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Rick Searle’s Rational Monster
Daryl Wennemann   Feb 11, 2014   Ethical Technology  

In his essay Erasmus Reads Kahneman, or why perfect rationality is less than it’s cracked up to be it does not seem that the concept of rationality Rick Searle cites as following the principle of non-contradiction is at work when he asserts, “We could turn even a psychopathically rational monster like Hitler into a buffoon because even he, after all, was one of us.”

In a sense, Hitler was very rational in seeking the most efficient means of committing genocide. But was the end/goal of genocide rational? The principle of non-contradiction does not seem to determine this.

We can distinguish several different kinds of rationality. “Substantial rationality” can be understood to mean “an act of thought that reveals intelligent insight into the inter-relations of events in a given situation.” (Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1940, p. 53.) Thus, if a person were to have insight into the functioning of an electrical circuit, that would be an instance of substantial rationality. Let’s use the term “rationalS” and its cognates to refer to substantial rationality.

“Instrumental rationality” or “functional rationality” involves “the coordination of action with reference to a goal. This is a type of rationality that has to do with the intelligent use of means to achieve a given goal. Here, the goal is given, and instrumental rationality applies to the intelligent choice of means. Thus, if we were to have a goal of sending humanB beings to Mars, we would have to think about whether a rocket could accomplish the goal. Would it be an effective means? But instrumental rationality does not bring the goal itself into question.” (Daryl J. Wennemann, Posthuman Personhood, p. 74.

The term “humanB” refers to biological human beings. The term humanM will refer to morally human beings or persons.) Let’s use the term “rationalI” and its cognates to refer to instrumental rationality. It should be noticed that rationalityS is implicated in the coordination of action with reference to a goal. But the choice of effective means to achieve a goal involves more than just having an insight into the inter-relations of events.

“Reflexive rationality” is a type of rationality that is directed to the intelligent choice of rational ends. A rational end is one that is consistent with reflexive rationality. Let’s use the term “rationalR” and its cognates to refer to reflexive rationality.

​So, if I were to choose an end or goal that undermines rationalR goal-seeking, it would not be a goal that is consistent with reflexive rationality, since reflexive rationality is the standard for rationalR goal-seeking. Thus, to intentionally kill a humanB being is not a rationalR goal because humanB beings are beings of a kind that are capable of rationalR goal-seeking. They are humanM ie., persons. The humanB being I kill is no longer able to seek rationalR goals. It is important to observe that reflexive rationality (rationalityR) is concerned with rationalR goal-seeking as such, not just my own rationalR goal-seeking. And so, any goal that undermines rationalR goal-seeking is morally impermissible. Again, if I were to impose a law on someone (heteronomy of the will) I would effectively be denying the person the ability to choose her/his own rationalR goals. My goal of imposing a law on someone would undermine rationalR goal-seeking. And so, it is not a rationalR goal.

These distinctions help us to see why it is not inappropriate to refer to Hitler as a “rational monster”. Given his goal of committing genocide, he efficiently pursued the goal. The means he employed were rationalI. But the goal of genocide was itself not rationalR. This is also what Francis Fukuyama is worried about in Our Posthuman Future. If we choose to alter ourselves biologically and the change we make undermines our ability to make rationalR choices, then the choice of the goal to alter ourselves biologically is not rationalR. It would be a case of rationalR goal-seeking that undermines our rationalR goal-seeking.


Daryl Wennemann received his Ph. D. in philosophy from Marquette University in 1994. He has been teaching philosophy at Fontbonne University since 1996. He teaches ethics and a course in critical thinking.


Wow, Daryl, that was a very quick article written in response to my post. I certainly don’t want to find myself in a debate with a logician over the definition of rationality, but even if I agreed with you that there existed a reflexive rationality that should serve as a guide to decide whether our instrumentally rational choices were indeed rational it wouldn’t matter much to what happens in the real world, for whereas everyone follows some version of instrumental rationality from accountants to corporations to evil dictators reflexive rationality seems more hard to find because there no universal agreement as to what it is.

Choosing moral ends does not proceed, in my opinion, from the dictates of reason, but from emotional capacities such as empathy. This is what psychologist have found when studying people with a psychopathic personality- that their reasoning- measured in their ability to solve logical problems is not impaired and is often even better than that of persons who do not have psychopathic traits, but they are emotionally impaired lacking the capacity for empathy and for that reason will do whatever they think to be in their own interest.

Or perhaps I just should have said “Hitler was an INSTRUMENTALLY rational psychopathic monster”. 

I seem to still be able to add to this comment here, and since what is above was quite rushed I will take the opportunity to more fully explain myself.

It is not at all apparent to me that Daryl’s “reflective rationality” is a self-evident axiom for a rational being to take, which is not to say that I wouldn’t like it to be the case, just that it runs counter to the experience of rational creatures being independent and separate agents.

For what I find a frightening take on this see Alex-Wissner-Gross over at TED who seems to suggest that the desire to what he calls “maximize freedom” comes before and is a prelude to intelligence not the other way round. And maximizing freedom can easily be understood as a sort of will to power- his discussion, by the way is about the intelligence of machines, not us.

My own views tend to be influenced by Hume. It was he who said that ethics comes not from reason but from sympathy (though reason is often used to justify ethics or morality after the fact).
As I suggested his views have been backed up by studies in moral psychology over the past decade, and help explain how animals,
which lack the capacity for rational argument can be seen to act in ways that are clearly altruistic if not moral.

Wenneman: This has to be one of the silliest moral arguments on the Internet.

““Reflexive rationality” is a type of rationality that is directed to the intelligent choice of rational ends. A rational end is one that is consistent with reflexive rationality.”

In other words, “Reflexive rationality” is a type of rationality that is directed to the intelligent choice of ends that are consistent with reflexive rationality. → Circular definition.

The ludicrously egg-headed piece of text you produced here doesn’t give anyone a reason to refrain from killing. It’s just as easy to ignore your verbiage as it is to ignore the Ten Commandments. It’s just a bluff, and it only works on people who want to believe it. Suppose Joe is a hit man who has loads of practical reasons (revenge, money, eliminating enemies, enjoyment) for killing people, and we show him a heavily superscripted fragment of text from Dr. Egghead at the university. His response: What’s that to me? Why should I care about that? That’s the crux of it. He doesn’t care about it, and he doesn’t have to care about it either. It’s just paper flapping in the breeze. A bark with no bite.

It seems to me that your position has a fact/value problem (something for which Hume was famous).  If it is a fact about the world that many people tend to make decisions in irrational(R) ways, it does not follow that they ought to do so or that they must do so.  Kant held we have a moral duty to ethicize ourselves.  Perhaps we can develop our ability to make rational(R) decisions. Perhaps the enhancements many people see coming will better allow us to make rational(R) decisions.  I wonder if a computer could be programmed to reject any goal that undermines rational(R) goal-setting.

The notion of reflexive rationality has a long provenance in Western thought.  Consider Aquinas, “Judgment is in the power of someone judging to the extent that one can pass judgment on one’s own judging; for whatever is in our power is something about which we can make a judgment.  But to pass judgment on one’s own judgment belongs only to reason…: (De Veritate 24, 2; cited in Alasdair Macintyre, Dependent Rational Animals, p. 54).  If there is no consensus on the concept of reflexive rationality, we could work to construct a concept that is objectively valid.  If the process of construction is scrutable, then we could create such a concept.  See David Chalmers, Constructing the World, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Daryl, first off I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to read my post and respond with your own, as well as your comments. It is in debates such as these that I tend to learn most.

If reflexive rationality is merely a philosophical justification and elaboration of empathy, then I am all for it. Where we disagree starts with your assertion that reflexive rationality emerges from reason itself.  As you write:

“So, if I were to choose an end or goal that undermines rationalR goal-seeking, it would not be a goal that is consistent with reflexive rationality, since reflexive rationality is the standard for rationalR goal-seeking. “

Reflexive rationality is only the “standard of rational goal seeking” if your jumping off point is all rational goal seekers. But reason itself didn’t give you this jumping off point. You might have chosen others that would be equally reasonable if not also moral.

This leads you to assert:

“So, if I were to choose an end or goal that undermines rationalR goal-seeking, it would not be a goal that is consistent with reflexive rationality, since reflexive rationality is the standard for rationalR goal-seeking. Thus, to intentionally kill a humanB being is not a rationalR goal because humanB beings are beings of a kind that are capable of rationalR goal-seeking. They are humanM ie., persons. The humanB being I kill is no longer able to seek rationalR goals.”

What then of self-defense? Reflexive rationality surely can’t be suicidal. So there are conditions where I would have to decide that the survival of MY rational self was valued higher than the survival of another’s rational self. The sphere of all rational beings whose good I need to take into account has broken down. 

Now, I am sure your response to this is that anyone who endangers my rational self is not acting rationally and therefore falls outside my sphere of concern. But who decides and how is it decided that someone is acting irrationally to put my own rationality in danger?

Hitler made a completely rational yet morally deranged and non- factual argument that the Jews were a mortal danger to the German people. The result of this was the cruel moral absurdity of Eichmann justifying genocide on the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative.

All the philosophy in the world didn’t stop the Nazi’s from commiting the most outrageous crimes against humanity. And this alone should tell us something, which is it is not reason we need to bolster to make people behave better to one another. Our norms have indeed improved overtime but this was driven as much by art as it was philosophy as people’s sphere of who they considered worthy of their consideration was expanded through imagination.

Most human beings, most of the time, act morally and this has nothing to do with them having clearly reasoned moral philosophies. It’s in our wiring, though it needs an imaginative push to get it beyond our primordial family and tribe.

Moral philosophers need to start taking moral psychologists seriously and see themselves for what they are- a cleaning up operation and an ironing out of inconsistencies in areas where human intuition has already led the way. 

As for the moral enhancement project such as the one proposed by Julian Savulescu, I have some trepidation. I think understanding the underlying mechanisms of empathy, pychopathology etc could have a very positive humanizing effect on criminal justice and psychological treatment. I do not, however, think it is an answer to security concerns such as terrorism. In fact, once the knowledge is out there it might be used not in the service of humanity but to bind even more tightly together human groups in rivalry with one another. Only something like a global state could implement their use in the service of universalistic ends Savulescu envisions. We have little to hope- or fear- of that. If such enhancements were used as a means of rivalry between groups we would continue to be where we have always been and no amount of argument, however rational and attractive, seems able to free us from that.

Ad jcarl8: It is true that reflexive rationality provides its own standard but I don’t see it as involving a vicious circle.  If I can judge my judging then we can carry out a recursive activity that can be improved.  It does presuppose a commitment to reason.  On this, Christine Korsgaard has developed a fascinating argument showing that our agency is constituted by following the categorical imperative (whether consciously or not).  “The categorical imperative, on this view, is not just the principle of morality. It is also the constitutive principle of action.
    More precisely, I believe that the principle of governing oneself by universal laws is the constitutive principle of rational activity generally.” (Christine Korsgaard, The Constitution of Agency, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 12).

As to the fact that a murderer does not worry about what philosophers say, I don’t see this as a good reason to not think seriously about ethical issues.  Some people have followed the concerns of some philosophers who have contributed to the formation of policies regarding the use of human subjects in experiments, as well as non-human animals as well as a range of other professional ethical norms.

Ad Rick: I agree that we should take moral psychologists seriously.  I co-authored a book (with Gregory Beabout) titled, Applied Professional Ethics.  We applied Kohlberg’s model of moral development to the area of professional ethics.  There is experimental social science that supports Kohlberg’s level three reasoning See Postconventional Moral Thinking: A Neo-Kohlbergian Approach, Psychology Press (April 1, 1999).  On the development of moral reasoning I recommend the work of Elliot Turiel.

On self-defense, we can understand this as a case of double effect.  If someone attacks me using lethal force and I can stop the person’s aggression without taking his life, I should do so.  But suppose I see that the only way to stop the person’s aggression is to kill him.  My intention is to stop his aggression.  This is an intention that is compatible with the moral principle of respect for persons.  Killing him is not my intention (it is really contrary to my will) but it is unavoidable.  There are two effects, a good one (I save my life) and an evil one (I take the life of the attacker).  So, there is a proportion between the good and evil effects.


Just looking for clarity here:

“If someone attacks me using lethal force and I can stop the person’s aggression without taking his life, I should do so.  But suppose I see that the only way to stop the person’s aggression is to kill him.  My intention is to stop his aggression “

Does this mean that unless the individual is herself under attack then violence or war according to reflexive rationality is prohibited, or can that decision be made on the behalf of others?

I see war as an extension of the issue of self-defense.  Double effect would not allow us to engage in a war of aggression against another country but it does allow us to defend ourselves.  It is possible to defeat an enemy without killing him, as when we take prisoners.  If there is no other way to stop the aggression of an enemy, then double effect allows us to kill him.  I’m not sure what you mean by “decision…made on the behalf of others.”  If our elected representatives decide to go to war, we have participated in the decision indirectly.  I don’t have to be directly under attack myself to engage in war on behalf of my country.

“Double effect would not allow us to engage in a war of aggression against another country but it does allow us to defend ourselves.”

Perhaps a real world example will clarify this for me: under your criteria were the soldiers who fought on the Union side of the American Civil War engaged in self-defense (double-effect) or a war of aggression?

The attack on Fort Sumter could be seen as the beginning of the war.  So, there was an aggressive act to which the U.S. responded.

Response to an attack is different from self-defense, no? There can be many different responses to an attack including suing for peace.

It not quite proper etiquette to quote from Wikipedia articles, but here I go:

“The South sent delegations to Washington, D.C., and offered to pay for the Federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States. Lincoln rejected any negotiations with the Confederate agents because he did not consider the Confederacy a legitimate nation and making any treaty with it would be tantamount to recognition of it as a sovereign government. However, Secretary of State William H. Seward, who wished to give up Sumter for political reasons—as a gesture of good will—engaged in unauthorized and indirect negotiations that failed.”

The Union invasion of the South can’t really be considered a war of self-defense. I personally think the Civil War was justifiable but not on those grounds.

So, does double effect/reflexive rationality preclude or permit wars we engage in which it is not our own (nation’s) self-defense that is at issue?

I would turn to the tradition of just war theory and international law to pursue that question.  The Caroline affair is relevant to the defensive use of force.

I meant to refer to the Caroline case of 1837.

This is not as informative, or even as fun, as I hoped it would be. Neither the North nor the South actually waged a “just war” in the Civil War- with the North violating perhaps Jus Ad Bellum, and definitely Jus In Bello and Jus post bellum, and the South violating more likely all three.

There were good reasons on both sides of the conflict for any individual to think his side was just. A Northerner had the issue of slavery, and a Southerner the invasion of his state when it had done no more, in his view, than exercise its sovereign right. Indeed, if a soldier on either side of the conflict sat down to decide via just war theory whether his side was waging a just war, his answer would emerge from which side in the conflict he found sovereign- not an easy answer and open to opposite interpretations.

Indeed, the whole question of for whom the Civil War was just according to just war theory rests on the question of which side on the conflict was sovereign- a question that was only definitively decided by the outcome of the war itself.

During any conflict all sides will produce rationally consistent arguments for why their struggle is just. A German living in the hermetically sealed world of Nazi ideology would have been unlikely to reason his way out of it, but he would have noticed his natural feelings of pity, mercy and disgust when asked to murder women and children which did not go away however much he believed on the basis of his ideology that such persons were a danger to the human future.

You have not proven to me, Daryl, that reflexive rationality would have been an escape route for Hitler’s “rational monstrosity” for once you accepted that one rational being could under it kill another rational being in the service of a “just war” the seat of all rational beings was replaced by Nietzsche’s “coldest of all cold monsters”- the state. Even should the principle of reflexive rationality come to be widely held any state could argue rationally that the crimes it was committing were in its service.

Our rationality is certainly fragile and imperfect.  We usually need a distance of many years between us and an event like the civil war to judge it.  And our judgments will change over time.  We generally accept today that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII was wrong and the government has acknowledged it.  I’m not willing to give up on rationality because it is imperfect.  I hope we can improve our rationality over time.  It makes sense to me to try heads of state that commit crimes against humanity.  And the judgments of the judges can be reviewed and judged.  Is there such a thing as “the state”?  There are many different states, some democratic to a degree and some not.  The fact that an ethical norm is violated does not undermine the norm.  I would say we ought not to steal even if everyone in the world were stealing, or if no one in the world were stealing.  Again, the fact/value distinction.  See my article “Moderation Amidst Polarization”, The Ellul Forum, Issue 42, Fall, 2008 at FORUM ARTICLES/ISSUE42.pdf.

“I’m not willing to give up on rationality because it is imperfect. “

I have no intention of giving up on rationality merely recognizing its limitations. To name just a few: rationality exists in a world where information is imperfect and as far as we can tell will always be imperfect. It is imperfect in terms of time, can in most instances not answer counterfactuals, is exercised in a world where information between rational actors is not fully shared and where such actors follow mutually contradictory goals. 

The fundamental goals of any system of moral philosophy are based upon assumptions that can not be universally established in the way the truths of mathematics are established. No rationalist school of philosophy has established itself like calculus or logic by mere demonstration. In the arguments over the good life it is not necessarily the most logically consistent argument that will win, but the one that best resonates with the human beings to whom it is addressed. 

Still, even if I am unlikely to agree with you that reflexive rationality is some how a higher or more fundamental level of rationality than the more-day-to day sort, I would, Daryl, be pleased to learn more about it.

Perhaps you could write an article on the subject in language accessible to laymen for the IEET? Perhaps indicating where it is important for topics regularly covered here.

I thought your last post was very thoughtful, clear and interesting.  It reminded me of Robert Louden’s book, The World We Want: How and Why the Ideals of the Enlightenment Still Elude Us.  He tries to assess the degree to which the enlightenment goals have been achieved and argues we should continue to pursue them even though they have been imperfectly instantiated.

I don’t think I want to write an article on reflexive rationality, but our exchanges have forced me to think about how to express my thoughts on it.  I’m grateful to you for pushing me in that way.  Let me try to make a clear statement about it here:

Reasoning is a recursive activity that allows for reason to set standards for itself, and so it is reflexive.  Reason is legislative (following Kant).  And so, reason establishes a standard for consistency, the principle of non-contradiction.  If I am going to reason, reason requires that I be consistent.  I must adopt the standard of non-contradiction as a goal of my future reasoning.  If we generalize on the act of goal-setting, reason requires that I be consistent in the goals I set for myself.  If I reflect on the act of goal-setting, I can reflexively set a standard for consistency which requires that the goals I set for myself should be ones that are consistent with rational goal-setting.  So, if I adopt a goal that undermines rational goal-setting, that is not a rational goal.  It is self-defeating.

I see this as what the categorical imperative is getting at.  I see my view as being consistent with Christine Korsgaard’s work on Kant’s practical philosophy.  See The Sources of Normativity, The Constitution of Agency.  She argues that if we act for reasons then we must follow the categorical imperative in order to not only be consistent, but to constitute ourselves as moral agents.  That is why we ought to commit ourselves to rationality.  “So rational motivation in a sense takes itself for its object.” (Constitution, p. 214, “itself” is italicized in the original.)

I think that is about the best I can do to express my view at this point in time.

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