what are reasons for? -- 8/22/17

Today's selection -- from The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Psychologists have known for some time that people generally make decisions or take actions intuitively, and then construct reasons after the fact. But what is the purpose of constructing these reasons?:

"Contrary to the commonsense picture, much experimental evidence suggests that people quite often arrive at their beliefs and decisions with little or no attention to reasons. Reasons are used primarily not to guide oneself but to justify oneself in the eyes of others, and to evaluate the justifications of others (often critically). When we do produce reasons for guidance, most of the time it is to guide others rather than ourselves. While we would like others to be guided by the reasons we give them, we tend to think that we ourselves are best guided by our own intuitions (which are based, we are sure, on good reasons, even if we cannot spell them out).

"Whether or not it would be better to be guided by reasons, the fact is that in order to believe or decide something, we do not need to pay any attention to reasons. Purely intuitive inference, which generates so many of our beliefs and decisions, operates in a way that is opaque to us. You look at your friend Molly and somehow intuit that she is upset. What are your reasons for this intuition? Or you check what films are playing tonight at the Odeon: Star Wars 12 and Superman 8. You decide to go and see Superman 8. What are your reasons for this choice? If asked, sure, you would produce reasons, but the fact is that at the moment of intuiting that Molly was upset or of choosing Superman 8, you were not consciously entertaining, let alone pondering, rea­sons. The opinion and the choice came to you intuitively. ...

"If, as we suggest, the point of reasons isn't to guide the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions, then what are reasons for?

"Whatever humans do is likely to contribute for better or worse to the way they are seen by others -- in other words, to their reputation. These indirect reputational effects may turn out to be no less important than the direct goal of their action, whatever it is. Socially competent people are hardly ever indifferent to the way their behavior might be interpreted. By explaining and justifying themselves, people may defend or even improve their own reputa­tion. By failing to do so, they may jeopardize it.

"Thinking about good reasons for their actions is something that people often do proactively, anticipating that they may be called upon to explain or justify themselves. The minute you have engaged in a course of action that may have reputational costs -- and sometimes even before, when you are merely considering it -- a different mental mechanism may start working. Its function is to manage your reputation and for this, to provide an explanation that will justify your behavior. ...

"The reputation management mechanism acts like a lawyer defending you, whatever you have done. Still, given the opportunity, a lawyer may advise a regular client against a course of action that would be hard or impossible to defend. What happens when the reputational mechanism cannot come up with a good narrative? Then the course of action considered (and possibly already undertaken) turns out to have costs that weren't initially taken into account in the decision process. In such a case, the failure of the reputational mechanism to produce an adequate narrative may have a feedback effect and cause the initial decision to be rescinded, or at least revised. ...

"There is some fascinating experimental evidence that the search for rea­sons aimed at justification may, in fact, influence action. Still, living up to the story you want to be able to tell about your­self isn't quite the same thing as telling a true story. ...

"When we give reasons for our actions, we not only justify ourselves, we also commit ourselves. In the first place, by invoking reasons, we take personal responsibility for our opinions and actions as described by us, that is, as atti­tudes and behavior that we had reasons to adopt. We thereby indicate that we expect others to either accept that we are entitled to think what we think and do what we do or be ready to challenge our reasons. When what we thought or did is unlikely to be approved, by giving reasons, we may indicate a line or defense: we had, if not good reasons, at least reasons that seemed good at the time. A defense based on reasons typically allows us to accept respon­sibility while denying guilt.

"By giving reasons, we also commit ourselves to a future line of thought and conduct. Invoking reasons as motivations of one's past views and ac­tions expresses a recognition of the normative aptness of these reasons and a commitment to being guided by similar reasons in the future. For our audi­ence, this commitment to accepting responsibility and to being guided in the future by the type of reasons we invoked to explain the past is much more relevant than the accuracy of our would-be introspections. This is why we all pay attention to the reasons of others and why we produce our own.

"To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of norma­tivity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals' ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments."

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Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber


The Enigma of Reason


Harvard University Press


Copyright 2017 Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber


113-114, 123-127
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