Applying the Principle of Rational Acceptance

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, learn what you can do to assess a claim when you cannot verify it using evidence. We'll focus on everyday examples of how you can evaluate the arguments of others.

A Principle for Evaluating Claims

The principle of rational acceptance can be described as a set of guidelines to help determine if it is reasonable to accept a given statement. This can be used when you can't really test out the truthfulness of a statement on your own. It's a way of making a judgment call, even though you cannot access evidence.

You can use this approach to look critically at the argument someone is making. The purpose is to help you think through and determine the likelihood that an argument is valid, so you don't come to false conclusions too quickly.

In this lesson, you'll learn the basics of applying the principle to everyday situations. This includes examples of claims and how you might evaluate them. You'll also get a taste for what happens when you do not follow guidelines while assessing whether a claim is reasonable.

Questions to Ask

Asking questions when evaluating claims is one way to go about following this principle. An initial question to ask yourself, is whether an argument someone else makes conflicts with your personal experience? You can further pursue this by determining if the argument also conflicts with your background beliefs.

The principle also asks you to consider if the information is coming from a credible source. But how do you know if a source is credible?

In order to determine credibility, you might ask the following questions: If the source is considered an expert, is he making claims that are in his field of expertise? Does the source have other motives for making the claim?

And finally, is the claim believable overall?

Let's apply these guidelines to two related scenarios in order to help you better understand how this principle could be used to consider the premises made by someone else.

Example: Hand Washing

It is common knowledge that you need to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, or coughing or sneezing into your hands. Ever notice how many people don't? Are you sometimes guilty of this too?

When someone tells you that not washing your hands increases the spread of disease and infection, how do you evaluate this claim? In reality, you could verify this through evidence you find online, but let's say you aren't able to access this information. How would you go about assessing the claim?

First question: Does the belief conflict with your personal experience?

Perhaps you could make the case that in all the years you haven't been washing your hands, you've never had anything major happen to you. But then again, you can't be sure that nothing at all has happened. For instance, you have no way to be sure you haven't passed on any illnesses by sneezing into your hand and then using a door knob.

You can also think about your background beliefs. You've been told your whole life that hand washing is important, but then again, you've also heard from your grandmother that a bit of dirt is 'good for you.'

As you can tell, using only your personal experience and background as meters for the reliability of a claim has its shortcomings, because it's based on very limited experience. It is, however, a place to start.

Moving on, you should then consider the source of those telling you it's important to wash your hands.

Let's say that your sister, who works for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is the one telling you that you should wash your hands. Perhaps you already know that her job at the CDC makes her an expert in this area.

Now you might ask whether your sister, whom you trust, has any reason to mislead you. So far her argument looks pretty strong. Following the principle of rational acceptance, you've assessed the argument that hand washing likely has benefits, as she describes.

Example: Antibacterial Soap

One day you see a TV commercial for an antibacterial soap from the Super Ultimate Soap Company. A happy looking man pumps a big glob of the soap into his hands and washes well, his hands looking sparkling clean as a result. The advertisement claims you should buy their antibacterial product for a better clean you can trust.

Let's evaluate the claim. First of all, does it conflict with your personal experience? You've used both antibacterial and regular soap with no differences you can see, but you realize that there could be more happening on the scientific side of things that you aren't able to verify.

Your only background with antibacterial products was in the hospital after you had your appendix removed. In that environment, you remember hearing that some of these products were used but you are unable to verify whether they are for the average consumer.

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