Inspired by Brandon at Brandon’s Bookshelf
Nonrational Responsibility as Ontological Necessity
Where reality is fundamentally paradoxical and incomplete, we require “nonrational action” to avoid Nash Equilibria and to keep reality from collapsing under its own being
Brandon at Brandon’s Bookshelf is great, and I always appreciate his efforts to invite others into his works, notably regarding the Philosophical Book Tag series (and seeing Pae always makes my day). Recently, Brandon discussed an opportunity he had to see Dr. Jordan Peterson live, which focused on the topic of responsibility. Dr. Peterson is famous for his thoughts on that subject, and seeing Brandon’s video inspired me to reflect on the topic myself.
Ultimately, I will argue that where reality is fundamentally paradoxical and incomplete, as argued by say Žižek, we require “nonrational action” (A/B) to keep reality from collapsing under its own being or causing Nash Equilibria, and that “nonrational action” is “high order responsibility.” That’s a mouthful, admittedly, but hopefully by the end of this work it will be clear what I mean. Additionally, to find further elaborations on what is argued here, please see my discussions with John and Davood on Benjamin Fondane, my talks with Lorenzo on “Game Theory,” and the recent exchange at telosbound between Trey and Russell Sbriglia.
Responsibility is important, but why exactly? Where there is responsibility, there can be blame, and wouldn’t the world be a better place if nobody could be scapegoated, singled out, or the like? Responsibility also seems like it “practically must” entail hierarchy, and aren’t hierarchies oppressive and immoral? Well, it’s perhaps possible for responsibility to be evenly-distributed, which would mean no one could be “singled out,” but arguably when everyone is responsible, no one ends up responsible. It’s only a personal story, but I can vouch in organizations how when everyone was responsible for x, when something went wrong with x, nobody knew who should take care of x. Shouldn’t everyone equally take care of x? Well, only one person could talk to a customer at a time, and often only one person had the knowledge and experience to know how to deal with x, and so practically “collective responsibility” ended up deferring to “individual responsibility.” “Collective responsibility” worked great in theory, but it practically proved ineffective, especially when something went wrong. No, I don’t believe we can say that “collective responsibility” never works and never entails truth, but we also must be careful to avoid being idealistic (also, please note that “collective responsibility” isn’t the same as “everyone in a group having different responsibilities” — that’s more like “distributed responsibility).
Responsibility is existentially difficult, for if I am responsible for x, what happens to x reflects back on me, and yet I don’t always have control over x. This can cause paranoia, nervousness, anxiety, and the like. Considering this, there might be incentive to share responsibility with a collective to reduce the existential burden, but this can come at the price of reducing effectiveness and efficiency. Not always, but I wanted to at least note that there might be a tradeoff between “anxiety” and “effectiveness,” though only people can know in their own circumstance what that balance might be. Alternatively, someone who is entirely responsible for x might feel emboldened and “in control,” which could lead to egotism and even oppression. In this way, delegation and spreading responsibility can be incredibly important — it just depends.
That said, my main focus is the “nonrational role” of more individual and existential responsibility, which seems necessary for society to avoid “Nash Equilibria” and “suboptimal results.” “Nash Equilibrium” is a term from Game Theory, and basically it is a situation where everyone acts rationally, and as a result the outcome is mediocre and even bad. “Nash Equilibria” are fascinating because they suggest that being rational can be precisely why we end up somewhere we don’t want to end up. After basically being taught our entire lives that “rationality” is always good, the “Nash Equilibrium” can be a strange idea to encounter, but without “responsibility” it is hard to grasp.
What do “Nash Equilibria” have to do with responsibility? Well, funny enough, “taking responsibility” for something often means we are responsible for something which we don’t fully understand, can’t fully predict, and even don’t have “much of a choice” to address. Take for example being responsible for something at work: Do we know what’s going to happen today? Do we know what questions people are going to ask? Are we ready to have to explain to a customer why they won’t be getting their product on time because of a late truck? No, we don’t: what is called “Perfect Knowledge” doesn’t exist (which we can associate with omniscience). Very rarely, except perhaps in the simplest and most linear of circumstances, do we know “what’s going to happen” before it happens: life is fundamentally unpredictable.
Considering this, it is arguably unfair for us to be responsible for matters which would require Perfect Knowledge to understand and grasp, and it can easily be seen as irrational and “not understanding” to consider someone responsible who lacks Perfect Knowledge. And if we don’t have the category of “nonrationality,” indeed trying to reason about responsibility must always have us conclude that it is irrational and even immoral to hold someone responsible for what they don’t have Perfect Knowledge about.¹ With a nod to Derrida, “nonrationality” breaks down the dichotomy between “rational and irrational,” which I believe is necessary if we are to maintain values like responsibility and freedom, both of which are best understood as “nonrational.” If we try to understand both rationally, both will be deconstructed.
When I throw a ball in the air, I know it’s going to fall back down, so if I throw a ball straight up and it lands on my friend’s head standing next to me, there’s really no excuse. I’m responsible for what happened and/or I’m a fool — there’s no “good reason” for not knowing what would happen if I threw the ball into the air. In this situation, I have “knowledge,” and so it’s “rational” and “fair” to say that I’m “responsible” for what happened. This is what I will call “low order responsibility,” which is inspired by “low order causality” from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose.
(Essay) Intentional and Unintentional Thought, Low Order and High Order Complexity
To offer two relevant paragraphs from that paper:
“Low order causality” and/or “low order complexity” are deeply linked with intentional thought. It is when a billiard ball hits another and the second moves. The connection is observable, and anyone standing around the pool table will see it happen: the intelligibility of the causation is not bound to a particular person. Additionally, the person with the pool stick intended for the billiard balls to strike each other: the causal relationship was desired. “High order complexity,” on the other hand, is when a billiard ball hits another, the second moves, and we remember that time we played pool with our sister, and think about that story about her we wanted to write. This connection is just as real as the first, but I cannot “observe” the connection between the billiard ball and my memory, even though there is a connection: the two events seem unrelated, and yet I wouldn’t have had the memory without the collision of the billiard balls. Neither I nor the person with the pool stick intend the memory, but it happened all the same, and it happened because of the pool game. Unfortunately, I’m the only one who can experience this “high order causality” occur, so to everyone else around the table, it won’t seem real (a coincidence, at best).
If I am making a decision on whether or not to let Einstein walk upstairs and sit in an office, and you tell me that if I do, Einstein will suddenly have a picture in his head of a man falling and come up with General Relativity, but I ask you for proof, you will be unable to satisfy me. Logically then, with “evidence” on my side, I may decide to not let Einstein go upstairs, and so rob the world of General Relativity (not that I would ever know that I’ve done so). Evidence, which can only prove instances of simple causality (for the human mind cannot readily grasp or rationalize evidence for highly complex causality), can never be provided (to a satisfactory and empirical degree) for unintentional thought, by virtue of the fact that it is unintentional. Consequently, a society that believes everything that is true can be proven will be a society that will (rationally) stifle unintentional thought (to its socioeconomic detriment).
Basically, we can associate “low order complexity” with basic causality, while “high order complexity” is more emergent, abstract, and indirect. Equipped with these terms, we now re-approach the topic of responsibility.
I would venture to say that most of us have no trouble with “low order responsibility,” and Liberals and Conservatives alike agree that it’s real. Also, I’m constantly surrounded by examples of basic causality that I can understand and follow, and so every moment I’m arguably exercising and using “low order responsibility.” Considering this, I’m constantly provided “evidence” that “I am a responsible person,” for indeed I don’t leave the stove on in the kitchen or throw baseballs straight up into the air with people nearby. I’m discerning, thoughtful, and responsible.
But there’s another kind of responsibility, one that I think Dr. Peterson and Brandon are mostly concerned with, and that’s “high order responsibility.” This kind of responsibility is not “given” to us as readily as is “low order responsibility,” which seems beget to us by the very facticity of the surrounding world. In fact, “low order responsibility” is so “given” that it’s hardly something that needs to be talked about or taught — nobody really needs to discuss “responsibility” as such. Thus, when people like Dr. Peterson discuss “responsibility,” I think they mean “high order responsibility,” for it is this kind of responsibility that is so difficult to accept, precisely because it cannot be “rationally grasped” only “nonrationally trusted” (as in many “Game Theory” situations). Considering this, we could perhaps always write “high order responsibility” as “(high order) responsibility,” suggesting the phrase “high order” is always present with the term “responsibility,” even when it’s not explicitly written out, but I’m not sure.
Generally, nobody needs to be taught or convinced that they need to pay attention to what’s happening around them as they drive a car: the world and “raw facticity” provide that education. While driving a car, people need to “pay attention,” which seems a better phrase here than “low order responsibility,” though funny enough we may understand “paying attention” as “being responsible.” We tend to think that if we take responsibility for “low order complexity,” we are responsible people, which we may also want to believe so that we can see ourselves positively. If we start realizing that there is a difference between “low order responsibility” and “high order responsibility,” everything might change (and, as discussed in “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose, our brains “naturally” hate “high order complexity,” so that is also working against us).
“High order responsibility” is not natural, and it is much more abstract than materially composed. It is when I throw a ball in the air and end up having to talk to someone who seeing the ball reminded them of their cousin’s accident, and now they’re sitting in the corner, silent. We didn’t know the person would be triggered by the ball, and the person also didn’t tell us about their situation, and yet all the same we can feel responsible for helping the person feel better. Is that fair? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps the person is overreacting. Perhaps we forgot how a year ago that person told us that their cousin lost an eye because he was hit in the eye with a baseball. Perhaps we should just go home. Suddenly, a thousand questions can come running in, questions we must think about and likely don’t want to think about. “High order responsibility” makes us even ask, “Am I responsible?” which is a question we didn’t ask to have to ask ourselves (we were just throwing a ball, dang it). It all feels unfair, and in fact it’s arguably rational for us to claim we’re not responsible. Can’t we just ignore the person sitting in the corner? Why shouldn’t we?
Because that person needs someone to talk to.
And here the power, absurdity, existentialism, and “nonrationality” of “high order responsibility” appears. No one will blame us if we do nothing. In fact, rationality will help defend us, for it would be “irrational” to hold us responsible to speak with this person, for how could we have known that person’s family history? However, if we go speak with the person, then it would be rational to hold us responsible for what happens. If we choose to get involved, then we are responsible. And why in the world should we put ourselves in that situation? We could easily blame the person for not being able to hold himself together (if he’s upset, that’s his fault). But once we step in, the tables turn, and we become responsible. Why should we choose this? Why choose to be responsible for what we can avoid being responsible?
It’s a raw choice. We are vulnerable. We are at risk. Rationality will defend us if we do nothing, and rationality could turn on us if we act. So, should we act? Well, it’s a “nonrational” choice. “(High order) responsibility” is something we must take. We choose it. We absorb it. But then the very honor and nobility of the choice to “take” responsibility can be lost behind the responsibility. We choose to say, “Yes, this is something that reflects back on me,” even though this isn’t the case technically. We can say that the act is sacrificial, but even the sacrifice of the act can be immediately hidden by the raw responsibility itself. Once I choose to be responsible for x, it can seem like addressing x is what I ought to have done. The honor and nobility of the responsibility is instantly concealed behind an ethic that suggests I did nothing special. After all, I was responsible.
So, why would we ever take responsibility? Rationality will defend us not to take it, and the choice is nonrational, so why? Well, because if nobody does, the world will fall into “Nash Equilibria” into which there will be no escape. The world will suffer “a suboptimal result.” “Nonrational responsibility” is necessary for thriving, and yet it can feel like madness.
I’ve never met someone who thought of themselves as “irresponsible,” and perhaps this is why Dr. Peterson makes people upset: When he talks about responsibility, who is he talking to? He sounds like he’s “lecturing down” to people, people who aren’t responsible, and who are they exactly? Well, Dr. Peterson is a critic of Liberals, so people can assume he is critiquing Liberals, but if we take to heart that responsibility is “nonrational,” then Dr. Peterson is talking to all of us. All of us can always find “rational reason” not to be responsible, and indeed sometimes we shouldn’t be. After all, it’s not always our fault.
It feels unjust to take responsibility for what we didn’t know was going to happen ahead of time and couldn’t have known ahead of time. The more we move from the immediate and linear (“low order”) to the distant and abstract (“high order”), the more Perfect Knowledge becomes impossible, and so the less just it feels for us to be responsible, and yet if no one takes “nonrational responsibility” for what requires Perfect Knowledge to know, the world will suffer for it. Again, it feels radically unfair to be responsible for something we don’t know about ahead of time, and it’s arguably even irrational to be considered responsible in areas where Perfect Knowledge is lacking (which is basically everywhere). In this way, rationality will contribute to “a suboptimal world.”
What does it mean to be “responsible?” It can mean resisting the temptation to tell everyone, “It wasn’t my fault,” when things go astray, even if it’s true. This screams of the injustice and unfairness of responsibility, for why shouldn’t we let people know something wasn’t our fault (which results from a lack of Perfect Knowledge)? It’s true! Yes, indeed it might be — and yet it can still be a temptation to declare to the heavens that something wasn’t our fault, to abstain from responsibility, however justified we might be: it is erroneous to assume that whatever is “individually justified” is necessarily best. “Bearing the cross” of nonrationality might have us bear sins which we didn’t commit. Like Jesus, obviously, and perhaps we can see Jesus as a kind of mythic confirmation on the necessity of nonrationality. Someone innocent must bear the weight of sin and life (perhaps suggesting the inevitability of Girard), which is to say someone must nonrationally be responsible for what we cannot fully be held accountable for (due to the impossibility of Perfect Knowledge). Otherwise, the world cannot thrive.
A quintessential act of meaningful freedom is arguably the choice to be responsible for something when we don’t know what is going to happen. If we know y will cause x, then there is a sense in which our choice to do y is informed by the knowledge that x will occur, so arguably our choice is “rational” and less “free.” For an act to be truly free, we can’t know what is going to occur, and yet all the same we claim it. Uncompelled by reason, understanding, ethics — this is a choice of freedom, which doesn’t mean it is necessarily good, but it does mean that it is a truly “free choice” (though distinctions could be made here between modern and classical conceptions of “freedom,” but I don’t believe that needs to be discussed for this work). As far as I can tell, the only possibility of a choice which is utterly free of reason, compulsion, or the like, would be a choice lacking Perfect Knowledge, and so though “the lack of Perfect Knowledge” is often used as an argument against freedom, it is arguably only because of this lack that freedom is even possible. If we knew everything, choice would reflect necessity, which would mean that, basically, all we could choose between would be “what was smart” and “what was dumb.” And in this environment, how could anyone be free? Sure, we could be smart, but we wouldn’t be liberated. Perhaps that means freedom isn’t as great as we believe? Well, it would suggest that freedom isn’t “necessarily” good, but perhaps intelligence without a freedom to be foolish would be meaningless. Perhaps a meaningless paradise would be worse than a meaningful disaster? Hard to say.
Freedom would seem to necessitate the possibility of mistake, and if there was no possibility of freedom or mistake, then perhaps we would not need to emphasize “responsibility” as a necessary “nonrational” value. But rather than think of freedom as something good or bad, it is something we are, at the very least because we lack Perfect Knowledge. We have no choice but to be free (to allude to Sartre), which is to say we have no choice but to live without Perfect Knowledge. The question is simply what will we do now, faced with our situation. Frankly, though we often talk about freedom as “a value,” something almost ethical, we might want to start considering freedom as “conditional,” a matter of “our situation,” per se.
Because our world is free, our situation must be balanced with nonrationality. If freedom was instead a value, it would be mental and a mindset, and perhaps that means we could address it with rationality (for the mind can operate according to the dichotomy of “rational versus irrational”). But instead freedom is part of finitude itself, as is the absence of Perfect Knowledge, and what is “part” of finitude is “nonrational” (for raw being itself and facticity transcend rational categories), which means responsibility to finitude requires “nonrationality.” In this way, we can consider the “nonrational response of responsibility” as what is necessary and “fitting” given “the nonrational situation of being/freedom.” And in this way, as discussed earlier, we can see the unfairness and injustice of “responsibility” as a result of the very situation of finitude itself. It is not something that anyone did to us. It is the way of the world. The question is only if we will rise to the occasion or stress how it is not our fault. Indeed, due to the lack of Perfect Knowledge, much of life isn’t our fault, and yet there is no way to avoid “the suboptimal” than to accept the nonrational. Will we take up our cross?
The topic of responsibility is a controversial topic, as should be expected, given that responsibility cannot be rationally understood once we move beyond the immediate and linear (“low order”) to that which we cannot know or predicate due to the impossibility of Perfect Knowledge (“high order”), which is an inescapable feature of finitude itself. We do not know what life is going to throw at us, but if nobody is responsible for what happens, then life will end up prevailing over us. But why should anyone take responsibility for what “life throws at us?” It wouldn’t be fair. Well, it would be nonrational, and there is no other way for us to rise to the occasion of this unpredictable life.
The possibility of fully grasping and predicting a situation is rare, so arguably there is always “good reason” not to take responsibility, and yet a world without responsibility would fall apart. There is something “absurd” and existential about responsibility, and yet it is precisely because of that “absurdity” that it can be a source of noble character development and virtue. But can’t ideas of “nobility” and “character development” be used to manipulate us into taking responsibility for something that we shouldn’t be expected to handle? Indeed, “responsibility” entails risk, but if nobody takes that risk, what life throws at us will prove to be what we cannot master.
I am not going to elaborate on what I mean here, but because humans are A/B versus A/A, which is to say we are ontologically paradoxical, we can end up in Nash Equilibrium situations. Our paradoxical ontology is another reason why we require “nonrationality” and “(high order) responsibility,” though what I mean by this is a main concern of The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy, notably (Re)constructing “A Is A,” and some elaboration can be found in “The Human, the Subject, and the Paradoxical ‘Human Subject.’ ” Mainly, my point here is just to suggest that our condition requires “nonrationality” to manage best.
Responsibility is existential and necessary given the fundamental incompleteness and unknowability of finite reality itself. We require nonrationality because we are A/B: if everything was simply A/A, rationality would do the trick. Responsibility is not primarily a matter of control, power, or status, but a matter of “tragic necessity.” It is “nonfair,” “nonjust,” “nonrational,” and other descriptions which rationality, trapped in a dichotomy of “rational versus irrational,” can only understand as “unfair,” “unjust,” and “irrational.” Lacking the Fondane-inspired language of “nonrationality,” it only “makes sense” that we are confused by responsibility and see it as potentially being used as a force of oppression and to motivate conformity to Capitalism. But if we understand the necessity of nonrationality to avoid Nash Equilibria, then suddenly our views of responsibility can change as well, and we can start to see it as a nonrational, ontological necessity that we don’t have to choose. Rather, we are responsible for if we are responsible.
¹Please note that “the impossibility of Perfect Knowledge” is often used as an argument against “free markets.” Whether that argument works is another topic, but I wanted to at least note that the impossibility of Perfect Knowledge does indeed suggest that freedom is nonrational.
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