Varieties of Normativity

Normative claims aim to tell us how things ought to be or what we ought to do. This, as opposed to claims that just aim to describe how things are. Philosophy may be the only discipline that inquires into the nature of normativity. We don’t just aim to uphold normative standards, as happens in every discipline, nor to describe normative standards as often happens in the social sciences. Philosophers ask what makes normative standards worthy. Two of the main branches of philosophy, Ethics and Epistemology, are wholly devoted to better understanding the two central realms of normativity in human life. Ethics, of course, is concerned with how we should live, how we should treat each other, what we should or shouldn’t do. Epistemology is concerned with how we should or shouldn’t reason, how we should evaluate evidence and how we should form beliefs or degrees of belief.

It can be hard to motivate many people to take inquiry in these areas seriously since conventional thinking at our cultural moment is highly prejudiced towards skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism about normativity. If morality, for instance, is relative to culture, then there is no inquiry to do in ethics beyond figuring out what the ethical standards of a culture are. In matters of belief and knowledge, taking the truth to be unknowable or somehow subjective is often a highly appealing way to avoid conflict, especially when the people who think they know are highly passionate and adamant. So, what to do when faced with these obstacles to inquiry? Ultimately, I think the way to show that inquiry into ethical and epistemic normativity is possible is to do some of it. But some intellectual brush needs to be cleared first. Here I mainly want to clarify the targets of inquiry in ethics and epistemology by way of distinguishing these from other varieties of normtivity.

Philosophers tend to focus on the great big “oughts” of morality and rationality. But this is like walking through an old growth forest and only seeing the big trees. Normativity generally is rich and varied. In our lives and societies, the varieties of normativity are also, like species in a forest, richly entangled and interdependent. But let’s get acquainted with a few other species of normativity before we look into our ecosystems of normativity.

So, here’s a random assortment of normative claims:

  1. The salad fork should be placed to the left of the dinner fork.
  2. Cars should stop at stop signs.
  3. Teachers should grade fairly.
  4. When in Japan, you should bow when you meet people.
  5. The bike tire label should be aligned with the valve.
  6. People should treat other people with respect.
  7. You shouldn’t believe things on the basis of fallacious arguments.

Only one of the above claims (6) is straightforwardly ethical. Though several are, shall we say, morally entangled (2, 3 and 4). Only one of these claims is a straightforward matter of epistemology (7). Though another is epistemically motivated (5, following this rule makes it easier to find the puncture when you get a flat). A few of these claims have nothing to do with morality (1 and 5). And most of them have little to do with rationality.

Quite aside from matters of morality or rationality, normative claims express standards of etiquette, a wide variety of social conventions, cultural norms, professional standards, rules and best practices for games, religious standards of conduct, norms of fashion and style, and the list goes on. Perhaps a good analysis of what it is to be human is just to say that humans are the normative animals. The ways we think and live are structured by normative standards of many kinds. Our various identities are often defined by the normative standards we endorse and live by.

Some of our normative standards are arbitrary matters of social convention. Matter of etiquette or fashion are like this. It doesn’t really matter just how long your pants should be. But some years leg hems are little higher and some years they are a little lower. Dress slacks used to “break” at the shoes, now they don’t. Clearly nothing of moral significance is at issue here.

Matters of social convention are clearly relative to one group or another. Perhaps most cultural norms are like this. Some of the norms that are relative to culture are in some way entangled with morality. So, bowing when you meet people in Japan is a way of showing respect for others. The bowing itself is an arbitrary cultural relative norm. But showing respect for others brings us well into the territory of the moral. But counting respect for others as a moral norm doesn’t determine anything about how respect should be shown in one context or another. A good deal of variation in cultural standards understood as different culturally determined ways of treating others with respect.

There is diversity in the variety of norms we briefly considered here. Some, lie fashion trends, are entirely matters of social convention. Other norms, like rules of the road, are also social conventions, but aren’t pretty much arbitrary like fashion trends. We have a range of options to choose from in setting our normative standards for traveling about town. But any set of rules of the road that fail to make getting around town basically safe and convenient are open to rational criticism. Some of our more arbitrary normative standards remain very important to us since they define some of our assorted identities. Cultural standards are like this. There are a great many equally good ways to prepare lentils, but doing so in certain ways remains important to many since this is how “we” do it, and the ways we do things affirm our identities as members of specific social groups.

Now, where do the big oughts of morality and rationality fit into all of this. A group of people can make something fashionable simply by agreeing that it is fashionable. But a group of people can’t make a conspiracy theory rational simply by agreeing that it is rational. Neither do standards of rationality define any particular identity. Being Indian or Chinese doesn’t make it any more or less rational to believe that the Earth is flat. It could happen that some culture or other social group adopts certain standards of rationality as characterizing themselves. Perhaps some European cultures have aspired to do so with being “scientific.” But any culture with such an aspiration faces the risk of getting rationality wrong (witness Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia). Standards of rationality are things we have to figure out, not things we can simply claim or define. There are built in constraints on what can is rational or not. We found this in the case of rules of the road being constrained by safety and convenience. In the case or standards of rationality, the constraint is truth aptness. Was of thinking that are less reliable means of getting at what’s true are, in virtue of this, less rational. This much would hold for any possible being with a mind capable of representing the external world.

Now how about morality. One tempting way to understand morality is as concerning the normative standards that apply to our broadest identity, persons. Morality is concerned with what persons owe to each other. This is the basic premise of respect for persons moral theory (most prominently developed by Kant). I would worry, however, that this way of thinking about morality fails to account for what I owe to other living beings. My cat isn’t a person, yet it would be wrong for me to neglect or abuse my cat. Perhaps respect for persons capture one fundamental moral value, the one most relevant to what persons owe each other. And yet there may be other fundamental moral values that explain what I owe to my cat, or to the planet, or to communities, etc. Here we are already launched on a kind of inquiry into moral value. The key thing to notice at this point, is that unlike normative standards of fashion or etiquette, when it comes to standards of morality, we don’t get to just make things up.

A Open Letter to Art Goss and the BC Curriculum Advisory Committee

I expect you and the CAC are quite busy approving new Gen Ed ratings for transfer courses as part of our ongoing Pathways work. I can understand the desire for expediency with a workload of this scale. And so I do not relish the role I’m about to take on.

Our world is becoming an increasingly unreasonable place. I don’t think this point requires a great deal of elaboration. Our unreasonableness is manifest in multiple crises from climate change, to racism, to the decline of democracy. People generally are not very amenable to reasoning and this is perhaps what we should expect given an education system that makes no systematic effort to equip people with general reasoning skills. I think of this as a national intellectual health crisis of pandemic proportions. What especially pains me is that we have a decent enough vaccine in well developed Critical Thinking curriculum, we simply lack any sense of urgency about getting into the minds of our students.

Our students arrive at BC and then leave with paltry defenses against the overabundance of manipulative rhetoric and BS their world has to offer. I think it is time for us as educators to take some ownership for this situation. We do not do enough to equip our students with the reasoning skills required to be more reasonable people. Currently, our failure on this front is baked into how we operate the infusion model for Gen Ed outcomes at BC. We do have a reasoning requirement in the DTA, but it is completely dominated by math. Reasoning more generally, beyond the realm of numbers, is covered by our Critical Thinking Gen Ed outcome. But we have no coherent, systematic approach to teaching reasoning skills on the infusion model as we run it. There is no infused Critical Thinking curriculum. Instructors teaching classes that claim Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome rarely talk to each other about just what this means or how to teach it effectively.

Fourteen percent of the courses on campus currently claim Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome. That number is no doubt much higher among transfer courses that serve the DTA. And it will grow higher still with the current push for all transfer courses to claim Gen Ed outcome as part of Pathways work. These claims will be approved by the CAC on the strength of a paragraph or two linking some aspect of Critical Thinking outcomes language to course outcomes language. There is little transparency across campus concerning the curriculum on which claims to teach Critical Thinking are based. We have no measure of how many instructors teaching courses that claim Critical Thinking have ever taken a course in Critical Thinking or engaged in any significant professional development in Critical Thinking. I suspect that number is very small. In short, we don’t appear to be doing what we say we are doing concerning this vital and foundational Gen Ed area.

So at this point, I have two recommendations that could go some ways towards addressing a serious pedagogical failure on our part. First, I’d like to see the CAC ask for more evidence of instruction in Critical Thinking skills for courses claiming Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome. Ideally, programs should be transparent and share their Critical Thinking curriculum. Philosophy already does this as you will see here among other places.

Second, and I suspect this goes beyond the purview of the CAC, the office of Academic Affairs should expect faculty who teach courses claiming Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed to engage in professional development on Critical Thinking. To this end, philosophy has just run a Critical Thinking workshop in the Faculty Commons. A couple of philosophy faculty shared how we teach critical thinking and we heard from other faculty how they teach critical thinking. The conversation was quite fruitful. One key point that emerged is that an eleven week quarter is not really enough time for students to develop and practice the reasoning skills that are central to Critical Thinking. More extended cultivation of reasoning skills will not happen if faculty teaching courses rated for Critical Thinking are not talking to each other, sharing curriculum and methods, and coordinating their efforts.

Critical Thinking is not merely one among 18 Gen Ed outcomes. It is foundational in many ways. For example, philosophy has as much of a stake in Ethics as it does in Critical Thinking. The only reason the campus community hears more about Critical Thinking from the Philosophy Dept. is that doing Ethics requires some well developed critical thinking skills. Similar things could no doubt be said for Critical Thinking and several other of our Gen Ed outcomes.

As long as we have an infusion model for Gen Ed outcomes, I will be committed to making it work. This requires acknowledging its current failures. We currently have no good understanding of how Critical Thinking is taught as an infused Gen Ed outcome, or indeed the extent to which it is taught at all. This is something the CAC can address. And this failure is entrenched by our failure as faculty to communicate with each other about how we are teaching critical thinking in an infused manner across campus. Remedying this will require much broader participation.

The White Replacement Theory

The idea that liberal elites are trying to change the electoral dynamics of America in favor of Democrats by racially diversifying the country has wide currency on the political right. We should note at the outset that the plausibility of this idea on the political right carries with is an implicit admission that the policies endorsed on the right are hostile to people of color and immigrants. More thoughtful people on the right might wonder just why immigrants and people of color would want to vote Democratic and consider how to shape policies that would appeal to these demographics.

At any rate, I have yet to hear white replacement as an electoral strategy endorsed by anyone on the left. The white replacement theory is unhinged, it simply has no basis in reality. But then it is not even aimed at reasonable or true belief. Like the big lies about election fraud, the whole point of the white replacement theory is to stoke hostility towards people on the left, and especially people of color. Dehumanizing hostility that has once again led to violence in Buffalo.

Ideas do matter. Bad ideas motivate some of their adherents to do bad things. Of course, the Buffalo shooter bears the moral responsibility for firing the bullets that killed 10 people. But pinning this responsibility on this individual falls far short of giving a full account how these killings, mostly of people of color, came to happen. There are systemic phenomenon at work here. The propagation of the white replacement theory was a causal factor in this violence. The shooter has told us so. The people who have spread this bad idea don’t bear responsibility for pulling the trigger, but they have served as conduits for hate and that’s a bad thing to do in itself.

There is a hazard in drawing this conclusion, one that needs to be negotiated with care. People are often quick to take offense and quick to feel personally attacked. Bad ideas spread like invasive weeds through the minds of uncritical thinkers. While some of the propagators of the white replacement theory know what they are doing, and bear personal responsibility for their hate mongering, a great many more are simply duped. People who lack the critical thinking skills needed to avoid such intellectual grift are also likely to miss the crucial difference between negatively judging a bad idea and negatively judging them personally. Perhaps they are at fault for failing to think more clearly and failing to pull the toxic invasive weeds from their own intellectual garden. But that’s another matter.

The pattern of racist attacks that have brought us so much grief in New Zealand, Charleston, El Paso and now Buffalo were motivated by bad ideas. So, how do we fight bad ideas without ourselves getting into the business of hate mongering against those infected by them? Perhaps we don’t hate the people who have been duped into embracing and spreading bad ideas, we just hate the bad ideas. But again, there is the high risk that people who aren’t reasonable enough to defend themselves against the bad ideas also won’t be reasonable enough to distinguish hatred of the idea from hatred of them personally. The subtleties of our intentions often don’t alter the impact.

Meeting this delicate challenge on a case-by-case basis is not easy and many of us have tried only to see relationships with friends and family suffer or perish. I’d suggest that what we ultimately need is a systemic solution to the systemic problem of bad ideas spreading unchecked across entire populations of people. We need to understand this phenomenon as an intellectual public health crisis.

In fact, I think we already have a fairly effective intellectual vaccine. There is nothing reasonable about racial hatred. What we lack is a collective sense of urgency when it comes to getting the critical thinking skills that can help to inoculate people from bad ideas like the white replacement theory into the minds of students and the public at large. To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the spread of hate. As educators, we do attack bad racist ideas head on, as we should. But this will not be enough to stop the spread of bad racist ideas among people who lack the endemic intellectual immune response that only well-developed critical thinking skills can provide. Indeed, it hasn’t been enough.

To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the systemic aspects of racial hatred. Hatred is not entirely an intellectual problem. But poor critical thinking is exploited in spreading hatred. And the critical thinking skills that can provide some protection against this are in desperately short supply.

Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence

As a child, Amartya Sen, Nobel prize winning economist and philosopher of social justice, witnessed the Hindu-Muslim riots that accompanied Pakistan’s partition from India. His analysis of identity and violence is based on this formative experience and identity-based conflicts around the world including 9/11 and the war of terrorism of recent decades. At least since the Obama error, the rhetoric of identity-based violence and the tactics of terror have become endemic within the US. We see the dynamics Sen discusses play out in our contemporary culture war and tribal political divisions. With experts now warning of social upheaval and even civil war looming on the horizon, now is an apt time to revisit Sen’s analysis. I highly recommend Sen’s book length treatment: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of… book by Amartya Sen (thriftbooks.com)

Individuals have many identities. I am all at once an, American, husband, father, cat lover, philosopher, handyman, cook, gardener, cyclist, and a white male. Individuals are complex and multifaceted. We each contain multitudes. Our various identities can be the basis of affinities that bind us together. They can also divide. As Sen puts it, “The adversity of exclusion can go hand in hand with the gifts of inclusion”

Division, enmity and ultimately violence are fomented by prioritizing singular identities to the exclusion of all others. When people are categorized according to just one of their many identities, that identity binds group members together even as it divides complex individuals from members of other groups. So, for instance, white supremacists in the US currently foment division and violence by categorizing fellow citizens exclusively by race (perhaps also immigration status), to the exclusion of identities that are shared across racial categories. Aside from being Black or white, Asian or indigenous, we are also parents, fellow citizens, hikers or basketball players, teachers or nurses, etc. In the fomenting of identity-based divisions, assorted shared identities among individuals are incrementally dismissed as irrelevant while a singular facet of identity grows all consuming. Individuals can only be thought of as white, Black, or brown in the rhetoric of the white supremacist. Individuals are reduced to narrow categories, their complexity is diminished, and the bases for shared understanding, appreciation, and respect that transcends the singular dividing identity is narrowed, ultimately choked off.

This is not the only example worth exploring in the current American cultural landscape. Ultimately it is our shared humanity that is undermined. The denigration and diminishment of our complex and multifaceted identities into singular categories is dehumanizing.

Freedom!

Locke wrote at a time when it would have been easy to miss the role of social systems and how unfair these can be. But aside from issues of fairness in our social systems, it’s worth noting how big a job it is to secure individual rights and liberties.

Part of our current political dysfunction is driven by people who see no threats to liberty except from the government. And from that point of view, any government rule or regulation is likely to look like an infringement of liberty.

So, we need to talk about vaccine mandates in connection with this. People who go around unvaccinated undermine the liberty of others by making their own physical presence a threat to the health and safety of others. Vaccine mandates are there to prevent some people from undermining the liberty of others by taking risks with the health and safety of others. Sometimes rules and regulations are there to advance and secure liberty.

This seems to be a difficult idea for many people to grasp firmly. I suspect this is because many people think of liberty in terms of getting to choose whatever they like instead of in Locke’s terms of self-ownership and non-domination. But political freedom is not the same thing as consumerism.

So, here’s another example we all get the point of. You are not free to run red lights, drive on the left side of the road, or go 90 MPH through the middle of town. The rules of the road we are all expected to follow don’t infringe on our liberty, they secure and enhance it. We are all more free to get where we want to go safely when everybody abides by traffic laws. Same idea with vaccine mandates.

If we, in the land of the free, could get a little clarity on how freedom works, I’d once again feel free to go to a bar, have a beer, and talk politics with someone who disagrees with me in at least marginally more reasonable ways.

Family debates about religion:

Sounds like an interesting family life. First off, the issue of whether there is or isn’t a God is not a subjective issue. Either God exists or God doesn’t exist, but either way, it doesn’t depend on how anyone feels or what anyone believes. That said, it’s an objective matter that nobody has settled entirely conclusively. It remains a live philosophical issue, at least in some corners, among some pretty thoughtful and well informed thinkers. 

The goal of persuading an atheist there is a God or persuading a believer there is none sounds pretty intrusive. It sounds a bit like trying to take charge of another’s mind and shape it to your own will. But you just can’t change another person’s mind for them. That sounds like trying to cancel a person’s autonomy or delete their free will. Being able to make up your own mind is part of what it is to have a mind. What you can do is present the reasons you find compelling. If they really are good reason and you are talking to a reasonable person, they may find those reasons compelling as well.

But bear in mind that people usually have their own reasons for believing what they believe and they probably find them compelling as well. People usually get stuck here because we are generally not as reasonable as we like to suppose. Chances are that your reasons and the other person’s reason are not equally good. But chances are also good that neither of you is well positioned to make that determination, at least in a way the other will find compelling. 

Now, there are other goals you can achieve in this conversation across differences of belief and these are quite worthy goals in themselves. In exploring each other’s reasons for believing different things, you come to understand each other better. And understanding is its own form of intimacy. It provides a foundation for mutual appreciation and caring. So your family members are doing good stuff if they are engaging in dialectic for the sake of better understanding of each other. Maybe not such good stuff if their goal is to make somebody change their mind.

Nothing Personal, it’s just Reasoning

When someone else offers you reasons to change your mind, you should be convinced by those reasons if they are good reasons. That’s not exactly the same thing is being convinced by the person. Nobody likes to be bullied or coerced and we often resist the reasoning others offer because of this. It can feel like a personal violation or an assault when we feel like some person is trying to change our minds.

However, we are now so much in the habit of personalizing ideas and reasons that we leave ourselves little room to consider ideas and reasons on their own merits. Framing everything in terms of “this person’s opinion” or “that person’s reasons” leaves no space for open minded critical thinking. Discourse across different ways of thinking comes to feel like a mine field of personal intrusions and attacks. I’m afraid this is now our national intellectual pandemic. We have become an unreasonable people, literally. We are not amenable to reasons because we’ve largely lost the ability to consider ideas and arguments on their own merits, independent of the willfulness of the people who offer them. When mere persuasion reigns, reasonableness dies.

Critical thinking Note: Are we Perpetrating Fraud against our students at BC?

Imagine a college that claimed to teach biology as a general education outcome. A very large number of course across campus taught by a a great many faculty claim to teach this gen ed outcome. And yet only a tiny handful of these faculty members had ever taken a college course in biology. This college would be committing fraud. Students would not be getting the education they paid for. This, roughly, is the situation BC in with respect to critical thinking.

One might object that is argument deploys a weak analogy since biology is a fairly specific and developed discipline that requires a good deal of expertise to teach competently while critical thinking is about cultivating much more general skills and traits. Critical thinking certainly is more general than biology in that it is deployed across all domains of inquiry. But critical thinking being more general and fundamental in this way falls far short of showing that teaching it effectively somehow requires less in the way of specific expertise. Consider the case of other general and fundamental subjects like writing and math. Yes we talk of teaching writing across the curriculum, but not the exclusion of dedicated writing courses taught be people who are well educated in writing pedagogy. Math is reinforced in many disciplines and even taught to some degree. Critical thinking courses, for instance, often cover the probability calculus, for instance. But then it would be madness to consider this an adequate substitute for dedicated instruction in math. What we do across disciplines is reinforce and build on the basic general skills taught in writing and math courses. Cultivating strong critical thinking skills requires the same sort of dedicated attention as writing and math.

Another objection I’ve heard several times at BC is that critical thinking just means different things to different people. If this were so, there would be no such thing as critical thinking. But people who actually teach critical thinking know full well that critical thinking is a thing. We have college level courses called critical thinking. They generally standard critical thinking texts. These do deploy a variety of approaches, but they are diverse approaches to mastering the same basic skills and cultivating the same intellectual traits. While “What does it mean to you?” might be a helpful and evocative question concerning how to interpret a poem, it is not so helpful to ask “What does it mean to you?” about algebra. Algebra is a thing. A person can understand what algebra is or fail to. Same goes for critical thinking.

So what ought we do to avoid committing fraud against our students in this manner. There are really only a few options. We could scrub all reference to critical thinking (and reasoning generally) from our gen ed language to avoid false advertising. Or, if we recognize the crucial value of teaching critical thinking we could make a point of training our faculty up to teaching it well and then developing a coherent shared infused critical thinking curriculum. One further option would be to back out of the infusion model by a few degrees and have a required critical thinking course which would entail hiring faculty that have the appropriate qualifications.

I think we have good reason to worry that our current practice around critical thinking is in fact fraudulent. Of course, as a critical thinker I am open, even eager, to entertain further objections to the argument at hand. I’d really rather not think I’m a party to perpetuating a fraud against our students.

Thank’s for you effort, Mr. Brooks

Opinion | How to Destroy Truth – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

But this is not what I’d hoped for. You exaggerate the gulf between fact and value here. The stories that animate our lives are mere propaganda when they are not based in fact. Critical thinking and propositional knowledge are relevant here. Critical thinking is also crucial to getting conceptual clarity about the values that animate us. Absent this, our values are hollow and easily co-opted by demagogues (witness the conflation of liberty with self indulgence on the right).

Would that we did emphasize critical thinking in our educational system. We don’t, we emphasize algebra. We do give lip service to critical thinking as an “infused outcome” across the curriculum. Imagine if we did this with math, or reasoning with numbers. We could have English teachers handle geometry and Sociologists comment on the factoring of polynomials (it’s divide and conquer, just like colonialism).

The result of our neglect of critical thinking beyond applications in math and the hard sciences is a population of people who think reasoning is irrelevant outside these realms. And now we know what politics looks like for such a miseducated population.

Getting Clear on Truth and Rationality

Let’s start with the modest metaphysical assumption that we all live on planet Earth. This means we have a shared reality. One that is populated with various and sundry objects (or better, containing stuff that can be divided in to objects in any number of ways). This is the realm of objects, or the objective world. As embodied creatures, we are among the objects populating the objective realm. But in addition to being objects we are also subjects. As subjects, we have some limited experience of the world. Our experience is the one thing we are directly aware of, so no additional assumptions are invoked here. But there is one further small metaphysical leap of faith in presuming that we have experience of our shared reality. We could all live on planet Earth and yet be irrevocably plugged in to virtual reality machines, lacking any experience of the reality we share. But let us take that additional leap as well and assume that we have limited and fallible experience of a shared reality. Absent this step, we can not hope to communicate, understand each other, or interact at all.

As subjects, our experience of the world is limited by our perspectives. Further our impressions and beliefs are liable to be distorted by biases and other intellectual bad habits. So, one thing we can all recognize about being subjects is that our impressions, beliefs and opinions are fallible. We are limited and imperfect in ways that make error quite possible. That’s just life as a subject, having subjective impressions and beliefs means being fallible. Fortunately, we can always expand the basis of evidence we reason from by sharing our impressions and beliefs with each other. And we can improve the reliability of our reasoning by cultivating the intellectual habits that steer us away from biased and distorted beliefs. This is the point of critical thinking.

To say our impressions and beliefs are subjective is not to say they are always biased, distorted or false. Belief is always in the subjective realm because beliefs belong to subjects. And this is all it means to say that belief is subjective. But our beliefs are representations of our shared reality and it remains possible for many of our beliefs to accurately reflect what is going on in the world of objects. That is, our subjective beliefs can be objectively true. All it is for a belief to be true is for it to represent some aspect of the objective world the way it is.

Note that we as subjects are part of the objective world. So, my beliefs about your beliefs are beliefs about an aspect of the objective world and they can be true or false, accurate or inaccurate. No subject can ever completely understand another simply because the nature of being a subject doesn’t allow for one person to fully occupy the mind of another. But we can share quite a bit of our subjectivity through human communication, at least if we are clear in our expression and charitable in our listening.

As subjects, it is generally good for us to have true beliefs and avoid false beliefs. When we have true beliefs, we are more capable of acting effectively, achieving goals, avoiding hazards, and generally having a good time. I suppose this is a value statement, but not the sort of value statements anyone is likely to dispute. This much of the value of having true beliefs comes along with being subjects who have needs and goals in a world full of objects (and subjects) than can be helpful or harmful to us. So, special cases aside, it’s good to have true beliefs.

For your beliefs to be rational, or reasonable, is just for them to be held on the basis of the best reasons. Good reasons are reasons that that are truth oriented. This much is just definitional. All it means for your belief to be rational or reasonable is for it to be oriented towards truth, or held for the most truth-oriented reasons. This much should make it clear why it is good to be rational. Being rational is more likely to get you true beliefs and true beliefs are good because they help you act effectively, achieve your goals, avoid hazards and such. To be reasonable, in the literal sense of the word, is to be amenable to reason. That is, the reasonable person is the person who forms or revises beliefs by yielding to the best reasons. To be a rational believer is pretty much the same thing.

[It’s worth noting that the words “rational” and “reasonable” can also refer to choosing or acting in ways that maximize your values and interests generally, not just towards true belief. Words are often ambiguous. The way to be comfortable with ambiguity is to get clear on how words are being used and track the various usages. Talk of rational or reasonable belief can reliably be understood as truth oriented simply because to believe something is to take it to be true].

Rationality is not a kind of human imposed authority over what is true or what we should believe. Rationality does not dictate such things. The only thing that is authoritative concerning what we should believe is how things are in our shared reality. To believe something is to take it to be true. To believe rationally is just to believe in a way that targets the truth well. To believe irrationally is a way of missing the target of belief. Rational belief isn’t guaranteed to hit the target of truth. But irrational belief involves a kind of unforced error.

What is true doesn’t belong to anyone. No subject gets to dictate or decide what is objectively the case, except in the very limited respect where a person decides what to do, how to understand things, and who to be. As a subject, I have this much power over our shared reality and no more. So there is no “my truth” or “your truth.” There is just the truth, which includes what we do, how we understand things, who we are, our willingness or reluctance to appreciate the truth, and whatever consequences follow from this.

We’ve made two assumptions here. Namely that we have a shared reality and that we each have limited and fallible experience of that reality. To this we’ve added a few definitional remarks about truth, rationality, reason, belief, subjectivity and objectivity. And we’ve reasoned a bit on the basis of these things. In the definitional remarks I’ve tried to lay out standard philosophical usage clearly and straightforwardly.

Confusions about truth, rationality, subjectivity and objectivity abound in our culture at the moment. Many will be tempted to object to what I’ve laid out here on the grounds that people are free to define these notions as they please. In a sense, people are free to do so. Nobody has the power to prevent it. But to insist on defining things as we like amounts to the privatization and commodification of language, with the primary result of undermining our capacity to communicate with one another and understand each other in the limited ways that are open to us. I am no fan of such hyper-individualism. We already have capitalism run amuck even without such linguistic intellectual property. While we could quibble about how to define truth and rationality, the only result of this would be to talk about something else instead. Something other than how we stand as subjects to each other and our shared reality.

The reason it is good to understand truth, rationality etc. in the manner I’ve laid out here is that it facilitates clearer communication and understanding of our diverse experiences and diverse ways of thinking. This allows us to cooperatively improve our ways of thinking and our limited grasp of the truth. And as a result of this, we are empowered to act more effectively, avoid hazards in our interactions, and appreciate each other more significantly.