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According to the American Heritage Dictionary, one definition of the word "rationalize" is "To devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for one's behavior." This is something we should be concerned about here, since it relates to false beliefs we may have. I would like to extend this to include incorrect reasons which others give in order to make their behavior more acceptable to us (not necessarily themselves) - in other words, excuses.

Rationalizing to others

It is very common to use rationalizations to try to convince others that one's motives are good. I sometimes see hot air hand dryers in rest rooms with the printed message that they are installed "for your convenience." Frankly I doubt this is the real reason for their use, as I personally have never found them at all convenient. More likely the reason they were installed is that they avoid costs of paper towels or some other alternative as well as the labor cost of having towel dispensers refilled.

Politicians constantly use rationalizations. My observation is that their actions are almost always designed to further their own political careers, usually by catering to special interests, but they will always claim they are acting for noble purposes such as the overall public good. The politician who votes for the big new weapons system will tell the public this is crucial to our defense, but the real reason might be that a big company in his district will be making a lot of money from the contract. The politician who votes for the new labor regulation will tell us it essential for fair pay, but the real reason might be she gets campaign contributions from unions that benefit from the law. We should always be careful about taking political claims at face value. Rationalization is more likely to be the rule than the exception in politics.

In Pennsylvania around 1980 there were laws requiring motor vehicle inspection twice a year. Service stations were licensed to inspect cars for a variety of defects and, if the car failed, they would normally repair the problem (in theory, you could take it somewhere else to be fixed, but this was a lot of extra trouble). Typically costs would be more than a hundred dollars. Of course, service stations made a lot of money because of the inspection law. The legislators who supported this law said that it was intended to make driving safer in Pennsylvania, but due to voter unhappiness and a study that showed states with inspection laws had accident records just as bad as those without, they eventually voted to reduce the inspections to once a year. It seems almost certain that a big factor in politicians minds, both for passing the original law and for not eliminating inspections altogether, was strong lobbying by the service stations. The concern about safety was a rationalization for the benefit of voters.

Self-satisfying rationalizations

An example of a self-satisfying rationalization might be the parent who pushes his daughter to get top grades in school so she can get into a prestigious college. He may tell us he's doing it for her own good, but it may actually be that he is concerned with his own social status that results from having a child who appears to others to be important.

Another case might be the worker who complains that she didn't get a promotion because her boss was jealous of her talent and was afraid that she might overtake him in the company hierarchy.  While this is a possibility, we have also be aware that her ego might have caused her to accept this self-satisfying explanation to the one that the boss actually thought somebody else would be better for the position.

Understanding our own motivations can be difficult

While commercially or politically motivated rationalizations are often conscious deceptions, a person making a self-satisfying rationalization is likely to think it is accurate. Although our behavior is almost always directed at achieving our goals (the real reasons for our behavior), there doesn't seem to be any automatic brain mechanism that tells us exactly what these goals are. When asked why we do something, we typically deduce the reason from an analysis of the situation, and if there are several possible explanations, we will choose the one that is most flattering to ourselves. When pushing the child to get into the prestige college, both the "good of the child" and the "my social status" explanations are plausible, but the "good of the child" explanation is the one the father would like to believe.

Debating rationalized beliefs

Rationalizations are typically applied to actions, but they can also be given for beliefs. This is important to recognize for those of us trying to avoid false beliefs. The better we are at understanding our own reasons for believing things, the better we will be able to correct the beliefs if they are wrong. Part of the reason arguing with other people can be so frustrating and unproductive is that both sides are likely to promoting their view with arguments that are unrelated to their real reasons for believing what they do. Even if their rationalization is effectively shown to be false, that won't affect their opinion because the rationalization wasn't really the reason they held that opinion.

Arguing about religious beliefs is notoriously frustrating, and one of the reasons may be that people rationalize their reasons for beliefs, and the arguments are about the rationalizations. Some time ago I had a debate with a couple of people about whether causing the great biblical flood should be considered a bad action by God. My position was that the flood was probably a myth, since a good god would not perform a bad action. Their position was that the action was not necessarily bad. We wasted a fair amount of time debating the issue. The problem was that my reason for doubting the flood had little to do with whether it was a bad action by God, and their reason for believing it had little to do with whether the action was good. As a result, neither of us had much chance at changing the other's minds because we weren't debating about our real reasons for believing. My lack of belief came mainly from the fact that I did not have confidence that the people who wrote the bible were necessarily accurate, while their reason for belief was most likely that they did have such confidence. While it would still be a difficult debate, the chances of making progress would have been greater if we had addressed those underlying issues.

Other religious debates have similar difficulties. Sometimes I will hear arguments that someone's holy scriptures contain some information that could not have been obtained except by miraculous means, such as a correct prophesy of some knowledge of astronomy or biology not available to the ancient people who did the writing. Again it is not very likely that these people chose the religion they did because of these particular passages. Given that the vast majority of people adopt the religion of their family or culture, it seems far more likely that they believe it because they have been convinced of it by those around them. The discussion of miracles is likely to be a rationalization of their reasons for believing which distracts from getting at the real reasons.

Political arguments can also be about rationalizations for beliefs. Often people of one political party spend a lot of time complaining about moral defects in the other party's politicians. They seem to be arguing that their party is the right one because most of the lying and corruption is done by members of the opposing party. Again it is unlikely that some difference in corruption level is the real difference for most people's partisan choices (in my view it is far too high in all parties). Like religion it may be that they get one side of the story from the people around them, or it might be that there are a few key emotional issues that make one side more appealing. Debating character issues of politicians can distract people from considering the real reasons they favor one political philosophy over another.

Thinking responsibly about rationalization

To summarize, rationalization presents several problems. One is believing our own rationalizations. It is difficult to be sure of our own reasons for things, but if we are to avoid fooling ourselves, we should recognize that sometimes our motivations aren't as noble as we tell ourselves. We should also be careful when listening to other people's explanations for what they do. Intentional or not, there might be important reasons other than the ones they tell us. Finally, if we are debating some issue, we have better hope of making progress if we make a serious attempt to figure out the underlying reasons that our opinions differ from those on the other side. We should debate the real issues, not rationalizations.