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E. Practical Rationality Initially Characterized

Turn now to the main premise. First, I don’t know precisely how to state the second part, the part about ‘rationality all things considered’, but while this is mildly annoying, it isn’t really serious, because I intend to comment only on the first part. How exactly are we to understand this proposition, and what is the sense of ‘rational’ in which it is prima facie rational to engage in a socially established doxastic practice? As to the second, we are talking about the rationality or lack thereof of taking a course of action, of doing something or other, of acting in a certain way. (That is why we’re talking practical rationality.) Whether an action is rational for me will obviously have something to do with what it is I am aiming at in taking that action, what I am trying to accomplish, what my purpose, end, goal is. So the kind of rationality at issue is that means-ends rationality, that Zweckrationalität we came across above (p. 115). The rational action, for me, is the one that will contribute to the realization of my goal, or contribute more to it than any other action open to me. But is it the action that will in fact contribute to my goal that is rational for me, or the one I believe will so contribute? Presumably the second: I am not irrational, in taking a given line of action, if I make a perfectly sensible mistake about what the best means to my end is.136136   As we saw above in footnote 10, there are important distinctions within this category. If I am thirsty and what I want is a drink of water, it will be rational for me to open the faucet and hold a glass under it; I believe that is a fine way to get a glass of water. It would be irrational for me, under these circumstances, to go (instead) for a walk in the desert; I know that water is hard to find in the desert. On the other hand, if I believed that the faucet isn’t connected to any source of water, then the action of opening the faucet wouldn’t be a rational way for me to get a drink; and if I believed the nearest water is in the Sonoran Desert just outside Tucson, the action of going for a walk in the desert would be rational.

Now the case under consideration, of course, is the case of those doxastic practices; we are to ask whether it is rational to form beliefs by engaging in SP, CMP, or both. Here our relevant aim or goal, says Alston, is that of getting in the right relation to the truth, achieving some appropriate balance between avoiding error and believing truth. And now the question for us is whether a rational way to try to achieve that goal is to form beliefs as we always have, by employing SP, CMP, or both. Of course, this question has about it a certain air of unreality. It is up to me whether I open the faucet to get a drink of water, but it isn’t really up to me whether I will form beliefs in accord with SP. I don’t have any choice in the matter. And that means that the question of the practical rationality of continuing in SP is a little peculiar. I might as well ask whether it is rational for me to continue to be such that the earth attracts my body with a force that is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between us: this really isn’t up to me. The same goes with respect to my 122major ways of forming belief: it isn’t up to me whether I form beliefs in those ways. I can try as hard as I like, but (apart from such draconian measures as mind-altering drugs) I doubt that I could seriously alter my basic belief-forming proclivities. Offer me a million dollars to believe that I live in Wyoming or that I am really the president of the United States: I can strain my utmost, but I won’t be able to collect.137137   Well, perhaps I do have a bit more control over my belief-forming proclivities than over whether my body is attracted by the earth. The fact is there are rather standard ways in which I can influence, mold, or form my belief-producing tendencies.

Alston is perfectly well aware of the problem here, and what he suggests is that the interesting question is whether it would be rational to continue to engage in the practice in question if it were within my power to continue and within my power to refrain (168). The question is what it would be rational for me to do, if I were in a certain position: a position in which one of the things I believe, and believe truly, is that it is within my power to continue to form beliefs in the ways I have (by using the standard package and CMP), and also within my power to refrain from forming beliefs in those ways—either forming no beliefs at all of those sorts, or perhaps using some quite different belief-forming practice.


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