Monday, September 14, 2009

The Rationality of Irrational Behavior

In the selection of Notes from the Underground that we read, Dostoevsky argues that man will act irrationally because in doing so he proves his own free will. He states that it is the most “advantageous advantage” for man to prove that he is not an organism that can be reduced to mere mathematics, that he is unpredictable and at times illogical. This argument makes a lot of sense to me: humans engage in illogical activities because in doing so they validate their freedom to choose and therefore not definable by an algorithm. A good example of this willingness to behave unpredictably merely to validate one’s own free will seems, to me, to be an activity such as skydiving. This has to be the pinnacle of crazy acts, flinging one’s self out of an airplane of your own accord in non-emergency situations and yet a large number of people do it every year. Despite all the danger people still choose to engage in such activities and it is the fact that they “choose” that is most important. The choice is what separates humans from every other organism and object, we can choose to be stupid, and we can choose to put our lives in danger for no good reason at all. People who skydive know that doing so is stupid, it is asinine in every possible way, yet still they do it because doing so proves they can choose even the most dangerous activity if they wish, there is no mathematical algorithm that binds their decisions stating that they will only choose the activity which results the best for them. It’s the ability to behave foolishly that proves freewill. There are numerous examples of irrational acts that people engage in everyday and it would be impossible to map the infinite possibilities of the way in which people act to a simple algorithm as due to mans ability to choose it is impossible to accurately guess how every individual would react. My one problem with his argument is if acting irrationally proves we have free will and we desire free will such that it is in our best interest to prove we have free will, would it not follow that it is rational to try and prove our freewill and therefore it is rational to behave irrationally. I feel I could be wrong about this it just seems that his argument makes irrationality rational.


  1. DKC, I really like the objection you pose at the end of your post. I'd like to pose a possible retort on the behalf of Dostoevsky. First, note the way in which you use the idea of "best interest." For Dostoevsky, I think best interest means that which produces the most utility for the individual. Feel free to take issue with me here- I think ultimately that what we must realize is that the term "advantage" as Dostoevsky uses it, in the negative sense at least, has been constructed by society to govern behaviour and what is morally permissable and praiseworthy. To continue, if we keep this idea of "best interest" in mind, I argue that in as much as Dostoevsky attacks the maximization of advantage in the way society has constructed it, the "advantages" of proving one's own ability to be completely individual in no way fits into this construction. Instead, the greatest advantage, if you will, of behaving in a completely free manner can neither be understood nor judged upon by society because it belongs soley and wholly to the individual.

    So, in sum, I would say be careful how you term proving one's free will as "advantageous," because it is not advantageous in the same way that society would percieve it. In fact, society cannot and need not perceive this "advantage", because it pertains only to the individual.

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  3. I think the main objection of this post to Dostoevsky’s claim about irrationality is excellent. It is very true that people do choose to do things such as skydiving ( as stated) that can be considered irrational especially when its voluntary. However, I think that it is human character to exercise freewill. Exercising freewill is not necessarily the determinant of which freewill is irrational; however, the intent behind the action that exercises freewill can make something irrational. The intent of a person who skydives is to voluntarily enjoy a dangerous risk causing it to be irrational. If the intent behind the action is irrational then the action itself can become irrational. Therefore, as claimed by DKC because it is said that people do exercise freewill, it implies the rationality of irrationality;irrationality itself can not be considered rational simply on the basis that society partakes in it or that it is " in our best interest"- the intent behind the irrational actions is a way of determining whether a particular exercise of our freewill is irrational or not.


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