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D. Means-End Rationality

What about means-end rationality, what our continental cousins sometimes call Zweckrationalität? This is the sort of rationality displayed by the actions of someone who aims to achieve a certain goal 116and chooses means that are effective for attaining that goal. Perhaps, more exactly, we should say that this kind of rationality characterizes the actions of a rational creature—one rational in the Aristotelian and proper function sense—who is aiming to achieve a certain goal; so once again we see the connection with the basic Aristotelian sense. Means-end rationality is a matter of knowing how to get what you want; we might think of it as the cunning of reason.132132   Of course there are many variations on this notion of rationality. The rational action might be the one that would in fact lead to the achievement of your goal, or the one you think would, or the one you would think would, if your cognitive faculties were functioning properly, or the one you would think would if your cognitive faculties were functioning properly and you reflected long enough, or the one you would think would if . . . and you were sufficiently acute, or . . . and you were not distracted by lust, greed or ambition, and so on. If I want to get to Los Angeles as quickly as possible, it would be irrational to take the bus or ride my bicycle: the rational thing to do would be to take the plane.

Is the de jure question about this kind of rationality? Means-end rationality is a property of actions; hence it isn’t initially obvious that belief is the sort of thing that can be rational and irrational in this sense, because it isn’t initially obvious that beliefs are actions. In fact it seems initially obvious that beliefs (believings) are not actions. You don’t ordinarily form a given belief because you think holding that belief would be a good means to some end or other. Still, suppose we did think of belief as a sort of action (perhaps in a limiting sense); then presumably the end in view would be believing or knowing the truth. And then Christian belief would be rational in this sense if and only if a rational person, one whose cognitive faculties were functioning properly, would or could choose this means to the end of believing the truth. But there is something very peculiar about this suggestion. What you rationally choose as a means to an end depends on what you believe—for example, on what you believe about the likelihood that a given course of action will yield the result you are aiming at. But what if your aim is to believe truth? Then (pretending for the moment that what you believe is within your power in the appropriate way) you will, of course, believe a proposition if you think it is true: for if it is true, then, naturally enough, believing it is a good way to believe truth. So taking the action of believing Christian teaching will be rational for you, if, in fact, you do believe Christian teaching. (This oddness brings out the way in which belief really isn’t action or, if it is, at least isn’t much like other forms of action.) The real question, then, will be whether a rational person can believe the claims of Christianity, whether a rational person can accept Christian belief. And that means that the question whether Christian belief is means-end rational really reduces to the question whether it is rational in some other sense: the Aristotelian sense or, more likely, the proper function sense. So we don’t have here an independent sense of rationality; because we have already dealt with that sense, what we really see is that the de jure question can’t be this question of means-end rationality either.

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