Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Paradox of Prudence

The paradox of prudence is about the relation of the rational to the prudential. They are not the same and this is what I will discuss here.

The concept of prudence is in one sense quite simple but in another somewhat ambiguous. The simple sense just differentiates between fulfilling one's immediate desires versus the affect such fulfilment has on all one's desires, immediate or not. The ambiguous element is the question as to whether one's future desires, ones that one does not have yet but could be reasonably expected to have, should be incorporated into such a prudential evaluation. This ambiguity is not substantive in the following argument and will be not examined in more detail.

Prudence is also an application of means-end or instrumental rationality, where the ends are not rationally determined but the means to bring about such ends are. So given the complete set of interests of an agent, the agent can rationally decide the best means to bring about these ends. Some of the means that could bring about some end, might prevent other ends being fulfilled. So the reasoning is not just over a particular end but all ends and must deal with conflicting means, and this can still be done rationally. Whether finding the best means to an end, or the collective set of means for all ends, this is expected to require that one identifies mistaken and fallacious beliefs. The difference between finding the means to one end and the collective means to all ends is not substantive to the argument being developed here.

So prudence as means-end rationality implies there a reason to eliminate false beliefs, after all it is not rational to hold onto false beliefs? However there there are at least three reasons to seek to eliminate incorrect beliefs.

If the end is theoretically or logically unfulfillable but an incorrect belief misleads one into thinking it is, it would be prudential to eliminate this false belief and recognise the futility of pursuing this desire.

If an end is fulfillable, is it practically fulfillable, that is someone can fulfil it but can this specific agent? They may have all sorts of incorrect beliefs that lead them to think that they can, when they cannot. They would prudentially benefit from eliminating or correcting those beliefs too.

Finally, does the agent have the correct beliefs to determine the means to fulfil the end? If they have incorrect beliefs, they may determine means that fail to deliver a practically fulfillable end. Again the agent has a prudential incentive to seek correct beliefs to maximise the chance of bringing about the desired ends.

All these point to the idea that it is in the agent's prudential interest to be rational over determining his ends and against his prudential interests to be irrational - that is keep incorrect or fallacious beliefs. Does this make rational and prudential synonymous? It is often assumed so but this is what I am questioning here.

There are three places where irrationality can enter in such prudential processes. The first two are unproblematic under most typical conceptions of prudential but are indicative that rational cannot just be a synonym of prudential. The third place is where the paradox is generated.

First of all, one can fail to reason rationally in determining the means to bring about the desired end, as noted above, whether over an end being fulfillable at all, practically fulfillable or choosing mistaken means to fulfil it. That is the prudential evaluation can be irrational. For example a smoker might deny that prudential reasons to stop smoking apply to them, saying that it is not an addiction, they can stop any time, they won't smoke long enough or don't smoke regularly enough to produce any long term detrimental health effects and so on.

Secondly, one could have prudential reasons to act in a certain way, without (or even with the irrationality just noted) and fail to do so. The above smoker could come to recognise the prudential reasons to stop smoking and that they aware of previously being irrational in denying those reasons. However they may imprudently continue to smoke, one could say that they irrationally continue to smoke given they know it is not in their prudential interest. They could say that are going to stop and fail. This is akrasia - weakness of will. Still are they being irrational when they are being akrasic, as is a smoker who wants to stop for good prudential reasons? If one holds that one cannot reason a desire into non-existence, the rational recognition that the desire needs to go will unlikely not succeed in eliminating it. Other practices and process might have to be employed. It would be irrational not to attempt and employ those practices, whatever they are but then again, an agent only does what they desire and if they lack of a desire to stop, regardless of how rational it is (to stop) then they might lack to the desire to bring about practices to help extinguish this (prudentially) problematic desire.

Anyway these are two senses of relating the rational to prudence so far. The first is whether the prudential evaluation was done rationally or not. I slipped in the above paragraph "good prudential reason" and it is in that sense that a prudential reason is good or bad, due to a rational or irrational evaluation respectively. The second is akrasia, that is a prudential reason (whether good or bad in the first sense of rational, for that matter) that the agent has resolved to pursue, fails to do so.

These seem to be different applications of rational to the prudential process, the determination of reasons versus the execution of those reasons. However both seem to presume the benefit of correct over false beliefs. It is rational to find good prudential reasons and it is rational to behave according to them.

Here is the problem. Recall in my last post my friend who was a homoeopath who gave up her career when she slowly learnt about invalid and unsound grounds of homoeopathy? I argued that it was not in her prudential interest to pursue the truth but she did, whilst many others do not. I want to explore the latter now.

Let us continue in alternative medicine specifically any practice which is bogus (chose you own preferred one). Granted someone sincerely choosing a career in that field and earning a living with a decent practice, with colleagues, peers, friends, and family with all the financial responsibilities that involves. Is it in their prudential interest to eliminate all false beliefs to establish the means to their ends? Well, if doing so involves learning that one has been self-deluded and there is no basis to their practice and they are deluding their patients, what are they to do? Give up their career and re-train? Can they afford to do so with all the responsibilities they have?

Well it depends on their ends. If their ends are to have a career that they, and others, think help others; to have respect and status amongst their colleagues and peers; a sufficient and secure income to provide for themselves and their family and what they are currently doing gives them all this, where is it prudent for them to eliminate these false beliefs - upon which all these prudential benefits are already occurring? Surely, for their prudence they would be incentivised not to discover their own self-delusions - the false beliefs upon which their career has been, successfully, predicated. To protect themselves from even recognising this unadmitted self-delusion. To surround themselves with others who do the same thing. To select arguments in support of their position, so that they can sincerely continue to believe in what they are doing.

In other words would it not be prudent for them to be irrational in believing the foundations of their alternative medical practice are true, to keep rather than reject incorrect beliefs? Of course, at the same time they will have (fallaciously) convinced themselves of the rationality of their beliefs and so could quite sincerely claim that they are employing the most rational means to bring about their ends. For them , unable to admit it as they do, it is prudent to be somewhat irrational.

This does not apply only to alternative medicine practitioners but to a wide variety of people, whether in the public eye or not, indeed across a wide range of professions - finance and banking immediately springs to mind with politics as a close second but anything from law to religion can incorporate this point. For many people for much of the time, it is quite prudent to be somewhat irrational, certainly with regard to facing their self-delusions.

The paradox is generated by asserting that prudence is synonymous with rational. So if someone has rational prudential reasons to do what they do and they are not akrasic, it would be irrational to expect them to behave otherwise. The paradox is semantic, not actual, as there is nothing wrong with further asking are they rational justified too? That is are the beliefs upon which they are acting true? Very often they might not be as it is in their prudential interest for them not to be. This seems a simple point but because so many appear to make this fallacious identification I needed to explore all the likely relations of the rational to prudential to make this clear.

Another way of stating this is that asking for a rational justification is about theoretical rationality and asking for a prudential justification is about practical rationality. Practical rationality can justify theoretical irrationality and override theoretical rationality.

A line of ethical thinking shared by many desire-based theories is that of idealised prudential reasoning, that anyone who genuinely does eliminate all false beliefs is fully and perfectly informed and will, therefore for example, not pursue professions based on such shaky foundations as indicated above. If we were were able to perform this idealised analysis, I suspect that unemployment would dramatically increase, if not because of the practitioners stopping believing in their practice, business or church but their clients, customers or congregants would! This and related issues are to be explored another time but I just wanted to ague for this apparent paradox here.

You can always identify when someone is generating this paradox when you ask that person, in response to a claim that someone is prudentially justified but are they rationally justified? The person generating the paradox will think it is the same question and as the above shows they are not. It is a form of equivocation over rational but the above should flesh out why. And this post has not addressed the question of moral justification and how this relates to prudential and rational justification, that is for another time. (This post was triggered in response to a debate I had a few weeks ago with a commenter on Alonzo Fyfe's blog where I could not make clear this distinction - however I cannot remember the post now) .