Wandering Thoughts

May 11, 2009

Not Unreasonable

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:39 pm

Reason has its limits. It’s hard, for example, to make a reasoned case for anything more than enlightened self interest. It’s equally hard I should add, lest any libertarians in the audience be tempted to pull out stumps and declare victory after only a sentence, to make a reasoned case for unmitigated selfishness. Either way, in political philosophy, reason can only take you so far in answering the whys before it starts to run out of steam.

“We should provide everyone with accessible health care.”
“Because health is an integral component to peoples’ wellbeing.”
“And society should be structured to maximise the well being of its members.”

With time and patience you can get a bit further but eventually, it seems to me at least, you end up mired in the sands of arguments where reason has little traction. Propelled by reason you can get close to being able to anchor political philosophy in the stuff of the universe but never quite there. Eventually some leap of faith is required.

Similarly, some of the things we value most in life don’t appear to stem from reason at all – love, ascetics, altruism, bravery, tenacity, hope…

Which begs the question, perhaps there’s an alternative to reason? A fairly popular one in the circles I knock about in is spirituality – guidance from belief in something supernatural. We don’t have to reason our morals – we can take them from the bible, or the inspired teachings of a Buddha, or straight out of the universe itself. I can see the temptation; faith has been a motivating factor behind many of the acts of kindness that have interrupted the generally sad sweep of history. And, if, as I said above, leaps of faith are required in all political philosophies why not use faith to make them?

The trouble is, arguments of faith and spirituality lack one critical component that reason does have – a common language for mediating differences. If your god told you to set society up in a particular way, while mine told me to do so in a different manner altogether, we have no way of mediating our differences. Seeing as they are both divinely revealed, true on their own terms and right, we have no potential for navigating between the two.

Consider the statements: “Sex outside marriage is bad because god says so” and “Sex outside marriage is bad because it leaves people unhappy.” The first leaves no space for further conversation (god said it – so there!); the second offers the opportunity for logical testing using evidence. It could well be challenged, proven wrong and discarded by reasonable people.

Saying all this isn’t to deny people their personal beliefs: I appreciate the role spirituality has in the lives of many, it’s just to point out that in public policy – the realm where we negotiate our collective decisions about our actions that impact on us together – we need to be able to test competing propositions using a common framework. And for this there’s no real substitute for reason, despite all its flaws.



  1. Well said …and I’ve tried to write several replies to this but they all came over too waffly. So yeah, concise rationale wins out this time.

    Comment by Tom — May 18, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

  2. waffly replies are fine…

    Comment by terence — May 19, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

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