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 The Reason for Reason


Disciplines Argument > Articles > The Reason for Reason

Self: Justifying decisions | Social: Persuading others | Independent: Seeking truth | See also


Why are we so interested in argument and reasoning? What is the real benefit? What is the reason for reason? Yes, we can say it is about truth and sometimes it is. But often, it is not. We are rationalizing more than we are rational. We use reason for personal reasons as much as for impersonal pursuit of what is truly right. Even when reasoning is not reasonable, it serves a purpose and hence continues to be used.

Self: Justifying decisions

A lot of the time we use reasoning, it is to justify decision we have already made, rather than to come to a decision. We make decisions based on intuition or desire, then seek reasons to prove that these decisions were correct, rather than seek facts and truth.


We hence are subject to confirmation bias as we seek justification. This typically includes ignoring evidence and arguments that show we are wrong and focusing only on what helps us prove what we want to say. Not only this, but the effect of our bias blind spot means we do not realize we are being biased.

This happens a lot in argument where we seek to build a case for what we want rather than to openly seek the truth.

Success in confirmation is finding reasons and evidence that supports your pre-existing decision.

Personal reasons

We often want to justify decisions just to feel good. In particular our need for internal consistency drives us to justification that has at least face validity. We may also have other personal motivations driving the reasoning rather than a simple desire to agree on truth.

Success in personal reasons is finding justification for personal motives and desires.

Social reasons

Even as we are arguing with ourselves, we are driven by what others might think. In order to be accepted by others, we need to appear logical and hence feel we must make 'reasonable' decisions that we can explain. Even if we do not explain we prepare for this, rehearsing arguments about why we decided as we did.

Success in social reasoning means finding good reason for some kind of action by others or yourself on their behalf.

Social: Persuading others

A common purpose for a reasoned argument is for persuading others. We hence create reasons that we hope will make sense to others. When speaking with them, we will also use any other tools at our disposal, such as projecting powerful body language.


A classic social reasoning situation is when you want to persuade others about something. You put forward apparently logical arguments that, in theory at least, cannot be denied. This is the position of sales people who are trying to persuade you to buy their products.

Success when proposing is not about truth. It is about getting others to agree with you.


Even harder than proposing a persuasive argument is when the other person is trying to persuade you about something different. You now have to find reasonable answers to their arguments

Success when debating is the win-lose result of destroying the other person's argument while getting them to admit that your argument is reasonable and must be accepted.

Independent: Seeking truth

Despite the above, sometimes we use reason as a tool for seeking the real truth of a situation.

Reason was once the holy grail of argument. If what I say makes sense, then it must be true. Yet what makes sense is not always correct.


In a normal honest discussion, the purpose that is shared by all participants is to talk openly about a subject. What is known and not known (which is also truth) is put on the table and examined. People do not take 'positions' that they try to defend (unless this is a deliberate discovery tactic). This is the normal situation that should be found in scientific and academic communities. In practice, though, experts often spend more time in proposing and debate as they focus first on protecting their status.

Success in honest discussion is when knowledge is shared and truth is discovered.


Dialogue is an open-ended and honest exploration of how other people think. It requires strong trust as people admit the limitations of their understanding. People talk about their personal truths and their lack of understanding. They seek to empathize with one another, understanding emotion as well as thoughts and reasoning.

Success occurs in dialogue is when people get to understand one another more deeply.

See also

Confirmation Bias, Bias Blind Spot, The Need to Explain, The Need for Esteem


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