20 November 2019



There are two aspects to expectations: (1) what a reasonable or rational person would reasonably and rationally expect to happen. (2) What a person subjectively expects to happen based on experience, reason or randomly desires.

What is reasonable or rational might itself be subjective. The legal idea of what is reasonable (English common law) includes the idea that the reasonable person should consider how a prudent person would act: needless to say the subject is more complex than that. Moreover, what is prudent depends on the context of the situation. From our perspective the subjective factor maybe said to exist in the context aspect of what is reasonable. Does the context determine what is reasonable or does the person come to the context as a ready-made moral prudent person? A classical example is: would it be prudent and, therefore, reasonable for a person to collaborate with the commandant of a concentration camp to save one’s life? Indeed, how far can we argue that collaborating with the enemy is reasonable? In any event are situations of expectation always subjective since we cannot put ourselves into the actor’s context since this is by definition always subjective?

However, compare the legal doctrine of acting reasonably and strict or absolute liability: in a strict liability case the actor need not have the intention (mens rea) to be strictly liable for the act (actus reus).  Each jurisdiction has its own set of strict liability “criminal” acts such as selling products under weight, rape of sex.ual acts with someone under the age of consent, and so on. In other words, what is reasonable is not exactly something that we can easily engage in without problems.

There is also a difference between expectations, which strongly suggest that a certain context might exist in the future, for example a job interview, and finding one’s self in a context which is not anticipated and unreasonable to anticipate; e.g. trying to survive in a concentration camp. Maybe the Concentration camp dilemma is answered by such legal examples as cannibalism at sea and obeying orders.

A legal pointer might be the celebrated cannibalism-at-sea case of “R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC is a leading English criminal case which established a precedent throughout the common law world that necessity is not a defence to a charge of murder” (Wikipedia). At the other extreme we have the defence of “obeying orders” also known as the, “Nuremberg Principle IV, "defense of superior orders" is not a defence for war crimes, although it might be a mitigating factor that could influence a sentencing authority to lessen the penalty.” (Wikipedia)

Fortunately we do not have to decide on the legal aspects of expectations, but what is clear is that expectations might not be as innocent looking as we might imagine: we do, however, ought to concern ourselves with the ethical and moral issues that arise from trying to be reasonable including acting reasonable in the legal sense.

What is rational depends once again on the context. In economics we find the idea of the person (rational agent) maximising one’s satisfaction or utility when choosing to buy something or do something. The issue with this definition is that someone might forego maximising one’s present satisfaction today in the expectations that such satisfaction might be stronger in the future. For example, I can buy a second hand sports car today or wait two months for a new sports car.

In psychology and behaviourism we have the principle of Delayed gratification and in economics we have time preference or time discounting (search terms on the internet).  Sure one can mathematically account in economics for time discounting, but I submit that in both cases we still face the issues of what is reasonable and what is pure subjective fantasy. In psychology we might defer trying to partner we someone we know in the hope that we might meet someone even better or at least someone who meets our expectations.

In philosophy we find the idea of rationality to include following valid argument based on logical arguments. Given that there are various forms of logic, from deductive reasoning, inductive logic, statistical analysis and fuzzy logic, we might fail to apply the right logic methodology given the context. A specific issue for us is what is the right logic to apply when acting on our expectations, maybe inductive or statistical logic, and what logic to apply to make value judgments. Whilst we accept that a general leading an army to get rid of an invader might use the most effective weapons, but are the general’s expectations curtailed by considering unnecessary deaths to this army and the enemy? 

What we expect, however, is different from what will actually happen and what can happen. What happens in the future is not necessarily caused by what we expect. This is not to say that our expectations might not lead us to act in such a way that at the end of the process what happens is what we expect. Students might expect to pass an exam and thus work harder at trying to pass the exam. But we also know what we can learn better by virtue of being fully motivated and committed. Thus what is causing us to be better learners: our expectations or our motivation? In any event, we usually fail to consider that our actions are a legitimate link in the causal chain of events; e.g. Heisenberg principle and maybe even the Pygmalion effect.

At the same time our expectations might fall foul to our lack or absence of relevant information, assumptions and the actions of others beyond our control. Although we accept that there isn’t an evil deceiver of the Cartesian kind, it does not mean that there aren’t people who wish us ill or will do us ill inadvertently. Indeed this is a real issue in inductive logic and statistical analysis. Bias and absence of relevant information can cause errors and miscalculations in our analysis.

By identifying the issues with what is reasonable, rational and moral will help us anticipate the pitfalls we might encounter in our legitimate deliberations about our future encounters.

In effect expectations have no causal link with reality. However, expectations are envisions of how our world will be like and how it will affect us. Another aspect of expectations is that our expectations are always in a context: indeed what would it be like to have expectations outside a given context? We might call these expectations a strong form of expectations. In other words, expectations that affect us directly and certainly expectations we have been working on to bring about or cause.

Soft expectations are events we would consider to be normal in our life, but do not have the status of strong expectations. For example, if we leave for the office at 8am we expect the traffic to be busy and the public transport packed with commuters. If we don’t find the metro full of people or the roads full of cars we might be surprised and wonder whether we missed something such as a public holiday or the countdown to Armageddon. These sorts of expectations are part of our daily life and if we didn’t have such reasonable regularity in our life we wouldn’t be able to function in a civilized society. Indeed that’s one of the main advantages of living in a civilized society: a certain degree regularity and stability, until that is someone or something make a mess of everything for us.

Whilst it is reasonable and rational to have a certain degree of expectations, as I have argued, not all expectations are made equally. There is no arguments or objection that the future is wild and uncertain, but for us what matters is how reasonable and rational are our expectations? And the issue of expectations is, therefore, a matter of epistemology first and certainly not a metaphysical problem only.

Best Lawrence

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