An earlier version of this essay, "From Test to Treatment," appeared in Foundational Studies 9, 1 & 2, 1981
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"L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs" (Hell is full of good wishes or desires.)
-- Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (c.1150)
Introduction: finding a common rationale
Given that someone has met a certain criterion, what kinds of rationales support a decision to subject her or him to a certain treatment? What is a "rational" intervention? Good will alone is not sufficient; altruism can be pathological. (See Oakley, 2012)
For example, given that someone has made a certain score on a test, what do we understand as justifying our placing her or him in (or rejecting her or him from) a particular program? This type of question admits of wide application. An educational variant of it might be, "Of what relevance is Jane Doe's grade-point average to her admission to medical school?" More generally, one might seek to provide a rationale supporting or rejecting a policy decision such as, "Should our school make provision for exceptional children?"
Broadening the scope of our inquiry, we might want to understand the rationale connecting the fact of fallen student achievement to support the adoption of site-based management. Or, should economic interventions interest us, we might look to discover the rationale for tightening the money supply, or increasing taxation, given certain indicators of climbing prices or decreasing interest rates.
This essay will attempt to demonstrate that there exists a very broadly, cross-culturally recognized formal concept of rationale. A wide community of practitioners, in a variety of fields, demonstrate in their behavior acculturation to a common, intricate set of standards by which they accept or reject certain justifications for intervention as "rational" or not. This thesis is not new: It is a long-cherished belief that humankind shares a common rationality. For example, the Declaration of Independence begins.
When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them with one another,..., a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to Separation.
Although there exists, as will be demonstrated, a formal concept in wide usage, there is wide latitude for disagreement in substance. For example, most people will agree that any decision to pursue a certain intervention generally presumes the feasibility of that pursuit, at least in the eyes of the pursuant. From this agreement that a pursuit ought to be feasible, it does not follow that everyone will agree on the balance that should obtain between costs and benefits in determining feasibility. A dispute as to whether a certain course of action is "faint-hearted" or "risky" is not a dispute whether a feasibility condition should be met. Of course, one may expect disputants to claim that their opponents in fact vitiate such an assumption of feasibility. But the very existence of such polemic is a behavioral indicator of the assumption.
To begin our inquiry, we will restrict our search to rationales which are "policy-like" rather than idiosyncratic. It might, for example, be perfectly rational for someone to act out of impatience, or fear, or ignorance in a given situation. We will not be interested, however, in such counsel as "When impatient (or fearful or ignorant), do X in situation Y", e.g. "Whenever you feel afraid just hold your head erect and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect, etc." Our undertaking is to define a set of criteria for rational intervention which might aid practitioners in a variety of fields in clarifying the relationship between what they view as a problematic situation and the action they take to deal with it. Such criteria can also be a critical tool for examining proposals, whether by someone who would challenge them or by someone who would render them resistant to challenge.
We will look to amplify and examine the following commonly used justificatory scheme:
b. John Doe is a member of this specific group.
c. Those certain conditions obtain; therefore
d. John is obligated to behave in the appropriate manner (provided he is in a position to do so and would not thereby gainsay a higher ranking policy.)
The way we will make explicit the types of assumption which support arguments from fact to decision is to role-play, as it were, the adversary stance of a parent whose child is threatened with subjection to or exclusion from an educational program on the basis of a test score. Suppose that we raise a legitimate objection to a policy-like decision, i.e. our objection, O, implies rescinding decision D:
O implies not-D
Logically, the contrary of O is a necessary condition for that decision to be rationally made, i.e.
D implies not-O.
Thus, if I prevent my daughter's exclusion by objecting that her test score was statistically not significantly lower than the admission level score, it follows that a necessary condition underlying the use of a certain score for admission is that only scores statistically significantly lower than that minimum can be used to justify exclusion.
Suppose further that a low score on some test qualified one for certain remedial treatments. I might object to my son's being subject to such treatment on the grounds that his low score accurately mirrored his low natural ability in that area, and that consequently attempts at remediation would not be worth the effort. If such an objection could reverse the decision to assign him to the program, it would show that a logically necessary condition for that decision was that a low test score not be merely a reflection of natural ability. In a similar manner, we will attempt to isolate a set of necessary-condition-types that together suffice to connect the fact of a test-score with a program-prescription.
Our method will involve raising "legitimate" challenges. But what makes a challenge legitimate? There are two kinds of legitimacy to be considered. The first is that the challenge must be practically legitimate. That is, it must not undermine the possibility of argument being constructed (See Austin, 1965, on presuppositions). Thus one cannot legitimately object that a practical argument is invalid because the sun's bursting into a supernova would frustrate our efforts and that the negation of this possibility was not included among the premises of the argument. Granted, we generally presume that no great physical catastrophe will interfere with our plans. Such an assumption is uninteresting because it is not peculiar to the specific type of argument we are analyzing. Our interest is to examine the linkage between test and treatment: a challenge that makes pointless any test or any treatment is not a legitimate one. For example, the parent who threatens to remove his child from school is not presenting a legitimate challenge, albeit right and efficacious, to a placement decision.
The second kind of legitimacy we are concerned with derives from the fact that we are dealing with service institutions, i.e. institutions the legitimacy of which depends upon the belief, at least, that they promote the interests of those they deal with, their "clients." A movie theatre operator may have us ushered out should we challenge the exorbitance of the admission or the mediocrity of his offering: "I'm not in this business for your benefit!" he might exclaim, we can imagine, to dismiss our objections. But teachers, doctors and other members of putative helping professions -- in this country, politicians -- cannot dismiss the interests of their clients as grounds from which an assault might be mounted protesting a treatment decision. The client's challenge has a prima facie legitimacy so long as the pursuit of that client's interests is its basis. The professional-client relationship establishes an arena in which practical arguments for intervention may be reviewed.
An Overview of the Assumptions
We will attempt to establish that the following assumptions, as types, are logically necessary to our understanding of what a rationale is, and that certain subsets of them -- in institutional contexts where the others are presupposed -- are practically sufficient to link the fact of someone's having obtained a certain score on a test to his being subject to a certain treatment. The assumptions are:
2. an assumption of indicator relevance, i.e. the testing process does, in fact, provide indication of something external to it;
3. an assumption of non-subversion, i.e. no unusual circumstance invalidates the indicator;
4. an assumption of interest, i.e. someone cares about what is being tested for;
5. an assumption of non-naturalness, i.e. the systemic effects of intervention will not be worse than the original problem;
6. an assumption of practicality, i.e. such change as is possible, is practical;
7. an assumption of liability, i.e. someone or some interest suffers from not implementing the decision;
8. an assumption of innocence, i.e. the sufferer is not to blame for his sorry state;
9. an obligatory precept of some sort, e.g. those who can ameliorate undeserved pain, should;
10. an assumption of optimality, i.e. the treatment to be undertaken best remedies the problem.
Organizations in their very structure, so to speak, reify certain assumptions; they are presupposed in the very activities normally undertaken by the organization. I submit, however, that the justificatory scheme given above can only be understood as rational if we understand that those assumptions not explicitly addressed in an organization's rationale are presupposed in the roles of its members or in the manner of its functioning. Thus while no policy will direct someone to care about a situation, it will direct people in certain roles to attend to it because -- in all likelihood -- the policy was adopted because someone cared: that caring is reified in the policy.
Significance and Relevance
Suppose we receive a letter of the following form:
b. he can concede that placement is, as a matter of policy or practice, determined by chance, or
c. he can admit our objection and rescind the placement assignment.
Suppose, however, that our objection is that the test given, the MCD, does not measure mathematical ability; yet, our child has been placed into a remedial mathematics class on the basis of it. Such a claim, if correct, is an adequate defense and establishes the necessity of the assumption of indicator relevance. Again, the use of standardized tests guards against such challenge under normal circumstances. (However, see Tatsuoka, 1973).
At this point, we get a surprise. The placement coordinator concedes that the MCD is not a math test yet insists that it predicts quite well the success of math students in our child's school. Relevance -- or external validity, as it is technically called -- reasserted!
We are forced into a radical challenge at this point. The teachers and administrators involved with program P have, we contend, a very parochial notion of what mathematics is and persistently fail to distinguish that knowledge generally recognized as mathematics from their peculiar traditions of instruction and testing by which acquisition of that knowledge is established -- as if, say, hopping on one foot were the only way to measure leg-muscle strength.
If what we say is true, then we may be forced to look elsewhere for our child's schooling unless we expect the institution to change. The general cultural legitimacy of our argument may be overridden by institutional power.
Our dispute here centers around the conflation of institutional bias with test bias -- the I.Q. controversy, for example, involves just such a conflation. A test may unbiasedly predict one's likely success in a biased institution. Two senses of the word, "bias", muddle this issue: by "bias" may be meant merely "deviation from a norm" with no insinuation of good or bad intended; or "bias" may indicate "unjust variation from desired treatment". Most useable tests -- unless purposely constructed to eradicate it -- show some kind of group bias. (Cronbach, 1972).
The question of justice is independent of the question of test bias. Many a discipline in its characteristic modes of inquiry, in its canons of truth and standards of achievement is biased in that the way of life of a particular cultural group may ill-dispose its members to achievement within that discipline. However, unless one can make out domains of knowledge independently of those disciplines by which those domains are defined and maintained, the charge of bias may not articulate with our concerns for justice. Not every inequality is unjust. (Green, 1980, July-August)
To illustrate: making money at sports is an enterprise obviously biased in favor of those lucky enough to possess physical capacities which permit their developing the skills necessary for achievement in a relatively few remunerative athletic activities. Yet no one is exercised over the disadvantage lacrosse aficionados suffer. That people are concerned, however, about I.Q. indicates the extent to which they believe our society is a meritocracy of intellect rather than of althletic ability.
The assumption of non-subversion is established as necessary by considering that any claim that the testee cheated, or was taught to the test, or under the influence of drugs would serve to disestablish the validity of the result. The extent to which a putative indicator is subvertible places limits on the completeness of operational definitions of it. The assumption allows for the possibility that all performance criteria may have been met yet the ability tested for not be indicated. This is not possible if exhibiting the performances is logically equivalent to having the ability tested for.
It would seem that one line of objection to be avoided in protesting our child's placement would be that she succumbed to a unique and traceless perturbation during the test which impeded her proper functioning. In the first place, an important social convention places the burden of proof upon him who claims the extraordinary to have occurred; this is our only way of protecting knowledge claims from a general skepticism: the possibility of subversion does not, by itself, undermine the presumption of normality.
Interestingly enough, apparently sober academics have advanced theories of minimal brain dysfunction and learning disability that skirt this very edge of skepticism. Minimal brain dysfunction, for example, has been postulated to be an untraceable fault in brain functioning that accounts for certain failures to learn. Learning disability, too, (Bush & Waugh, 1976) seems to be a catch-all category that allows low academic achievement to be translated directly into a need for special educational services. Logically, the postulation of learning disability works to permanently undermine the assumption of non-subversion.
The assumption of interest often lies deeply buried within the rationale lest its exhumation exacerbate social-class, cultural and organizational conflicts. Persistent charges of test bias in the face of technical disclaimers by test-makers need not be stubborn ignorance but rather a muddled challenge to the legitimacy of the group whose consensus establishes the standards of normalcy. It is quite conceivable that the pursuit of some traditional academic disciplines is incompatible with the pursuit to eradicate social-class, ethnic, sexual or religious differences in educational or economic achievement. Conversely, certain "subjects" will not be taught in the schools because of lack of politically effective interest.
For example, why are there not programs to remedy lack of taste in music or art or dance? Why don't deficiencies in second-language ability as well as watermelon-seed-spitting generally invoke cries for assessment and remediation? The assumption of interest is that by which the school elevates a mere knack into an ability. In general, the honorific "ability" will be bestowed only upon those talents which the educational system is prepared to reward.(Green, 1980)
Suppose we discover that someone at our child's school is doing a dissertation and that is the sole reason our child has been subjected to the MCD test and reassigned to level D. Certainly, our lack of that particular interest is a strong defense against the placement of the child. What we vaguely understand as "the purposes" of the organization serves to presuppose the assumption of interest. Therefore, institutional functionaries, except for ceremonial purposes, rarely invoke interests to rationalize their decisions.
The assumption of non-naturalness is not merely that an intervention must have some effect but that the overall consequences of intervention, its systemic impact, be more beneficial than noxious. We want to know if a proposed change upsets an equilibrium in a system we are otherwise committed to. For example, a proponent of free markets may concede that a governmental intervention, narrowly perceived, may produce some benefits, yet hold that as policy or seen in a larger context, such intervention is of negative effect due to the "realities" of the economic system.
Here what is invoked is the "nature" of the economic enterprise to undercut proposals for intervention. Logical limits may be appealed to also (Hirsch, 1976). It is logically impossible to universally satisfy the desire for high status in the same dimension. No intervention can be rational which purposes to effect equalities of certain kinds, e.g. of great wealth, of high status, or of superior mentality, since each of these, by definition, presuppose inferior rankings.
With respect to educational interventions, a crucial concept is that of "natural ability." We invoke our child's "natural" musical ability to justify the expense of music lessons. Here is a potential that should not lie fallow! Conversely, we might rue his low "aptitude" -- "natural ability" in scientific disguise -- for mathematics and use the same to challenge a remedial placement which promises more suffering than improvement.
Aptitude or natural ability is a problematic concept. We forego it at the risk of extending the already considerable powers of educational and therapeutic institutions: limitless potential invites limitless intervention. On the other hand, it is sometimes invoked too facilely to explain the underachievement of certain social classes as inherent, i.e. low aptitude, rather than environmental influence.
Most simply put, an aptitude is a disposition not amenable to modification without negative systemic consequences. Aptitude, natural ability, provides a limit towards which we press our pedagogical efforts. But no test score exhausts the concept. It is only, for example, when we take I.Q. to be a measure of natural ability that we encounter that perplexing category of persons called "overachievers", i.e. those who do better academically than their I.Q. would predict. (And every school has a guidance counselor who worries that the "unnatural" exploits of overachievers are leading them to psychological deterioration.)
Which of two tests better measures a person's aptitude? The one on which he scores better or the one on which he scores worse? Every test is a task. It is conceivable that any "task-aspect" of a test might interfere with its "indicator-aspect." Have the task-aspects of the test enhanced or impeded the subjects performance? When natural ability is invoked an interesting ideological phenomenon often occurs: those same task-aspects postulated as culpable when low scores are unacceptable are ignored when natural ability is thought to be sufficiently low as to warrant cessation of efforts.
We begin to suspect that the question of natural abilities or aptitudes is not so much a matter for research as a theoretic orientation toward what is to count as evidence. Natural ability seems not so much to be predicated on fulfilled criteria as to be accorded to individuals on the basis of certain presumed normalities. Like honesty, sanity, understanding, and self-control, natural aptitude is what Hart (1965) has called a defeasible concept, similar in its logic to that of the concept of valid contract. That is, one accords these apparent descriptors to a person on the basis of practically simple albethey theoretically problematic criteria and then, in the face of mounting disclaimer -- hardly "counterevidence" -- one relinquishes them. However, in all cases the burden of proof of their inapplicability rests on the challenger. Is a person sane, self-controlled and possessed of normal natural abilities? He or she looks all right and acts normal, we presume so. Thus is it difficult to believe that foreigners and, say, sufferers of cerebral palsy, whose public presentations of self are somewhat strange, have unimpaired mental or moral capacity.
Liability and Innocence
Given almost any task, it is likely that one can learn to do it better. Given any subject, it is likely one can learn more about it. But if sharpening one's skills and knowledge -- particularly in the face of diminishing returns -- is not seen to foreclose on some possible liability, such sharpening may be considered dispensible, an erudite entertainment. It is conceivable that physical therapists might press to train their charges to some Olympian level of prowess; but it is unlikely: such training would be, perhaps, "more than the patients need." Every intervention costs at least time and effort; if inappropriately low benefits are the expected result, then the decision to intervene wants a rationale. The benefit expected need not be anything more than the avoidance of a liability.
Institutions, having already invested resources in establishing and maintaining treatment programs, face their non-utilization as a liability: a prime support for "garbage-can" decision processes (March, 1976). Thus we expect resistance should we object that our child suffers no liability should she forego program P. The counter will be made, most likely, that our child really does need program P if only to be able to meet the prerequisites of continued study at the institution. But there is an ambiguity here: whose needs are being invoked? Our child's or the institution's? Which needs are primary and which, derivative?
Two things are worth note here: that it is necessary to counter our objection indicates that the assumption of liability is a necessary condition of the rationale. Secondly, we easily translate from liabilities to needs and back: avoidance of liabilities is a need. Interests, similarly, are conceptally related to liabilities: a liability is that which threatens or impedes the pursuit of an interest. Consequently, which liability is invoked to rationalize the intervention will be relative to whoever has a pertinent interest.
The assumption of liability is possibly redundant; it might be conflatable to that of interest. The distinction is important, however, on the likely possibility that the interests declared to be served by the treatment are not the same as those indicated by an examination of the liabilities presumably risked should treatment P be foregone.
While the concept of liability may be shared among different groups in the abstract, its specifics are usually quite relative. Ignorance of Torah is a liability to Jews in direct proportion to their orthodoxy. The Dalai Lama finds it no liability. Without liability, one cannot argue need; thus Liberal Arts and Humanities advocates promulgate the doctrine of the "well-rounded" or "cultured" individual for whom ignorance of foreign languages, the classics, opera, philosophy and literature is a liability. Thus as more popular concepts of liability, e.g. criminality, unemployability, come to determine to public school curriculum, the louder are raised the voices of Humanities advocates decrying the public school's "fall from excellence."
Clearly, some assumption of liability is necessary to the argument supporting treatment: "My daughter can grow up to be a perfectly wonderful, well-educated person without having to study topology!" As reasonable as this sounds, it is really not so far from Kinder, Kueche, Kirche.
A possible objection -- unlikely to be made by a parent -- : "Why should Miss So-and-so get special tutoring? She is failing because she refuses to study!" The assumption of innocence is foregone only by invoking a liability suffered by an innocent ( in which case it might be better to mention that liability originally.) Actually, we don't forego the assumption of innocence; we merely invoke it relative to a different party. Our teachers' organizations are wont to remind us -- especially during contract negotiations -- that it costs society more to keep poor students in prison than to keep them in schools. The protest that they don't deserve schooling is overridden by the burden of costs suffered by an "innocent" society. Similar considerations underlie the practice of "social" promotion in the schools: better to promote an older non-achiever than have his younger classmates suffer his presence. Welfare payments to "able-bodied" women are justified, too, by consideration that their younger children would suffer from their lack.
Optimality and the Prescriptive Leap
The remaining "descriptive" premise in our practical argument is the assumption of optimality. Despite the fact that optimization yields to "satisficing" in many situations (March & Simon, 1958), optimality is the ideal.(See Edwards & Tversky, 1967)
Suppose P is thought to be the best available program to remedy our child's condition. Certainly, then, all other things being equal, P is the program to which she must be assigned. Were the objection true that P is not the best available program for its purpose, the defense against her placement would stand. This shows the assumption of optimality to be initially, at least, necessary, since, if optimality is to be defeated, a whole new argument, say, for satisficing, must be employed against it.
Of course, while we might all agree that it is only reasonable to optimize placement, it does not follow that we agree on what is the optimal placement. Formal accord does not, once again, enhance substantive agreement. (We might look at satisficing as a practical way of getting around potential conflicts over what constitutes optimality.)
Now, suppose the following to be true:
b. the test is relevant for indicating some deficiency of interest;
c. the test has not been subverted and
d. the deficiency indicated is remediable and not her fault. Also,
e. it is practicable to place her in optimal program P.
The placement officer is obligated to optimize program placement of students in accord with admissions policies.This, like all our assumptions, is a formula. "Student" must be instantiated as "our child"; "in accord with admissions policies" must likewise be unpacked to connect the test given our child with her program placement, e.g. "any student scoring 700 on the MCD will be placed in program P."
We may formulate it thus:
2. Mr. Smith (let us call him) is incumbent in this position.
3. Our child has so scored.
4. Mr. Smith is obligated to place our child in program P.
We could have, had we been willing to be satisfied with "It is our policy" as the final answer to "What justifies this placement, given this test score?" But we know from experience that policies can be incoherent, unjust, otiose or pointless in myriad ways. The ten conditions we have labored to make explicit indicate how complex any decision is that is to count as rationally made.
An interesting by-product of our analysis is that we have a set of criteria for judging organizational rationality, i.e. the criteria consist of all the assumptions we have laid out, excepting the "prescriptive assumption", which is the common form of organizational rationale encountered. An institution is rationally constructed to the extent that those assumptions are reified in its organizational structure. The reasons for this claim follow.
Suppose the behavior of functionaries in an institution to be governed, in general, by "policy-like" rationales such as the justificatory schema given on page three. Such rationales are insufficient of themselves to establish that behavior as rational (according to argument presented above). Thus the organizational structure must reify the required assumptions, 1 through 8 and 10 given above, in its structure or procedures, as, for example, when indicator relevance and significant variance is assured through the use of standardized tests. Or, as when the assumption of interest is satisfied by invocations of the organizations goals or raison d'etre.
To argue the contrary would commit us to accepting that interventions promoted and consequential costs borne by the organization were rational despite the fact that any one or more of the assumptions laid out above were negated. For example, (the assumptions are numbered as above)
2. we negate the assumption of indicator relevance by accepting an intervention as rational although nothing relevant to it prompted it;
3. we negate the assumption of non-subversion by accepting an intervention as rational although we believe indicators to have be falsified;
4. we negate the assumption of interest by accepting an intervention as rational although no one cares about the outcome;
5. we negate the assumption of non-naturalness by accepting an intervention as rational although no amelioration is reasonably expected;
6. we negate the assumption of practicality by accepting an intervention as rational although the desired outcome is unlikely to be effected within reasonable cost;
7. we negate the assumption of liability by accepting an intervention as rational although no interest would have suffered by foregoing it;
8. we negate the assumption of innocence by accepting an intervention as rational although the disutility suffered, should we forego intervention, is believed merited;
10. we negate the assumption of optimality by accepting an
intervention as rational although a clearly less than optimal
alternative has been chosen.
Normally we would pejorate an intervention that rejected the assumptions we have uncovered in somewhat the following ways:
b. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of indicator relevance would be criticized as irrelevant;
c. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of non-subversion would be criticized as either unwarranted or irrelevant;
d. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of interest would be criticized as pointless;
e. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of non-naturalness would be criticized as futile;
f. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of practicality would be criticized as impractical;
g. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of liability would be criticized as unnecessary;
h. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of innocence would be criticized as unmerited;
i an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of obligation would be criticized as gratuitous; and,
j. an intervention for which was rejected the assumption of optimality would be criticized as frivolous. That such criticism is made for such reasons is evidence of widespread acculturation to the concept of rationale we have been exercised to make explicit.
The Analysis of Rationales
It is conceivable that the particular method by which we expounded the assumptions underlying intervention rationales has been significantly restricted by the context, i.e. challenging a placement in an educational program. The real test of this analysis would be if the reader were able to use it to clarify and test rationales in the areas of his own expertise. To facilitate such a test, I have listed the assumption-types below and provided some simple questions intended to address themselves to the considerations comprehended by each assumption-type. The procedure is as follows.
First, attempt to format the statements of the intervention-decisions in a consistent manner, e.g.
"On the basis of (indicator) we have decided to (intervention)."
Another formulation might be
"Because of the fact that (state of indicator), (intervention)."
(Formatting is, at worst, a waste of time. Very often, however, we discover that apparently similar statements of decision do not all easily lend themselves to similar formulation. Such differences -- as well as commonalities -- may be indicators of considerable analytic import.)
Secondly, answer the questions grouped by assumption type:
2. Indicator relevance: What does this change (or stasis) mean?
3. Non-subversion: Might the indicator have been manipulated to deceive us? Is there any reason to believe this has happened?
4. Interest: Why is the situation indicated of concern? Whose while is it worth to intervene?
5. Non-naturalness: Can we assume that intervention will not make things worse?
6. Practicality: Will the benefits of intervention outweigh its costs? Need they?
7. Liability: Who will suffer if we forego intervention?
8. Innocence: Do the potential sufferers merit their predicament? If so, does this matter?
9. Obligation: On what principle are we obliged to act?
10. Optimality: Is this course of action the best alternative?
Generalizing the Rationale
By removing the specificities of circumstance we can arrive at a very general form of rationale which might be offered to suppor wide varieties of intervention. For a Westerner in the Judeo-Christian tradition the following has a familiar cogency (but see Benedict, 1946):
Reliable indicators portend evil, which will visit suffering upon the innocent. We who are in a position to impede its progress or repair its effects are obligated to do so.The assumptions of significance and relevance are invoked by the use of the terms "reliable indicators". Calling some state of affairs an "evil" invokes the assumptions of interest and liability. The characterization of someone as being in a position to do something invokes the assumptions of non-naturalness and practicality (although perhaps not optimality -- which I suspect is a felicity condition necessary only in those enjoinders to "do our best"). Innocence is invoked directly. And it is a familiar precept that we are obligated to impede the progress or repair the effects of evil.
Allowing that the preceding almost vacuously general rationale is cogent only under a specific set of moral codes, we might still wonder why it is, even within those traditions, controversial when, say, the Federal Reserve Board tightens the money supply on the basis of economic indicators, or when a medical school excludes students on the basis of an examination.
The controversy does not arise because an assumption necessary to a valid practical argument is false. Of course, opponents of such decisions will claim that they were made on the basis of false information, or of unreliable indicators, or that the intervention cannot help anyway, or that the suffering deserve it, or that there is really no evil to be combatted. Such disputes arise because even the universality of a form of rationality does not preclude arguments over the substance that is dealt with by that form. What is lacking is a widespread consensus as to what specific items are to be included in the categories employed by each assumption. For example, what is a liability? Unemployment, inflation, high interest rates? What events are amenable to human intervention? Scholastic achievement, stagflation, war? Who is innocent? The ignorant, the poor, the well-intentioned?
James G. March (1976) has suggested that we would be better off with less rationality; that we would be well served by a concept of "sensible foolishness". Freed from the constraints of pre-existent purposes, the necessity of consistency and the primacy of rationality, we could use the act of intelligent choice as a planned occasion for discovering new goals, unpredicted and attractive value consequences. We become intelligently foolish by treating goals as hypotheses, intuition as real, hypocrisy as a transition, memory as an enemy and experience as theory.
There is little within the concept of rationale as it has been developed in this essay that is inconsistent with March's notion of sensible, creative foolishness -- save, perhaps, treating memory as an enemy. However, March has mistaken a very narrow conception of rationality for the broad, intricate, rich conception of rationale that is our intellectual heritage. We need not choose between creativity and rationality. But we must be careful not to expect too much. The forms of intelligent action may not determine the values that motivate it.
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