The role of reason in morality

Rationalists wield reason as a weapon against tradition, which they hold to be nothing more than a clutter of inconsistencies and superstition.  Yet the rationalists’ conception of reason itself is the product of a tradition harking back to the seventeenth century.  This tradition embraces dogmatic assumptions about human knowledge which fly in the face of cognitive research, and appears, to the non-rationalist, remarkably like a superstition.

In the world of the rationalist, Michael Oakeshott argued, the only legitimate knowledge is technical knowledge.  A single set of abstract rules must guide every human endeavor, from the most trivial to the most complex.  Rationalists are people of the book.

Haute cuisine gets reduced to a cookbook.  The art of government becomes a bare formula  invoked in the style of a religious ritual, which is believed to explain either the hidden source of all policy (the class struggle) or its noblest end (the happiness of the greatest number).  Diversity of thought, though praised in theory, is abominated in reality, because for the people of the book there can be only one right answer.

Reality becomes the rationalist’s worst nightmare.  To actually achieve anything, Oakeshott observed, we need something more than an instruction manual.  Oakeshott called it practical knowledge:  the ability to cook a five-star meal or to craft effective policy.  This kind of knowledge can only be acquired in the doing, by constant practice in the presence of a master:  think learning the serve in tennis, or working as a student lab assistant in science.  Action in such situations is informed by tradition — by the memory of past actions that have succeeded in achieving the desired ends.

Very little can be accomplished without practical knowledge, yet the rationalist is condemned by his assumptions to eradicate it.  Because he is intellectually vain, he distrusts whatever he can’t understand; because he is religiously formulaic, he rejects facts, processes, and actions that won’t fit into an equation.  The first step toward right thinking, he believes, is to empty one’s head of such nonsense.

The great proto-rationalist, Descartes, began his search for truth by entombing himself in a German stove and draining his mind of all knowledge, until he could hit on the formula that explained the world.  Descartes’ successors rejected his formula but remained faithful to his method.  In his Theory of Justice, for example, John Rawls expected the principles of moral and political life to be discovered behind a voluntary “veil of ignorance” about one’s “place in society,” “class position or social status,” wealth, etc.  If, to the Romantic, truth was beauty, to the rationalist ignorance is truth.

The application of rationalism to practical affairs — in politics, for example — leads predictably to failure.  This explains the frustration and anger which, as I have noted elsewhere, is the rationalist’s eternal condition.

The point I wish to establish here, however, is that the rationalist conception of reason rests on convention.  True, it’s a convention propagated and believed to be identical to reality by a brilliant, articulate sect — but a convention nonetheless.  To understand the part reason plays in morality, we’ll have to push beyond the shared dogmas and traditions of the rationalists, and look on reason with a fresh eye.

Human cognition consists of a number of integrated capabilities.  There’s perception, which receives signals from the world; there’s the symbolic mastery, unique to our species, which organizes the signals; there’s emotion, which tags both signals and symbols to power an appropriate action.  Other capabilities easily come to mind:  for example, memory of the past and imagination of the future.  But the point, I think, has been made.

Thinking is complex.  The acquisition of knowledge depends on a dynamic matrix of capabilities with multiple feedback loops and multiple points of instability.  To pick one capability out, and crown it king, is a gross error — akin to minutely studying a nose and concluding, “What an interesting country!”

Reason is the symbolic ability to invent categories for the signals arriving from the world, and to relate such categories to one another.  Categories and relations alike can be defined more or less formally, and the result can be as simple as a list of colors or as convoluted as quantum theory.  Reason is the most powerful cognitive tool evolved by organic life, but it is entirely dependent on experience.  A brain in a vat, deprived of sensory apparatus, would have no way to grasp the meaning of one and two.

“Pure reason” is a rationalist convention.  All reason is impure.  Beyond the stimulus of perception, emotion drives and calibrates the use of reason.  The search for knowledge begins with a craving rooted in uncertainty or curiosity; it ends with a feeling of completeness.  Otherwise, we would swim endlessly and inconclusively in a sea of information — which, indeed, is the fate of patients with damage to the brain’s emotional centers.  Neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his tellingly titled Descartes’ Error, has shown conclusively how loss of emotion degrades rational decision-making.

Reason mediates between perception and the emotions that lead to action.  The world is nothing but buzz and noise.  Reason makes sense of the world by ruthlessly simplifying it.  According to one measure, we receive over 11 million data bits per second from our sensory apparatus, but only 10 – 20 bits per second are made available to consciousness.

That’s all reason can handle.  It imposes categorical order by leaving most information out, and using the rest to transform the world:   from buzz and noise to a sequence of meaningful, coherent scenes.  Emotion, in turn, tags each scene, powering what a long series of ancestral encounters determined was adaptive behavior.

Perception captures the signals, reason sets the scene, emotion drives behavior.  The process is complex yet instantaneous, and exhibits a simple type of formal logic:  if p then q.  If I see a lion, or a speeding truck, bearing down on me, I get out of the way fast.  If I see a friend, I make welcoming noises.  If I’m in church, I’ll behave piously.  If I’m at the ballpark, I will drink beer and scream at players who can’t hear me.

If p then q describes the logic by means of which we seek to navigate, consciously, through the world and its perils.  It also defines the role of reason in morality.

Morality isn’t a set of principles or commandments that must apply to every situation.  That too is a dogmatic assumption of the rationalist.  Morality falls under what Oakeshott called practical knowledge:  it is learned in the doing, one situation at a time.  As with behavior in church and the ballpark, there is no requirement for consistency, and no authority beyond custom and tradition.  But there is an internal logic:  morality pertains to specific situations p, which entail specific behaviors q.

The skill to discern a moral fact amid the noise of the world must be of some importance to human survival, since we have evolved a moral sense just for that purpose.  Reason, the great simplifier, unclutters the environment for the operation of the moral sense.  While the moral sense disposes, reason proposes:  “Here is a situation with features similar to specific situation p.”

(Specificity, it should be noted, complicates the act of cognition.  A general rule — “hitting a child is wrong,” for example — would be easy enough to apply mechanically.  But a woman hitting a child may be a mother imposing discipline, or an abuser.  The latter calls for moral judgment and action, the former for neither.)

Ultimately, true rationality in moral behavior consists of understanding and following the logic of moral facts within a living tradition.  If p then q is not an abstract formula to be imposed on life, but an oversimplification of actual conduct at its most successful.  “If a child is suffering abuse, the latter must be stopped, and the perpetrator punished.”  This proposition doesn’t depend on logic:  it depends on us.  We hold child abuse to be an abomination.  Other nations — the Spartans, for example — have encouraged child abuse as a form of moral education.

Oakeshott, the shrewdest observer on the subject, uses words like “faithfulness” and “sympathy” with a way of life, to define that elusive quality, rationality in action:

if rationality is to be properly attributed to conduct, it must be a quality of the conduct itself.  On this principle, practical human conduct may be counted “rational” in respect of its faithfulness to a knowledge of how to behave well, in respect to its faithfulness to its tradition of moral activity.

The rationalist’s dogmatic demand for a ruling abstraction from which all conduct must flow is, at bottom, irrational and absurd.  Because of the high value he places on ignorance, he will be unfaithful to and out of sympathy with his own moral tradition, which he will happily topple without having anything practical to put in its place.  The consequence of rationalism in politics, I have said before, is tyranny:  but when the rationalist enters the domain of morality, the consequence can only be nihilism.


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