The rationalist mistake

“What do you mean by ‘the rationalist mistake’?”

David Deutsch first noticed that Libertarians have a tendency to make what he calls the “Libertarian mistake” of fetishising explicit consent and ignoring everything else. David also pointed out that it is not just about fetishising explicit consent, but the explicit more generally.

I myself call this the “rationalist mistake” to highlight that it is much more general than just being about fetishising explicit consent, and also because it seems very common for rationalists to make this mistake, including non-libertarian rationalists who strongly object to being called “Libertarian”.

“What do you mean by ‘fetishising the explicit’ and ignoring everything else?”

Here are some examples of “fetishising the explicit” and ignoring everything else:

One of the (understandable!) ways people have misunderstood Taking Children Seriously is in thinking that solving an interpersonal problem requires and is done just through an explicit discussion. That is a mistake. Most human problem-solving is not done consciously at all, let alone through an explicit discussion.

Reducing/equating solving interpersonal problems to having explicit discussions is making the rationalist mistake of fetishising the explicit and ignoring everything else. The explicit mind is the mere tip of the iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the water line: the “everything else” is almost everything. So when you think of interpersonal problem-solving as being having an explicit discussion, that hinders, sabotages or prevents problems being solved.

To make this more concrete, suppose a child expresses a wish. If we are making this form of the rationalist mistake of fetishising the explicit, we are thinking that the way to solve the problem is by having an explicit discussion (as if that were a method of resolving interpersonal problems).

So instead of having a Taking Children Seriously generous-hearted can-do attitude and thinking outside the box and finding a creative solution (quite possibly without any words being spoken!), we are subjecting our child to what we mistakenly think is a ‘rational’ problem-solving discussion.

What it is actually happening is that we are fobbing the child off, pouring cold water over the child’s wish, and bulldozing the child with our clever ‘rational’ arguments. So of course the child stops expressing the wish – not because the problem is solved, but because the child has given up, realising that getting the wish met is futile given our bulldozing intransigence. And the child will think twice about expressing a wish next time. And we, the parents, honestly think that we have solved the problem.

The ‘solution’ has not made the child’s eyes shine; it has not made her face light up with joy; and she is not dancing with delight. But she is not crying or looking particularly glum, so we parents mistakenly think that that is evidence that a solution was indeed found. As William Blake wrote:

And because I am happy, & dance & sing
They think they have done me no injury…

If it is not a real solution, why is the child looking OK with it? Because she has a brilliantly rational creative mind and she has not yet lost the ability to let unpleasant stuff go and live in the moment, so instead of focusing on the unmet wish and feeling awful, she has let it go and is making the best of it by turning her attention to more pleasant things. That the child has this kind of rationality and resilience that so many adults lack does not mean that no harm was done.

Equating problem-solving with having explicit discussions is making the rationalist mistake of fetishising the explicit and ignoring everything else.

Here is another example, which I talked about in this podcast:

I was making the Libertarian mistake when, for years and years, I did not repair a particular relationship with an extended family member because whenever I tentatively reached out to the person to try to sort it out, they explicitly and forcefully said “no”. And I thought: consent matters! It takes two to repair a relationship, and if they are not consenting, what can I do?

I honestly could not see, for years, that I was betraying that relationship by not finding a way to repair it. I honestly thought that I had tried everything! I had written, I had phoned, I had even tried visiting. Nothing had worked. Then one day, when I mentioned my oh-so-reasonable-seeming predicament to someone and asked for his criticism, what he said totally surprised me. He was positively scathing when I suggested that the lack of consent was stopping me. He called that an excuse.

He says to me, accusingly: “You have sold out on that relationship. If it were my family member not talking to me, I would not rest until it got resolved. I would be camping out on their stoop [front door step] until they agreed to talk to me, if that’s what it took. You are pretending you are not responsible for the state of this relationship but you are. You are pretending you are powerless to repair it but that is BS! You have sold out on the relationship and you are leaving them suffering.”

Wow! Really? WOW!

I immediately saw that my critic was right. Had it been my husband not talking to me, there is absolutely no way I would not have sorted it out! Of course I would have! No question about it! I had indeed sold out on that relationship in a way I would never dream of selling out on my relationship with my husband.

Wow! I had never seen it like that before. It blew my mind! I had been mistakenly seeing myself as not responsible for the broken state of that relationship, whereas, had it been my husband, no matter what the cause of the upset was, I would find a way to sort it out: I am 100% committed to my husband and act accordingly – 100% responsible.

With my husband, I do not just say “problems are soluble”, I solve them. It would never even occur to me to give up and leave a problem unsolved for years on end. To me, that would be to betray my commitment both to my marriage and to the idea that problems are soluble.

Problems are soluble, but not if we just give up the moment we first make one tiny attempt and fail. Problems are soluble, and we can solve them. We just have to find a way rather than being resigned and giving up. Any time a problem is looking impossible to solve (like that relationship looked impossible to repair), we have given up. We are being pessimistic. We are acting as if the problem is not soluble. And when we do that, well of course the problem is not going to get solved. And it looks to us as though the reason it is not getting solved is that it is actually not soluble, whereas actually, we ourselves have given up.

The moment I realised my mistake, that relationship (which my entire family were certain was impossible to repair) was effortlessly repaired, all because of a change in how I myself was viewing it all. Whatever problem you have in your life that seems impossible to solve – there is a way to solve it, and when you see it, it will seem so obvious to you that you will be flabbergasted that you did not see how to solve it before.

When I told David about the criticism I had received and how I had then effortlessly repaired the seemingly-impossible-to-repair relationship, he pointed out that I had been making the Libertarian mistake of fetishising explicit consent (or lack thereof) and ignoring everything else, and that is exactly what I was doing. I was hearing my extended family member’s explicit “no”, and ignoring the inexplicit – the human suffering underneath the anger and hostility, and the unstated human desire for love and affinity with our loved ones.

No one actually wants to have horribly broken relationships. That family rift had many adverse consequences in my family. Repairing it has had all sorts of unexpected super-positive effects – it has brought our entire family together. It is such a mistake to think that the effects of relationships left broken are limited to a tiny bit of life or that one relationship. At any rate, I hope this example illustrates the mistake of fetishising the explicit (in this case the lack of explicit consent) and ignoring everything else.

How might this same mistake might be made in a parent-child relationship? An upset child says “Go away” or “No I don’t want to talk about it” and the parent, not wanting to be coercive or intrusive, and not wanting to violate the child’s consent, fetishises the explicit (lack of) consent, and dutifully goes away, in effect ignoring everything else (the suffering of the child, the clearly unresolved problem, the unstated need to solve the problem and feel better). For more on this issue, see: What to do when your child says “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it”.

Here is another example of the rationalist mistake from my own past. (No shortage of examples of my errors. 🤭 ) I used to advocate fallibilism in an infallibilist-sounding way. Some of my old writing reads as if I was thinking that truth is manifest, that I myself know the truth, and that disagreement implies wilful wickedness. The way I was being in my writing was not consistent with the very thing I was trying to argue for: fallibilism.

How was I was making the rationalist mistake of fetishising the explicit and ignoring everything else? I was in effect saying: read my explicit argument (which I saw as the substance) and ignore how I express it (which I saw as mere form). I did not see that what I was thinking was just the form was in fact substance.

How we are being and acting may be inexplicit but it is still substance. It is meaningful. It contains a lot of knowledge. And it also speaks volumes to others. When I was dogmatically arguing for fallibilism, I was giving mixed messages, the explicit argument saying one thing, the way I said it saying the opposite.

My current idea of fallibilism includes not just saying and explicitly thinking that one takes the view that one can be mistaken and that there is no authoritative source of knowledge, but also being that way – not just paying explicit lip service to the idea, but that idea fully informing one’s actions, way of being, and ways of viewing and interacting with other fallible human beings. For more about this example, see: Fallibilism as a way of being and acting

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘The rationalist mistake’,

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