Have you the means?
Julian Baggini finally explains rationalism
New Humanist is published by something called the Rationalist Association. But what is a rationalist? Are you a rationalist? Try our simple multiple-choice test to find out!
What do you think about the proposal that we should be forced to save towards second, private pensions, to supplement our state pensions?
(A) Outrageous! The government should not force us to act in our own best interests but leave us free to make autonomous decisions about how to live our lives, with all the risks that involves. So if some people don't save and end up old and poor, that's their lookout.
(B) Outrageous! The government should not force us to act in our own best interests but leave us free to make autonomous decisions about how to live our lives, with all the risks that involves. But if some people don't save and end up old and poor, the state should bail them out.
(C) Great idea! People need to take responsibility for their old age and we can't expect future generations to fork out in taxes to keep us comfortable just because we didn't bother to save for ourselves.
Mostly As: You are a good rationalist! Rationalists value the human capacity to think and choose for themselves. It is therefore contrary to the spirit of rationalism to force people to do anything which could plausibly be left to the individual to decide for themselves. Of course there are risks involved in this, but life is all about risk and we cannot eliminate it without robbing life of what makes it worthwhile. This means that adopting this policy may well result in some people ending their lives in poverty, but this is just the unavoidable logical consequence of adopting the rationalist position.
Mostly Bs: You are a good rationalist! Rationalists value the human capacity to think and choose for themselves. It is therefore contrary to the spirit of rationalism to force people to do anything which could plausibly be left to the individual to decide for themselves. However, rationalism is not only about free choice but doing what is rationally best for everyone. It is therefore important that we do not abandon those who, for whatever reason, are not able or willing to make the most rational choices in their own lives. We should not abandon them to destitution but should step in to help them, pulling together as a society so that those who have come out as winners in life's lottery support those who did less well.
Mostly Cs: You are a good rationalist! Rationalists value the human capacity to think and choose what is best for themselves and society. This sometimes means signing up to a kind of social contract whereby we give up a little individual liberty in return for the personal and social benefits that result. That's why we allow taxation, police powers and indeed any laws at all. Only anarchists can be against any form of trade-off between individual choice and social benefit. In this case it is clear that a little compulsory saving will benefit every individual who lives to retirement and future generations who will not be saddled with a huge tax bill. It's a "win-win" with only a small loss of liberty. Who could be against that?
Mostly As: You are a bad rationalist! Your problem is that you cannot handle complexity and instead think that all you need to do to be a good rationalist is to grant everyone the liberty to think for themselves and leave it at that. You don't like to think that liberty is not always a good or that we should sometimes act to protect those who are not as rational as they need to be to thrive, because the moment you start thinking that you slide down a slippery slope, afraid that it will all end in paternalist totalitarianism. For you, everything has to be black or white. But rationalism is not only about logical either/ors but subtle thinking about shades of grey.
Mostly Bs: You are a bad rationalist! Your problem is that you haven't got the intellectual rigour to think through and accept the logical consequences of your basic commitments. You think you want people to be autonomous rational agents but you undermine that autonomy when you effectively provide a safety net for those who choose not to exercise it responsibly, thus taking away the incentive for anyone to take control of their own retirement. For you, everything is too woolly. But rationalism is about intellectual integrity and consistency, not fudge and sentimentality.
Mostly Cs: You are a bad rationalist! Your problem is that you fail to see why human rationality is of value. Rationality is not a tool to be used by an elite to order society to be most productive. It is something of value only if it is exercised by individuals within that society. If you take away people's capacity to choose for themselves you therefore rob them of another opportunity to exercise their rationality and thus operate according to their highest capabilities as rational beings.
Mostly Ds: If there's one thing we can agree on, it's that you are no rationalist.