Managing Reason Fatigue

There have been a number of articles in the news about the growing anger of vaccinated people at the unvaccinated, confrontations about masks and social distancing, and of course, plenty of expert advice that shaming, scorn, and insults do not generally move people to be “responsible.” Behind all this lies what I call “reason fatigue”: If you’ve spent the pandemic trying to follow the science, to do the right thing to keep yourself and your community safe, and if you’ve experienced bursts of anger toward people who seem to disregard common sense, ignore science, listen to crackpots spew misinformation and quote it back as if it came down from Mount Sinai — in short, if you’ve grown short-tempered with people who seem hell bent on helping the virus spread and mutate — then you may be suffering from reason fatigue.

Reason fatigue includes anxiety, agitation, and anger, and it is often directed toward people we deem impervious to the call of common sense. And the more you pursue practical measures to keep yourself and your community safe, the harder it is to stand by and watch people who won’t. You may even find yourself privately exuberant when a particularly loud opponent of good sense actually contracts COVID-19. In the safety and acceptance of your close friends, you might even find yourself mocking those hospital-bed regrets that COVID volunteers are posting on their social media accounts.

So, let’s start by dispelling any illusion you have that because you’re a rational being, struggling with anger and even gloating makes you a bad person. First, let me break this news: You may well be committed to reason, but if you’re reading this, you’re still an animal, and animals that have teeth will, sooner or later, bite someone. Second, being anxious or angry at someone or something you perceive as a threat is normal. We have millions of years of experience getting pissed at members of our band that endanger us on the savannah — for good reason.

These reflections lead to an important insight about the human condition: There’s no escaping it. It follows us everywhere, and reason fatigue is part of the package. From which it follows that our real challenge is: How can we manage reason fatigue?

Recognizing that it’s not abnormal and doesn’t make you a bad person is a good first step. Reason fatigue is a human response to the conflict among individual/idiosyncratic approaches to what is fundamentally a communal problem. COVID is a threat both to individuals and to communities (the largest of which is obviously our species), and our responses — like that of our forebears facing the dangers of the savannah — are always both individual and communal.

This narrative reveals something else important about the human condition, namely, its dualities. We are both rational and animal, individual and group, choice-makers and tradition-followers. Managing these dualities requires balance and integration, not rejection of one or the other — as we see, for instance, in philosophers who try to ignore or disown our animal nature in favor of “rational being.”

Managing reason fatigue involves embracing those dualities, and even finding strengths hidden in our conflicted nature as rational animals. Be resolute in your commitments but realistic about your constitution: rational animal in community, etc.

Be practical. People don’t typically form their beliefs and values by reasoning about them. Even the commitment to reason isn’t something that’s easy to justify by means of reason alone. When we observe that a rationally-ordered life is richer and more rewarding, we are appealing essentially to an idea of happiness, and to achieve it, you can’t kick your animal nature out of the picture without losing the motivation to seek a happy life to begin with.

Follow the motives: Many of us — perhaps most — are motivated not by “good reasons” but by avoiding what makes us anxious or fearful. If you are dealing with people in your life who are anxious (e.g., about the vaccine), arguing and shaming are not effective tools, precisely because shaming wrongly assumes that reason is itself a sufficient motive for action. Reasoning may be a good rationale for accepting the conclusion of a geometric proof, but we hardly ever treat life decisions like that.

In fact, for many people, anxiety and mistrust may be a perfectly reasonable response to a situation from their perspective. Before we appeal to ignorance or superstition or cult membership to explain why “those people” aren’t choosing what “I” choose, take account of the individual’s relationship to their own history and tradition.

Here’s an example: You’d be hard pressed to find an African-American who isn’t aware of Tuskegee. (If you aren’t aware of it, take this opportunity to expand your own perspective.) In every specific interaction with another person, you are also encountering collective experience passed through tradition, even when (maybe especially when) it isn’t visible. And in those traditions, there is an “inner logic” that makes sense of choices and actions. Remember: Even dragonfly brains can manage instrumental rationality.

The most important incentive to manage reason fatigue, however, is that, unlike dragonflies, we can choose the value schema that informs what we are instrumentally rational about. This may sound cryptic or obtuse, but if you don’t keep choosing the path of the rational animal, who will?

There was never a guarantee of our success as a species. But nature gave us rational agency to improve our chances. As tempting as it may be to give in to reason fatigue, don’t turn away from nature’s gift.

Leave a Reply