out exactly which technique to use on a political or moral question, and how.

So, for example, let’s stipulate that science (whatever it may be, exactly) has delivered to us the truth that the planet is getting hotter because of human carbon emissions. It might also give reasons to think that certain procedures will be effective to ameliorate the problem. That’s when the practical syllogism or the economic model of rationality kicks in: if I want to ameliorate climate change I should act to reduce my emissions and to see whether I can convince you to do likewise. But I have many goals that I’m trying to achieve simultaneously, including goals that economists assert to be rational, such as maximizing my income, or paying as little as possible for the things I need. The sheer fact that I’m deliberating about how to reach some goal rationally isn’t going to help me decide which of these goals to pursue when they conflict. It’s not going to help me fix my ultimate goals, or order my goals in a list of priorities. In order to do that, I’m going to have to figure out what I really want, what I think is most important. On that matter, the practical syllogism, like particle physics, is silent.

It is sometimes said of working-class Republicans that they vote against their own interests, probably because their rationality has been distorted by manipulative politicians and media strategists. Sometimes this is conceived in sheer economic terms: people appear to oppose policies (for example, much more aggressive and pervasive welfare programs or a much more progressive tax structure) that would directly put money in their pockets. But whatever rationality of this sort may amount to, it cannot show that I ought to think of my interests exclusively in economic terms. Perhaps these allegedly irrational people are working for other interests, for example a picture of themselves as self-reliant or independent that they conceive as central to their self-respect: something they want for their children. If you think that having things like that as ultimate or important ends is obviously irrational, or that there is a rational procedure for selecting from among a group of important aims the one that is most salient or exclusively in play in a given case, I’m going to need you to prove that rationally. Of course, I’ll need to know what rationality is first, so I can assess the proof.

In general, fixing our ultimate values—in politics or anywhere else—is not an activity that lends itself to rational deliberation. It rests, rather, on visceral commitment. If I think that justice is more important than tradition, or world peace than national borders, for example, I am going to have to screw up my emotions one way or another and make the choice. And to persuade you to do likewise, I am going to have to express passion, not present a series of practical syllogisms or scientific papers. No one’s politics is based on deliberative rationality. And no one’s politics is based on science, of course.

This is one thing that David Hume meant when he made his famous declaration that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Another thing he meant was that while passion, emotion, or desire can motivate people to action, sheer reason cannot. Though people sometimes say that science demands that we act now, it demands no such thing. It might tell us that if we don’t act now, various things will happen. It can’t show us why we don’t want them to happen, or why we should try not to let them happen, if we don’t really care as much about being screwed in the long run as we do about what’s for dinner tonight. Reason might tell us that if we want dinner tonight we should go to the grocery store and crank up the grill; it can’t tell us how much to care, or what to care about. Perhaps reason is a group or a family of strategies for generating beliefs, but, if so, it looks like they are only tangentially related to each other. At any rate, when you’ve told me that I should select my political beliefs rationally, I still don’t know exactly what you mean, or how I possibly could.

Political scientists—who are an interesting kind of scientist—tell us that, statistically speaking, our political positions tend to follow our demographics. The sort of “predictive analytics” that drove Cambridge Analytica’s interventions in the 2016 campaign on behalf of candidates like Trump indicate the same thing. It seems that if I know your race, your region, your age, your gender, your education level, or what movies you watched last month, I can predict your political positions with a fair amount of accuracy. This would be a bizarre circumstance if people were coming to their political positions through rational procedures. The oft-remarked “tribalism” of American politics, which applies just as well to college professors as to truck drivers, gives the lie to the alleged fact that some of these people (the people you agree with, no doubt) are basing their politics on reason while other people (the people you oppose) are not. People, by and large, believe to belong. But at what rate we ought to value belonging: on that, science offers no help.

Perhaps science, whatever it may be, can provide some information that would be useful to us, given that we have certain purposes. It cannot give us purpose, however. If “rationality” meant something, our politics would turn out to be no more rational than we are, overall. What did you expect?


Crispin Sartwell is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. His most recent book is Entanglements: A System of Philosophy (SUNY 2017). You can follow him on Twitter @crispinsartwell

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash


  1. This article was bad, sorry Crispin, but I find it hard to believe you wrote this with a straight face. I kept expecting ; ) smileys throughout the text to let us know it was all tongue in cheek.

    You start by saying that people should define rationality, reason, and science, but then make no effort to do so. If we don’t agree on the definitions then isn’t the rest of this piece garbage so start with?

    Secondly, I’m pretty sure we can agree on the definitions. For example science, is following the scientific method, which is a clearly laid out procedure of hypothesis testing. The fact that you think different fields are using different methods of generating knowledge is startling.

    When you harp on economists I think I start to get that you are confused about the definitions of rational. The goal itself is not rational or irrational but rather the act of choosing is a rational or irrational act; if there was thought and reasons than it was rational even if it doesn’t look like it to you, or the economist. And yes this is subjective. Something that is rational to me might not be rational to you. This is a given, not sure why the two paragraphs with examples instead of clearly stating what you mean. We can’t read your mind.

    blah blah blah more ‘paradoxes’, are you trying to confuse us before you get to what I took to be the actual points of this article: Climate change is real so do something about it and vote progressive.

    On climate change, you are right that science can tell us if the world is warming or not but that it can’t tell us what to do about it because that’s a moral question. Should we limit births for example, not just in the first world but primarily in the third world? Should we go all out total war with india and china to curb their emissions, the world is ending right? No science can’t tell us that either, all anyone has is probabilities and real suffering now has to be weight against potential suffering later. This is the essence of rationality, weighing pros and cons and making a well informed decision.

    When you talk about progressive taxes, science can tell us whether they work or not too. You can make a hypothesis “let’s tax the rich”, test it out (see france) and gather data: it didn’t work. Then you can improve on the current system with things that work. Progress is gradual and made up of many failures. You can also test other things such as whether or not subsidizing the homeless increases their number or decreases it. Political decisions should be science driven, and goals should be explicitly stated: do we want millions of homeless living in luxury or a few thousand in abject poverty; where is there less suffering? Science cannot give us goals but can help us make rational decisions (ie decisions that will achieve our goals).

    Why the assault on reason, it is a tool we can use if we wan’t to. Why would you want to remove any tool from your toolbox? The next paragraphs strike me again as meaningless deepisms and more confusing mental masturbation regarding reason (“reason might”, “perhaps reason is”, "if ", etc).

    Coming to your final statement, yes science should be able to determine your political ACTIONS, for example if you believe that if you go easy on criminals you will have less crime then you can test that, you can vote for people with those policies. If the policies don’t work (ie when you stop prosecuting crime, crime actually increases) then realize that your hypothesis was false and vote for someone with different policies.

    I truly believe many of these pieces are troll posts, put up by groups like srs who have been known to spam “right wing” forums in order to drive members away for over a decade.

  2. Yes, climate change is real and much of it is due to CO2 emission. We now need better numbers for the rate of warming (degrees per year or decade) in order to make well defined plans for dealing with the problem, Do we push the panic button and possibly fudge it, or is there time for engineers (not politicians) to make decisions?

  3. It is sometimes said of working-class Republicans that they vote against their own interests, probably because their rationality has been distorted by manipulative politicians and media strategists.

    You mean they’re stupid?

    Sometimes this is conceived in sheer economic terms: people appear to oppose policies (for example, much more aggressive and pervasive welfare programs or a much more progressive tax structure) that would directly put money in their pockets.

    Or maybe they recognize that these programs would actually take money directly from their pockets.

  4. Somebody help me out here: conventional wisdom is that if lower middle class/ working class people vote Republican it is against their interest.

    But why don’t we say that when very wealthy people choose to vote Democrat, since they are likely to get hit with higher taxes?

    Could it be that both group find other issues beyond the pocketbook more salient? I honestly don’t know

  5. I would say offhand that’s because for wealthy people on the Left money’s main value lies in its use towards gaining social status, so the possible loss of money through increased taxation is partially made up for by the status gain from a display of social altruism. Further, status is more about relative social ranking than total material possession, which a tax increase is unlikely to change. Finally the more money you have the more you can spend on accountants to avoid taxes in the first place.

  6. “whatever it may be”, it is unfinished science. We are still at the hypothesis stage, part of the scientific process is prediction and the predictions thus far have been wildly inaccurate and often exaggerated. Also part of the process is measurement and recently NOAA and NASA have been rejiggering temperature records of the last hundred years in ways that do not impart confidence. Lastly an important ingredient in the scientific process is healthy skepticism and testing. Even in my small world I have personally known some who have lost their positions because they did not properly promote the proper view and last I heard censorship is not an approved part of the scientific method.

    For the author to then jump from an unproven hypothesis to “truth” and “hotter” effectively debunks the contention that we are discussing science.

  7. Climate change is real. Sure. Much of it is due to CO2 emission. Hm… How much? Under 10%? Over 90%? Somewhere between? Would it be equally responsible for colder temperatures as well as hotter? For more hurricanes as well as fewer?

    You see I don’t really doubt science and scientists, I doubt the politicization of the science. When it became almost impossible to fund research that did not support the hypothesis and when it became a career ending move to participate in such research, I started to doubt the validity of the process. When environmentalism became anti-capitalist and anti-human, I started to doubt the truthfulness of the stated goals. When nuclear power plants were panned as evil and solar power celebrated as the answer, I started to doubt the earnestness of the claims. When it became the cause de jour and practically a religion, I called bullsh*t.

    My understanding is Denmark recently passed a law to cut carbon emissions by 70% by 2030. I couldn’t find a good estimate of the cost, but I have to believe it is going to be a significant portion of the GDP. Can I get away with saying “much” money? The estimate I did find was that it would reduce global warming by 1/100th to 1/1000th of a degree celsius by the end of the century. They could have accomplished nearly as much by banning plastic straws and though it would have been far cheaper, I suppose they couldn’t have felt nearly so good about themselves.

    I believe there is only one path available to humanity and that is forward. That means using science and technology to solve the problems created by the science and technology of the past. That means next generation nuclear power, genetic engineering and continually greater reliance on AI. There is no circling back on technology. If CO2 drives “much” of climate change, then we will have climate change until we have cost effective alternatives. The economic gains of technology will far outpace the cost of adaptation.

    In actual fact, I fear the encroachment of technology on what it is to be human far more than climate change. But I also see it as unavoidable.

  8. I’m afraid the author offers a completely clichéd, and ultimately ignorant perspective on “economics” and “economists”. As any good textbook explains (and as I keep telling my students, starting with Econ 101), "rationality " in economics isn’t about WHAT we do. It’s about the (entirely subjective) WEIGHING of the implications of competing scenarios. And in this weighing process, it’s perfectly possible, and in fact completely banal, for altruistic motives to come into play. Likewise, the nature of the elements taken into account isn’t confined to material or financial considerations: non-material and symbolic ones are fully legitimate parts of economic analysis.

  9. I was a skeptic largely because of the political shenanigans played by some climate scientists (scurrilous emails from M. Mann, and others, if memory serves) but recently became less of a skeptic after seeing new work on rate of warming. Making climate a political football was the worst possible thing that could happened to the issue. The harm done to science may be irreversible. And (worst of all) it was done with the cooperation of people who call themselves “scientists”…
    If nuclear power had not become a political football, there would be much more effort in that area. It is probably the best solution at the present time but the least likely to be installed).

  10. There are limits to science, by its very nature.

    Formal logic (which isn’t science) works by applying rules that are known to be correct (in reality, ASSUMED to be correct, i.e., axiomatic) to knowledge (observations) that are known to be correct or are axiomatically correct. Applying those rules to axiomatic knowledge is DEDUCTION: the distillation of axiomatic knowledge from other axiomatic knowledge that encompasses it.

    Formal logic, properly applied, always yields known-true knowledge; but it never yields knowledge that wasn’t previously encompassed within EXISTING knowledge.

    Science is different: it works by INDUCTION. People invent hypotheses that seem to explain phenomena that are observed, and those hypotheses are tested by experiment to determine if (and to what degree) they seem to explain experimental phenomena. If experiments indicate that a hypothesis SEEMS to be true, at least within the scope of the experiments, the hypothesis becomes a theory.

    So science has the particular benefit of resulting in NEW knowledge; but it has the downside of yielding this new knowledge with a DEGREE OF PROBABILITY or a DEGREE OF APPLICABILITY, in both cases because previous experiments didn’t cover all possibilities.

    A classic example of scientific knowledge having probability of being true is the one of Newton’s Three Laws of Mechanics. To date, they’ve shown themselves to be right in our macroscopic, low relative-speed ‘real’ world; but since Newton’s time they’ve been shown invalid at the quantum level and when objects and matter being observed travel at significant-enough (i.e., relativistic) speeds in relation to one another.

    So Newton’s laws of mechanics, when theorized, were PROBABLY true, or were true WHEN APPLIED TO PARTICULAR SITUATIONS.

    And so the limit of science: it can never be shown to be ABSOLUTELY true.

  11. Not confusing things, your right that science can’t tell us the future, but it can tell us the relative probabilities of different futures. It is also kindof pedantic: Consider you perform the scientific experiment of dropping a ball, you then come up with the theory that things fall, but this can’t tell you the future. The next time you drop the ball maybe it will float, maybe it will disappear entirely, you don’t know. Is that reason not to trust our best judgement?

  12. @Asema & @DOK:

    Science either predicts the future (with some bounded precision), or has a theory about why predictions are impossible.

    What DOK is talking about is a special case: climate is a chaotic system (with attractors, bifurcations & the like) where science’s predictive capability is quite limited – limited beyond the usual limitations of statistical results which can be obtained from stochastic processes.

    Both of you are right.

  13. I develop algorithms for getting global wind speed and ocean surface height data from spaceborne radars. As part of my job, I interact with a climate scientists and read a lot of papers. The prediction problem is a bit worse that what you state. The basic underlying physics are understood, but the way they come together to determine climate is exceedingly complex. I have heard reasoned arguments that it is easier to predict global climate in the long term than local weather in the short term, but empirically it is much easier to prove you did a good job predicting local weather. You just look at your past forecasts and compute quantitative estimates of your accuracy. (How often did you get it right when you predicted rain two days later, etc.) It is empirically impossible to judge the quality of 100-year climate predictions in this manner. The predictions we tried to make 100 years ago were utter crap. If we wait a hundred years it is likely we will not think well of our current prediction ability. If we can modify climate, then prediction is that much harder. The best we can do is make models that accurate predict current climate given data from years ago. We still cannot verify 100-year predictions as there was insufficient data that long ago, but twenty year prediction models can be tested this way. However, the temptation then comes to tune your model to improve the twenty year prediction of today’s climate. When one does this, they run the risk of tricking themselves into believing their prediction method is better than it is. If you add enough tunable parameters you can get a perfect prediction of today’s data, but paradoxically you lose the ability to generalize that is necessary to predict future climate. It is a difficult job and its politicization is very unfortunate.

  14. Lawyer here. Although corporate governance not my specialty, I see no reason why a corporation could not purposefully be organized and run as a quasi for profit entity and a quasi virtue signalling entity, rather than just to maximize profits. They key is to be up front and transparent about it, starting with the articles of incorporation. The corporation just needs to be sure that potential investors are given full notice before they purchase the shares.

    Or they can be organized as a not for profit entity. Plenty of those around.

  15. And of course, that is the hard part of the whole thing. What exactly is an evildoer? And when the screamatariat move on to another issue, are you allowed to tip toe back in and go do what makes sense to you?

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