Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action

Brad C. Anderson

There are several reasons this is true. As shown above, rationality takes many forms. Though each type allows us to see a different aspect of our world, they have blind spots. Try as we might, we are not omniscient. There are always limits to our knowledge.

We can use practical reason to build a rich picture of how to achieve a goal, but even then, there will still be things of which we lack knowledge. We must progress with a spirit of experimentation and a willingness to learn and course-correct along the way.

Importantly, though we use knowledge and rationality to figure out how to do something, they do not tell us what is worth doing. For that, we need values. As discussed in the previous chapter, values tell us what ends are worth pursuing and what means are appropriate to achieve those ends.

Conversely, rationality helps us understand our operating environment and develop techniques to perform tasks and resolve problems. If values tell us what to achieve, rationality tells us how to obtain it.

This is an important distinction that people often forget. For example, in healthcare, one side might argue, “The science shows this is how we delay frailty” (technocratic rationality). The other side argues, “This financial analysis shows we cannot afford it” (economic rationality).

If you have worked in an organization, you know these debates could linger for months, even years. We may think this is a conflict between technocratic and economic rationality. My study says this; your study says that, so what should we do?

The truth is, though, this is not a debate between rationalities but between values. The real debate is this. Should we delay frailty (value=public interest) or maintain financial viability (value=sustainablility)? How can we achieve both values without sacrificing the other?

The solution to that debate will not come from presenting your studies’ results to the other side. To progress, both parties must first agree on what values the organization should pursue and then use the relevant rationalities to chart a path to achieve those ends.

It is true, though, that sometimes rationalities do conflict. For example, a doctor may know a scientific study says they should treat a disease one way (technocratic rationality). When faced with a new patient’s unique characteristics, though, their intuition may tell them a different treatment is needed (body rationality).

How do we resolve conflicts between rationalities? The answer is complicated. Future chapters in this textbook will address that question.


Key Takeaways

  • Our knowledge is often limited and flawed. Therefore, we always act in an environment of uncertainty and must be willing to learn along the way.
  • Often, what we think are conflicts between different forms of rationalities are, in fact, conflicts between different values.
  • People must first agree on what values should be pursued and then apply appropriate rationalities to determine how to achieve them.


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Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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