Thursday, February 2, 2023

Thinking Rationally versus Thinking Politically



Thinking Rationally v. Thinking Politically

Peter Schultz


            The rational approach to politics, so taken for granted these days, sees “problems” and seeks “solutions.” These solutions are, allegedly, based on facts, which are in the possession of those called “experts.” This is what thinking and acting rationally entails. Institutionally, it leads to the creation of bureaucracies composed, of course, of bureaucrats, whose rule or governance is legitimated by their expertise.


            Such an arrangement is seen as an alternative, a superior alternative, to thinking politically. These experts see different options and seek the “optimal” solution, i.e., they seek the most rational solution. Often or even always, politics makes such optimal solutions unachievable.


            On the other hand, when thinking politically, humans see problems or issues, but they don’t seek the optimal or most rational resolution. Rather, they think in political terms, i.e., in terms of different kinds of resolutions such as aristocratic, oligarchic, democratic, or even despotic or tyrannical. Like those who think rationally, the political thinkers recognize that any resolution will have advantages and disadvantages, will be both just and unjust. But because these are political issues, rather than being resolved by experts or bureaucrats, they will be resolved by politicians and/or citizens. This is the reason for respecting “the consent of the governed” as the basis of rule or governance. Politics or consent trumps rationality.


            Thinking politically reminds us that the political arena is the arena where human desires, human passions are acted upon, are enacted, as it were. Thinking politically reminds us that a decent political order requires that our desires, our passions be “educated,” refined, or tamed, whereas thinking rationally ignores such an agenda, replacing it with seeking to create experts or those distinguished by their technical expertise. Educating or training people to think rationally leaves the human passions unaddressed, untamed, including of course greed and spiritedness or aggressiveness.


            So, it should not be surprising that a rational society, a society ruled or governed by experts, would be characterized by greed and violence. This was, interestingly enough, why Ben Franklin argued at the constitutional convention in 1787 that the presidency should be an unsalaried office. For Franklin, such an office if salaried would appeal to the avaricious and the ambitious, leading to a violent or unpeaceful political order. For Franklin, creating an office that appealed to the avaricious and the ambitious was the political equivalent of nitro glycerin. It was an explosive combination. Some, even many perhaps, today might think that Franklin had hit the nail on the head.


            Moreover, we need not imagine, because we have seen that rational human beings, e.g., Robert McNamara, are capable of savagery, even great savagery. By his own admission, McNamara was guilty of committing war crimes, at least during World War II. Apparently thinking rationally provides no protection against acting savagely, against undertaking the greatest conceivable acts of death and destruction, e.g., in the creation and possession of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons and their use are rational, just as fire-bombing civilians in cities or incinerating children collaterally is rational. Thinking politically, however, confronts this possibility head on. It is not that those who think politically are incapable of savagery; far from it. But such savagery may be seen for what it is, inhuman imperialism, and thereby opposed. Such opposition is undermined when rationality is the standard by which we judge our actions, because those opposed to such rational activities are easily portrayed as “irrational,” as “ideologues,’ or as “idealists.” The very possibility of dissent, a mainstay of political life, appears illegitimate in rationally organized societies. Orwell labeled it 1984.


            But given our great power, it behooves us in the United States to recover and nurture the capacity for thinking politically because it is our only protection against acting savagely. And as we should know: The road to hell is paved with rational intentions.


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