What is Reasonable?
The purpose of this blog is its title – The Reasonable Man. In one of our earliest posts, we talked about what ‘reasonableness’ meant. George Bernard Shaw was convinced that all progress depends on the unreasonable man. We begged to differ then, and we still do.
Our post concluded:
What we now must master as humans, is how to live together better than humanity has been able to so far. Managing this better would be real progress. To achieve it, we need many more reasonable people.
Reasonable is old-fashioned
Aeon recently published an article by Francisco Mejia Uribe (an economist in Hong Kong) who offers a modern interpretation of a reasonable man. In references to John Rawl’s Political Liberalism, he highlights what advocates of liberal democracy deem to be essential characteristics of the Reasonable Man:
“Liberal citizens are supposed to exhibit two main characteristics:
- They propose terms of social cooperation that others might also endorse – meaning that they have to refrain from peddling policies that they know full well are couched in principled philosophical or religious beliefs that others disagree with.
- They have to recognise what Rawls called ‘the burdens of judgement’ – the fact that other citizens can arrive at different beliefs in their honest search for truth.”
Reasonable persons will think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable, though different from their own.
Uribe argues that this has become old-fashioned and out of date in the Internet era. “Your pleading for reasonableness would be drowned in a Twitter-storm,” he warns.
Instead, the pressing need to engage in logical argumentation, and to offer reasons to support our commitments, should regain their centrality as the hallmarks of what it means to be reasonable.
Today we need to be more than just reasonable – we need to be ‘hyper-responsible’. A reasonable, hyper-responsible, citizen is one who is aware that, in a digitally interconnected society, we have the moral obligation to believe only what we have diligently investigated. Having thoroughly investigated our beliefs, we can then argue convincingly with others who may not have been so diligent.
This is patronising and simplistic.
Geography, culture, education, and the media all affect what others consider to be ‘reasonable’. Standards are not universal. Yet local norms are available today to us all in many forms most of which allow few opportunities for rational debate. What is worse, for example, than confining the space for debate within 280 characters, leaving no room for nuance? One could argue that Twitter has done more harm to world peace than any government or politician.
The Need for Scepticism
Consider next Nicholas Tampio’s points about the need for scepticism today. He is professor of political science at Fordham University in New York. “As I write, politicians and academics are pressuring social media companies to censor posts about fake news and conspiracy theories and to make individuals subject to responsibility for the abuses of free speech. What is the problem with requiring social media companies to permit posts only based on facts or to reign in the abuses of free speech?”
This rigour and care to verify facts, and thus form ‘reasonable’ opinions, encounters yet another potential obstacle – behavioural science.
What is Fact?
The Guardian newspaper expressed concern two years ago about the Conservative Government’s use of behavioural science to influence public opinion. “The UK government’s strategy is influenced by nudge theory…. “Nudging” uses insights about our mental processes to change our behaviour through coaxing and positive assertion. Rather than forcing us to do things, nudging tweaks the environments in which we make choices – for example by requiring people to opt out of organ donation, rather than opting in.”
Indeed, in a paper produced by the Institute for Government in 2018, the authors confirm that: “Governments are increasingly using behavioural insights to design, enhance and reassess their policies and services. Applying these insights means governments adopt a more realistic view of human behaviour than they have done in the past – and may achieve better outcomes as a result.”
The paper is detailed and scholarly. Its purpose is to improve the way governments decide on and introduce policies. In just one example, a study randomly assigned parents of students to three different ways of signing up for an education-focused text message support system:
- Standard. Parents were sent a text message saying that they could adopt the technology by enrolling on a website (standard practice).
- Simplified. Parents were told by text message that they could sign up just by replying ‘Start’.
- Automatically enrolled. Parents were told by text message that they could opt out of the service by replying ‘Stop’.
There was an strong positive response to automatic enrolment: signup rates were 1% for the Standard group, 8% for the Simplified group, and 96% for the Automatic Enrolment group. Experts asked to predict the outcome thought the response rate would be more evenly balanced.
Our view on this study is that the decision makers overestimated how engaged the parents would be and failed to see how they might not want to expend even a small amount of effort to sign up.
The writers of this paper suggest that, had the experts paid more attention to behavioural science, they would have presented their choices differently and thus have been more successful.
Some might call this good, old-fashioned, PR – get what you want by presenting it in the right way. But there is a more sinister way to view it. In George Orwell’s famous and fearsome novel, ‘1984’, the principal character, Winston, undergoes appalling, non-destructive, pain at the hands of his ‘educator’ to reform his way of thinking. “When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will.” Winston’s beliefs and values must truly become those of the Party and ‘Big Brother’.
‘1984’ has become the bible for anarchists, freedom-fighters, conspiracy theorists – and for good reason. As with everything humans create, behavioural science can be a force for good or for evil. Governments may achieve their objectives more easily by paying attention to behavioural science; but what if those objectives are not in the best interests of society? And what if we do not trust our government?
As Nicholas Tampio (above) asks: “What if the fake news is right? There are plenty of instances when people scoffed at an idea that was later widely adopted. Perhaps the piece of evidence to support the conspiracy theory has not yet come to light.”
What To Do?
Reasonable people consider all the evidence. They accept that things are not always as they seem. ‘The sun rises.’ It does not. ‘Grass is green’ – not at night. ‘Killing people is wrong’ – not if you are in the military, a public executioner, or a provider of euthanasia.
Yet we all have more to do than always agonising about what to believe. Being ‘hyper-responsible’ or determinedly sceptical will make us unhappy with the world and with ourselves. Life need not be that complicated.
Being ‘reasonable’ remains both desirable and possible. And it is not so hard. My son, a senior HR executive in a famous global company, puts it like this: “Just don’t be a d*ckhead – and you’ll be fine!”
That sums up neatly what it is to be reasonable!
Worked on the article: