Actions and reasons

Some aspects of life appear simple, but only because we assume a great deal and miss even more.  Our constant need for reasons falls squarely in this class.  We massively and routinely over-reason about everyday events.  That is a universal human condition, true in all times and of all peoples.  Hunter gatherers reasoned that bad sorcery caused the stomach pain.  Office workers reason that sexual or racial prejudice, or the old boys’ network, determine career decisions.

Why do we need such a superabundance of reasons?  What’s the reason for reasons?

We are a symbolic species.  A craving for meaning is in our DNA.  The reasons we give for even the most trivial occurrences seek to attach themselves to higher, more meaningful, more potent reasons.  The clothes I choose to wear are a good example.  They are never just protection from the weather.  Far more important reasons, having to do with tribe, or class, or age cohort, or sports fanaticism, determine my wardrobe.

Most reasons try to explain social interactions, which means they aim at persuasion rather than truth.  If I say, “I am a brave warrior.  I ran away to fight another day,” the important thing is whether I am believed or not.  The difficulty of moral judgment lies precisely in the fuzziness of moral reasoning.

Columbia University sociologist Charles Tilly has put out a book with the clumsy title of Why?, on the subject of reasons.  As reviewed by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, the book sounds like its subject:  persuasive but not necessarily accurate.  Tilly does the usual creative categorizing, giving us three types of reasons — conventions, stories, and codes — which he claims are situation-dependent.

Effective reason-giving, then, involves matching the kind of reason we give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a reason is necessary. The fact that Timothy’s mother accepts tattling from his father but rejects it from Timothy is not evidence of capriciousness; it just means that a husband’s relationship to his wife gives him access to a reasongiving category that a son’s role does not. The lesson “Don’t be a tattletale” — which may well be one of the hardest childhood lessons to learn — is that in the adult world it is sometimes more important to be appropriate than it is to be truthful.

Well, maybe.  It is probably a truism to say that the complexity of reason-giving can be explained in many ways.

Anyone who doubts this should dip into the murky waters of the Moussaoui trial, which drags on in pursuit of an explanation for the defendant’s actions, and possibly of his personality.  Who is this man?  What did he seek to do?  What were his reasons?  Witnesses attempt to provide the answers.

Giles Cohen said he met Moussaoui, a Muslim, in 1986. Moussaoui moved into Cohen’s home for a few months in 1989, and the two discussed politics, often laughing and joking as they explored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“What seduced me was his big smile, his love for life, his sense of humor,” Cohen recalled. “We would pretend to be fighting and then at the end fall into each other’s arms,” Cohen said through an interpreter in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

A seductive and humorous love of life characterized Moussaoui’s behavior.  He was, his sister told the jury, “the little sweetheart of the family.”  But wait:

Testifying Thursday, Moussaoui, 37, said his only regret about the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people is that more Americans did not die. He labeled the victims and family members who testified against him “disgusting.”

In the trial’s first phase, Moussaoui testified that he wanted to kill all Americans and said he had planned to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House on Sept. 11.

The love of life and the love of death appear, in this rough heap of reasons, practically indistinguishable.  The WaPo reporters conclude that the testimony mustered by the defense is an “effort to explain what may be the unexplainable.”  But if Tilly is right, Moussaoui merely had “access to a reasongiving category” with his buddy Cohen and his sister, but not with the jury or the rest of us.

None of this matters from a moral perspective.  Morally, the Moussaoui case is wholly straighforward.  He planned monstrous crimes, and now boasts of it:  he’s a nasty, vicious man.  Access to categories changes nothing.  Explaining the unexplainable adds nothing.

Good and evil often can’t be expained in any causal sense; they can only be determined.  In cases like this, our human craving for reasons can only lead us to a great chasm, beyond which lie what Pascal called the reasons of the heart — about which reason itself knows nothing.  Morality therefore must aim at judgment, leaving forgiveness to saints and understanding to sociologists.


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