I am currently reading “The Sentiment of Rationality,” and can’t help but remark on the genius of its author, William James, who was both a great and original thinker and a profoundly American mind. James accepted all facts as friends, no matter how painful they may feel or how disreputable they may appear to polite intellectual society. Seen through his eyes, the world sparkles with possibilities.
I won’t dwell on James’ philosophy of pragmatism, other than to say that, in my opinion, he accurately describes the mechanism by which we accept or reject reality (curiously, this mechanism tends to reject itself, so James’ ideas will never be popular). His interest in the logic and practice of religion puts to shame current ranters like Richard Dawkins, who wish only to make strait the gate of science for the ignorant multitudes. James sought literally to broaden our understanding and widen our choices: he was an intellectual conquistador, rather than a inquisitorial fanatic.
Regarding the mysterious human habit of giving “reasons,” on which I posted recently, James opened the way to the most fruitful research being conducted today. Rationality, he maintained, is largely a matter of familiarity, of the ease with which we can travel between objects and relations, causes and consequences. A disconnected, unfamiliar fact irritates, frustrates, and alarms the intellect. As James observed, there are good evolutionary reasons why this should be so.
James’ insight into the “rational” — that it is a feeling of “ease, peace, rest,” in sum, of familiarity — anticipated the fascinating work by Antonio Damasio, a debt Damasio freely acknowledges. Between James and Damasio came two wasted generations, when progress in understanding the human mind veered off toward sterile explanations based on behaviorism and “repression.” If we thank James for nothing else, we should thank him for having out-thought, out-scienced, and outlasted his younger contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
I believe James’ view of rationality translates quite well to morality — specifically, to the concept of character.
Consider: what is “good character”? In practical terms, it consists of developing the right habits of mind and behavior. The result is an unbreakable whole, a vital spring of action rather than an accurate parsing of the thou shalts and thou shalt nots of morality. The person of good character achieves self-rule for purposes valued by the community. The goal is integrity: life with a theme. When approximated — perfection is beyond human attainment — such a life generates all the dignity and meaningfulness of which our species is capable.
But how do we judge good character in others? Given what we just said above, it must be judged as a whole. We say, “He is a trustworthy person,” not “He obeys the rules of morality 97 percent of the times.” In fact, the manner in which we asses a person’s character is similar to how, according to James, we assess rationality.
Both rationality and character can be argued about endlessly. When do we fully understand anything? When do we truly know another human being? We need a compass to direct our judgment, and we need a stopping-point.
The compass is what James calls “expectancy”: “the relation of a thing to its future consequences.” It is the task of rationality, therefore, to “banish uncertainty from the future.” The same applies to a judgment of character. It is dominated by the Jamesian “sense of futurity”: we wonder what would happen if we leave our children around a person, or trust him with a loan of our money. Considered as a fact in the world, a person’s character becomes a decision about future consequences.
The stopping-point, as with rationality, is a feeling of rightness and familiarity. It’s never a question of degrees. We either trust or we don’t. Custom, James observes, plays a critical part: “To explain a thing is to pass easily back to its antecedents; to know it is easily to foresee its consequences. Custom, which lets us do both, is thus the source of whatever rationality the thing may gain in our thought.” Similarly with character. The daily observation of behavior, even in relatively superficial circumstances — for example, as an office-mate or member of a sports team — leads to a feeling of acceptance undistinguishable from a favorable judgment on character.
Once the judgment is made, character becomes a reason in itself, self-evident and self-justifying. The Constitution allowed a strong executive in large part because the Framers knew George Washington would be the first president. He was the reason for their decision. Many, many decisions are made with a personal name as the reason: usually a spouse’s, or a child’s, or a parent’s, or a friend’s, but sometimes a public figure’s. We need not explain further, and probably couldn’t if we tried. It would sound lawyerly and Jesuitical and mean.
That, incidentally, is why reputation was so important to our forebears — to none more obsessively than to George Washington. Once reputation is put in question, every answer sounds hollow. If people say much more of you than “He is a good man,” they likely don’t believe you are. The best character is always the least debated.