[OPE-L] The role of irrational beliefs

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Apr 17 2006 - 06:45:25 EDT

I think it is characteristic of ideological justification that it presents a
sectional interest as being in the common interest of all or vice versa,
which implies that ideology tries e.g.

- to persuade people that something is in their self-interest when in
reality it isn't, or at any rate not to the same extent as common interests
- or that the common interest is more important than the sectional interests
or self-interest.
- or that the common interest and sectional interests are really identical,

So if you define rational action in terms of the conscious pursuit of
self-interest, social existence in a society structured by generalised
competition typically does involve an irrational element - to the extent
that people are persuaded to act in ways that are not in their
self-interest, or not in the real common interest. Inversely, if rational
action is defined as action which consciously serves the common interest
best, self-interested action may appear as irrational also.

Adam Smith's famous "hidden hand" metaphor is a good example of this - the
argument being that if all pursue their own self-interest, the result is the
greater good of all. This might be called a principle of "market

In society you have both cooperation (voluntary and coerced) and competition
(also voluntary and coerced), which creates all sorts of contradictions and
conflicts with respect to human interests and aspirations, as well as
ideological rationalisations which invent conflicts which are not really
there, or denies that real conflicts exist. All of this typically involves
justifications which try to turn the irrational into the rational, and vice

But the underlying problem I think is really - as the reference to
"interests" already suggests - that notions of rationality are inescapably
linked to notions of moral behaviour, i.e. views of what is rational and
irrational are linked to views of what is morally correct and incorrect. In
a rational Kantian-type morality, a moral rule should apply to everyone
alike, in the same morally relevant circumstances, but if human
circumstances in reality differ a great deal in systematic ways, a universal
rationality isn't really feasible in practice, or at any rate, the debate
about what "the same morally relevant circumstances" are becomes

The example I cited of most Americans believing that Iran would equip
terrorists with nuclear weapons to attack the USA also suggests that the
knowledge or information required for a rational judgement may be lacking,
quite apart from conscious deception. Ideological beliefs then fill the gap.

So yes, I would say an irrational element necessarily does enter into social
life on those sorts of grounds alone.


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