A Plea for Broad Rationality

In The Rationality Quotient, which I have interviewed Keith Stanovich about recently, there is an interesting bit in which different conceptualizations of rationality are explained. Roughly there are two conceptualizations of rationality, a thin one and a broad one (a distinction which was first made by political scientist Jon Elster, 1983). The thin theory of rationality involves two factors of rationality: instrumental rationality and epistemic rationality.

Thin versus broad rationality

Instrumental rationality means that one takes effective actions given one's goals. Thus, the things we do brings us closer to the realization of the goals we have. Epistemic rationality means that one's beliefs are in accordance with reality. Thus, we are epistemically rational if we base our beliefs on evidence. The broad theory of rationality adds a third factor which is about choosing appropriate goals. This third factor, which is referred to as meta-rationality, deals with the question of whether the our goals themselves are rational.

The power and perils of thin rationality

A thin conceptualization of rationality has the benefit that it can be relatively easily formalized as is done for example in decision theory. Many professional service providers, such as coaches, consultants, lawyers, and financial professionals, work within a framework of thin rationality. They help their clients achieve their goals without interfering with the content and adequacy of those goals. This way of working sounds respectful and client oriented. However, thin conceptualizations of rationality also have their disadvantages which may outweigh their advantages.
Imagine a politician who aims to bring down democracy and establish a dictatorship. Imagine that this politician sows fear in order to get people behind him and to get closer to his goal step by step. From a thin rationality perspective this politician can be viewed as rational. He does what works given his goals. But in the sense of meta-rationality he is not rational. Dictatorships work worse than democracies for societal and human flourishing. Furthermore, in the end, dictatorships, more often than not, end terribly for the dictators themselves, too.

Here is another example: if you come across book with titles such as "How to become a millionaire?", "How to become famous?", or "How to acquire power?", realize that they are based on a thin conceptualization of rationality. They are intended to provide you with strategies for achieving wealth, fame, and power. What they do not do is to question these goals. Whether these are wise goals is a matter of broad rationality.

The relevance of broad rationality

That broad rationality is relevant, is shown by, among other things, research in self-determination theory. Niemiec, Ryan en Deci (2009), for example, discovered that people with extrinsic goals (such as financial success, fame, and admiration) generally experience less well-being and more negative feelings than people with intrinsic goals (such as personal growth, meaningful relationships, and health). Intrinsic goals are also more associated with vitality and progress (read more) and they are associated with a smaller risk of burn out (read more).

It is not only important to know how to achieve certain goals. It is also important to know which goals are wise to choose. If the content of goals is worthwhile the motivation of people to achieve them can be better and more sustainable.