Paul Sunstone of Café Philos recently posted a balanced inquiry into the influence that religion has upon behaviour. Paul begins with an anecdote about a Texas businessman who becomes bankrupt. The “Texas man” is accused by his business partners of behaving irrationally after being born again and relieving himself of the debt on religious grounds. The equivocation made here between irrational behaviour and unacceptable behaviour should disturb academics and ethical theorists alike. It may also give those who seek to rescue the term “elitist” some food for thought.
The view I am challenging (which Paul does not endorse) holds that “it almost seems his religion encouraged an irrational response”. That claim surely assumes, in the given case, that the failure to pay a debt is an irrational response to bankruptcy. I think it would be more accurate to accuse the man of an immoral response, or even an unsociable response, where that response is defined as his complete failure to make an attempt at repayment. A reprehensible act it may be, but it is not necessarily an irrational act.
Furthermore, it would be inaccurate to suggest that a person who is influenced by religion is irrational. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whether or not we agree with their views, present a couple of obvious exemplars. Here we see two people who are clearly influenced by religion. A denial is no less or more rational than an affirmation.
I see two immediate problems with labelling opposing views and behaviours as irrational.
First, if a person is irrational, they can’t be held any more responsible for their actions than a pet which fails to contribute to its veterinary bills.
Second, those who seek to discover and express their knowledge will continue to struggle against those who seek to impose morality and utility upon our reasoned judgments. For instance, Hillary Clinton might find it perfectly reasonable to dismiss “elite opinion [because it] is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the majority of Americans”. This latter quote disturbs me the most, since it seems to reflect an attitude that is gaining strength among a large proportion of society.
An act is not irrational just because it causes a disadvantage. Yet there seems to be a hidden assumption to the contrary. That may well be the weapon that empowers the anti-elitist.