Rationality and Terror

 Posted by on June 11, 2013
Jun 112013

It is irrational. I associate this sort of argumentative contention with young men. Perhaps unfairly, or perhaps because they are particularly prone to combine predilections for rote factuality and logical consistency with an absence of sagacity.

Even supposing it is rational to fear death (a debatable matter), it would still be irrational to fear death by terrorism, because the chance that terrorists will kill any individual is miniscule. Far more rational would be to fear flights of stairs. Compared to terrorism, the stairs pose the much greater risk. Despite this, off we go, trading civil liberty for a show, or even a sham, of security. It is irrational, the young man contends.

To fear death by terrorists is irrational, we are told, because the probability of death at their hands is so remote. But what are the chances that infringements upon civil liberty would appreciably affect any one individual’s life? Restrictions on speech, movement, and conscience would no doubt affect nearly everyone in harmful and immediately perceptible ways. A surveillance program, however, even one of sweeping and stunningly comprehensive scope, might impinge on hardly anyone.

Indeed, all save a few would happily go about their daily lives, senseless of any intrusion at all. Of those few comprehending the intrusion, nearly all would soon enough sleep contentedly, safe in the knowledge that, at least on reflection, they are unremarkable people leading wholly ordinary lives. They are not among the signal few who need to fear, but contentedly among the ignored static many. It is an ugly thing to admit: the mass of men are pleased to lead lives of quiet complacency. They have no rational reason for concern, they know it, and they would not have it otherwise.

Mistakes, of course, would happen. So would abuses. And, yet, out of the hundreds of millions, if not billions surveilled, how many unfortunate, unwitting innocents would find themselves injured in any substantial fashion? A few dozen? A few thousand? How many must be harmed before this sweeping surveillance apparatus becomes a rational cause for fear? Wiser might be to focus on more rationally pressing threats, like walking down the stairs. That might even prove a more efficient use of limited public safety resources.

Does it not harm all of us if a surveillance state infringes upon the civil liberties of any one of us? Is it not therefore rational to fear a surveillance state? The retort is not formally different from those who would contend that it is rational to establish a surveillance state because it harms all of us if terrorists kill any one of us. If the latter is is irrational, then so is the former, and I am told by some ardent rationalists that the latter is most certainly irrational.

I do not wish to diminish the threats posed by both terrorism and a surveillance state. I wish only to indicate why I find this “rational” mode of argumentation so fruitless. Things are rational or irrational only in regards to specified ends or values which are themselves neither rational nor irrational. We privilege life and safety and would install a surveillance state as a rational means to those ends. After all, civil liberty is without value to the dead. We privilege freedom and civil liberty and would dismantle a surveillance state as a rational means to those ends. After all, a life without liberty is not worth living. Around we go, and then again.

No appeal to rationality can relieve the tension between these ends. This is rationality’s limit, not its failure. If there is any failure to attribute, it belongs to those who expect more from rationality than it can deliver.