Unlike a mathematical equation, every human life embraces contradiction. I can feel love and hate toward the same person, for example. Similarly, the morals and customs of a community evolve in patchwork style, situation by situation, and need not be consistent. Thus I can, without embarrassment, believe in equal treatment for all and in preferential treatment for “special” persons.
Such contradictions enrage the rationalist, who believes human actions must achieve mathematical precision. For him social and political life must be centralized, rationalized, and subsumed under some ruling principle, which must then be pushed down to every activity and out to its logical extreme. If equality is the ideal, then equality must be enforced in every conceivable category. If democracy is sought, inherited institutions must be abolished to allow perfect proportionality of representation.
Inside the head of every rationalist can be found a sort of manual for the scientific management of society. (Marxists and Nazis enjoyed actual written manuals; utililitarians and non-Marxian socialists make do with a handful of unwritten but unquestioned assumptions.) The tendency to view the community as a machine with an operating system comes naturally in an age of technology. Daily life surely reinforces it: we expect to encounter situations, processes, and gadgets by the thousands that can be navigated only with the help of formal instructions.
Of course, everyone knows how instruction manuals work: badly. The simplest contraption proves too complex to describe in a functional or organic manner. How (an observer might ask) can a set of basic principles hope to explain and guide the overwhelming complexity of social norms and institutions, political processes, and myriad individual interactions in any given community?
Somehow, this doesn’t faze the rationalist. Failed manuals he will dismiss as the product of crude minds. Irrationalities resulting from the manual — reverse discrimination, say, or tiny political parties holding the balance of power — he will happily accept, so long as the ruling principles get implemented. The rationalist hunger for consistency far transcends reason, and appears rooted in esthetic pleasure.
It is the unyielding irrationality of his fellow citizens that triggers the rationalist’s anger, and confirms his worst suspicions: he is not like them, and they are not fit for self-government.
I suggested before that the rationalist impulse in politics leads to tyranny, and was in fact responsible for the worst political horrors of the twentieth century. The mainstream opinion, I want to make clear, is the exact opposite: that the violence of the last century was spawned by an outbreak of primitivism and irrationality. The most articulate proponent of this view was Karl Popper. He christened the malady “the revolt against reason.”
Popper lays out the argument on behalf of reason in the penultimate chapter of his magnificent The Open Society and Its Enemies. I will try to reproduce it here as faithfully as possible — but the reader who is seriously interested in the matter is urged to read the chapter and judge for himself.
Popper was a brilliant man, one of the great minds of the twentieth century. He defended rationalism for moral and political reasons. The alternatives, he thought, were Hegelian dogmatism and Romantic mysticism, which led to arbitrary, undemocratic, ultimately repressive models of society. Writing at the end of the terrible war against the Nazis, and foreshadowing the bloody conflicts against Marxist-Leninist regimes, Popper passionately wished to establish a universal language of political communication for liberal democracy. The critical method of science provided the model.
To avoid logical pitfalls, Popper put forward an eccentric definition of rationalism. He absorbed the empirical approach into the concept, and he carefully distinguished his own ideas from the “pseudo-rationalism” of elitists like Plato. Popperian rationalism was a moral and political analogue to science, “a readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience.”
Yet an “uncritical” enthusiasm for rationalism would be self-defeating: by relying strictly on argument and experience, it is impossible to establish the validity of either. Popper’s brand of “critical” rationalism could only be embraced by an act of “faith in reason.” The question at once arises why anyone should indulge in such a devotional act. For Popper, the answer wasn’t a matter of intellectual choice or personal taste but a “moral decision,” which he proposed to arrive at by “the rational and imaginative analysis of the consequences” of rationalism and irrationalism as moral theories.
Here the argument, always precarious, begins to fall apart. First of all, consequences are unforeseeable. If I give a street person ten dollars, he may buy a meal and reform his life, or buy drugs and engage in a frenzy of violence, or go to the bank and laugh at me. How can I predict? And if I simply “imagine” a happy consequence, or whichever consequence I prefer, aren’t I guilty of a moral arbitrariness more appalling than that of any dogmatist or mystic?
But second, and more importantly, how do I assess the moral rightness of the consequences? I will need a moral theory for that — but on Popper’s account I can’t decide on a theory before I imagine its consequences. I’m stuck on an infinite regress, the fate of every consequentialist.
Of course, Popper assumed the universality of those humane moral principles nourished under Christianity and Enlightenment philosophy. He made this clear by his own assessment of the consequences. But that’s an appeal to tradition, perfectly valid in my view, yet wholly against the grain of Popper’s program. For Popper, tradition is a form of original sin: the primitive “closed society,” which modern “oracular” thinkers, by their war against reason, are trying to resurrect.
Again, that description doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A tradition can be more or less open or closed. The Athenians followed one tradition, the Spartans another. Even the exemplary model of openness, science, works largely on tradition — the “scientific method” really means a “scientific tradition” — as Popper himself admitted in Conjectures and Refutations. Had Popper embraced traditional morality, he would have had a theory with which to imagine the consequences — but then he wouldn’t have needed any imagining.
The problem with rationalism, whether critical or not, is that it assumes individuals can reason their way to a common morality. This assumption is wrong on many levels. Reason doesn’t foster the “unity of mankind,” as Popper believed. There have been as many rationalist moralities as there have been rationalist philosophers. To expect that millions of individuals with diverse personalities, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives will arrive at a single answer to a moral dilemma seems, at best, naive.
Even if a miracle occurred and mankind reasoned its way to unity, it would not stick. Morality isn’t grounded on reason, but on feeling. If I offered you $100 to sleep with your wife, or to purchase one of your children, you would not, in response, engage in a critical examination of my offer. You’d feel anger and probably punch me in the nose. The passion shown by Popper on behalf of his ideals, and the very weakness of his logic, suggests that even among philosophers moral feelings trump reasoned arguments.
Morality depends on emotion, and emotion links back to tradition. None of this implies moral arbitrariness — quite the opposite, it opens the only path available to the “unity of mankind.” A community is primed by emotion to respond to specific moral facts. Such facts are accessible to everyone, and stand more or less open to criticism depending on the traditions of the community. Thus an illiterate day laborer can recognize evil no less clearly than a professor of mathematics — sometimes, much more so.
It is surprising that Popper, with his dazzling intellectual gifts, failed to perceive this alternative. He wrote at a time of terrible loss and despair, and his hopes were heavily invested in the redemptive power of science. The intellectual opponents he demolished in The Open Society — Plato, Hegel, Marx, and many lesser lights — were indeed promoters of the moral confusion that had enfeebled the West. But in defending our heritage against these destructive forces, Popper inflicted damage of his own.
His distrust of tradition led him to the error — a fatal one, in my opinion — of turning away from the only solid ground on which a democratic morality and politics can rest. Everything he proposed thereafter hangs in mid-air.
The consequences lead directly to the very disasters he sought to prevent. Criticism and debate must, at some point, transform to action. Yet, having discarded tradition, Popper placed in question the moral guideposts and habits held in common by the population. Exalting rationalism in the form of argument and experience only offered up a substitute that refutes itself, even when taken on faith. Nothing besides remains.
Popper unwittingly surrendered the moral high ground to the cynics and nihilists who scorn action of any kind: people unlikely to stand and fight when the rationalist politician, driven by the hunger for consistency, begins to enforce his operating manual over the blood of innocents.