One staple of Philosophy is that we human beings inhabit (at least) two worlds: the one in which events are determined by physical causes and the other in which actions are governed by reasons.
Most books in pictures of professors like this are cardboard fakes from IKEA. Colleges and universities hand them out when faculty are hired.
The 20th century American Philosopher Wilfrid Sellars invented the phrase “The Game of Giving and Asking for Reasons” to describe aspects of the second world, and I’m adapting it here.
No, no. Wrong game. In the Game or Reasons you don’t win or die – you’re just right or wrong.
As I’ve mentioned in some other dishes here at the Bistro, there’s ample evidence that our reasoning doesn’t always function in our lives the way we like to think it does. We’d like to believe that our reasons are the causes of our behavior rather than just their after-the-fact rationalizations and excuses, but the evidence indicates that this is true only in certain controlled circumstances. Nevertheless, learning to play the Game of Reasons remains essential to our humanity in two respects: first, if we ever want to overcome our worst impulses – whatever they are – good reasoning will play a necessary role; and second, if we don’t want to overcome those impulses, but also don’t want to be blamed for acting on them, reasons will come in handy then too.
That’s why I’m always pleased to see my step-daughters hitting the ball off the reasoning tee. Here’s one of my favorite examples. Last fall A was sick and had to stay home while her twin sister B went to school. Around noon I needed to run some errands and took A with me. We stopped to get some cash and A said, “Look, it’s a McDonald’s.” I agreed that the building next to us was, indeed, a McDonald’s, and A continued by saying, “I sure would love some McNuggets right now.”
But I knew that didn’t tell the whole story. McNuggets, as you likely know, are sufficiently nasty by themselves. I can’t remember or find the exact account, so I hope I’m not making this up, but I seem to recall Anthony Bourdain – author of Kitchen Confidential author and star of shows such as No Reservations – being asked in an interview the strangest food he had ever eaten and answered “unwashed warthog anus.” (I’ll give you a second to reread that last phrase. Now let’s move on.) Oddly, the interviewer followed up by asking what was the most disgusting food he’d ever eaten, and without pausing Bourdain responded, “A McNugget.” The girls’ mother and I agree in principle, but on the rare occasions when we do take them to McDonald’s as a special treat they kick the gross factor up a notch by ordering vanilla ice cream cones and dipping the McNuggets in the ice cream. Keep in mind that these are people who mix virtually no foods. If we put vegetables in their eggs, they react like LL Cool J’s character in Toys. But this combination works for them. My arteries seize up in sympathy just watching this meal.
Fortunately, I had an answer. “Honey,” I said, because I talk that way, “I need to go to The Grange to get some hay and pellets for Turbo.” (And yes, we have a guinea pig named Turbo. Don’t judge us.) “That’s near the Chocolate Factory and I thought we could go there and pick out some candy for you and your sister.”
You don’t need a golden ticket.
A pondered this proposal for a moment as I pulled out onto Gilman Boulevard and said, “Well, if you think about it, I still have candy left over from last year’s Halloween and this year’s is coming up again soon. I don’t really need any more candy. I’d rather have the McNuggets.”
Well argued, I thought to myself. But I had an ace up my sleeve. “That makes sense, honey. But I know you’ll want ice cream with your McNuggets, and I don’t know a good way to get ice cream home for your sister.”
Again A thought this over as I continued on toward The Grange and the Chocolate Factory. “Well,” she said, “we don’t have to tell her.”
“That’s true,” I responded, doing my very best not to laugh, “but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Think about if the situation were reversed and your sister got to go to McDonald’s and you didn’t, and we didn’t tell you. I don’t think you’d like that very much if you ever found out.”
We crossed the last major street before our destination and I thought I had won. Then A played her last card. “One time last summer J (our neighbor) gave us all candy bars, except for T (her son), and she told us not to tell him.” I looked in the rear view mirror. A looked back at me calmly. She didn’t yet know the phrase, “So there’s precedent,” but I could tell she got the concept. I turned around. We went to McDonald’s. It was as gross as ever, watching that deep fried breading dip into the sugary white goo. And I knew that I was rewarding problematic behavior. No amount of explaining exactly why I turned the car around would convince the Dopamine receptors in A’s brain – which at that very moment were marinating in all that oily, bready goo – that it was reasoning I meant to reward, and not duplicity. But I decided it didn’t matter. As usual, what was most important to me was that we were playing together – and one of my favorite games. We would work later on playing the Game of Reasons right. Right then, I was just so happy watching her take a smooth swing and make contact.
Photo credit: Cynthia Freeland, Bantam, Boehm’s.