August 31, 2007

Wrong Reason

In response to the previous post a discussion ensued concerning the difference between Richard Hooker’s conception of reason and of that of the Enlightenment. I suggested that Hooker’s use of the word is broader than that of the Enlightenment philosophers, but actually quite close to a contemporary understanding of reason as “rationality” — the ability to understand, think, and communicate. In short, this is not very far from what people today would call “common sense.” This understanding is far less rigorous than the “right reason” of the Stoic and later philosophers.

“Right reason” in the sense that Hooker uses the term is always contextual. It is not divorced from the world-view in which it finds itself, unlike the Enlightenment’s notion of an autonomous or pure reason. It is a rational faculty that is common to all people (other than infants and the mentally challenged), and it is in large part exercised in that community, rather than in autonomy. As Hooker put it,

Reason is the director of man’s Will by discovering in action what is good. For the Laws of well-doing are the dictates of right Reason. Children, which are not as yet come unto those years whereat they may have; again, innocents, which are excluded by natural defect from ever having; thirdly, madmen, which for the present cannot possibly have the use of right Reason to guide themselves, have for their guide the Reason that guideth other men; which are tutors over them to seek and to procure their good for them. In the rest there is that light of Reason, whereby good may be known from evil, and which discovering the same rightly is termed right. (I.7.4)

The problem with notions of “right reason” in a natural law context arise when defined as “the faculty which allows all people naturally to understand as good that which is good.” This can lead to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy:

No Scotsman drinks Irish whiskey.
But McPherson drinks Irish whiskey.
Ah, but then McPherson’s no true Scotsman!

For example, in the sexuality debate, it leads to the assertion that no rational person could see same-sexuality as good — and that therefore those who make the “choice” in favor of that “lifestyle” do so under the influence of a corrupted culture, or a deficient moral sense (the inability to see as bad that which is bad), or from mere perversity intentionally to do what they know is wrong. The failure here, of course, lies in the fact that those who oppose same-sexuality may equally be influenced by cultural or religious conditioning, a moral blindness (the inability to see as good that which is good) or even a willful perversity that desires wrongfully to control others with whom they disagree.

This is not to say that there may not be many moral principles that can indeed be held in common — but comparing the lists of such moral principles drawn up in various places and times shows that they differ considerably, particularly in the area of sexuality and the structures of family life; and so it is probably best to accept the fact that moral reason is strongly conditioned by culture — undercutting or at least minimizing the idea that a truly universal natural law or reason can be discerned from the examination of actual life.

As a Christian, I prefer (on the authority of the One who gave it) the Summary of the Law and more particularly the Golden Rule as rational rules of thumb for the discernment of morality. I hope to post a longer article on that subject shortly.

Tobias Haller BSG


Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias, I'm pleased that you're doing these posts. you're getting down to the nitty-gritty, to the heart of the matter.

I did not feel that I knew enough to comment on the Hooker posts since - dare I say it? - I have not read Hooker.

In basing morality on the "natural law", we find, as you say, great diversity in what is viewed as moral. The cultural setting has its effect.

I'm with you. As a Christian, I'd prefer to go with the Gospel.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

the notion and terminology of "right reason" actually originates with Aristotle. However, Ari's usage was contextual in a way that the enlightenment was not.

the idea is that "right reason" simply is whatever correct reason would lead a person to: without any particular idea that there must be one right reason for all folks. or, in alternative terms, we say that Fred has right reason when Fred reasons correctly, in particular about moral questions. Fred must have reason to make correct moral choices, and he has right reason if he uses his reason correctly. right reason is thus a virtue or a power (the words were the same in Greek and Latin) which Fred possesses. It's one of the "intellectual virtues", and distinguished from intellectual ability and from training.

Fred's right reason must take into account all the relevant particulars; this is why intellectual ability is not sufficient, for that (according to Aristotle) deals only with universals and not with particulars.

it's also important to distinguish "right reason" from "reason"; everyone has reason (according to rationalists) but not everyone has right reason, of course.

Tobias said...

I agree Thomas. My point, however, is that Hooker uses "right reason" and "reason" (and numerous other terms, such as "light of nature," or just "nature") more or less interchangeably. He clearly equates it with rationality in the passage I cite, which is actually one of the few times he uses "right reason" at all. It simply means, as he says, the faculty to tell right from wrong. It is regular reason exercised in a moral setting, and is right when it is right.

Which, of course, leads to the Scotsman fallacy, the begging of the question, or an end to the discussion, as the notion of what is right and/or wrong must be determined a priori or absolutely, and reason only serves to "recognize" some goodness or evil, deemed "right" by... what? The consensus of the culture, or some other means of determination. The process of cultural conditioning leads people, speaking from their own cultures, to insist that such-and-such is good or bad, contrary to what some other culture affirms or denies. They may, as you point out, all be "right" within their own culture. But what is at issue in the present discussion is the assertion that there is some universal good or evil at play regarding sexuality; and the "natural law" tradition has sought some verifiable and rational basis for its decisions.

Anonymous said...

But it's true. McPherson really is no true Scotsman!!!

Tobias said...

When speaking of whiskey, then, there is clearly more than one kind of proof... ;-)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias, time to issue a "please exit the stage" command to yourself. And you a thespian!

Cyrus said...

Thank you for your blog, I really appreciate your work. I am interested in your plan - but I need your help in understanding its implications.

If the most observant Jew does not eat shell fish because of the scriptural warrants...there is nothing to tell them to "Rise and eat" - no remediation of the Torah.

How will your investigation get past the other side's understanding/belief that there is no redirection for the words of scripture they understand as having a direct bearing on the issue?

I am trying to get an intellectual handle on this and I am flummoxed!


P.S. It's cool if you need me to wait until you are done and then ask. Even now I sorta feel that I am missing the mark you are aiming towards. Thanks!

Tobias said...

I addressed your question in the next post, which is, I think, where you wanted to attach it. I will deal with this situation subsequently to my main concern at present, which focuses on the goods of marriage.

What you are talking about is part of the "divine commandment" approach (laws of God can only be set aside by God.) In fact for an Orthodox Jew it is difficult to set aside a divine law. It is, however, possible, by the authority of the Rabbis, to interpret laws in such a way as to mitigate their effect. This is, in fact, a principle Orthodox Rabbinic thinking: always to interpret the law in the way that maximizes the possibility of innocence rather than guilt. That being said, it would be very difficult for an Orthodox Jew to come to approve male same-sex marriage. Though even here the possibility exists. I commend the excellent film, "Trembling Before G-d" which addresses this issue head on.

Ann said...

I think it's important to remember that pre-enlightenment "reason" also included emotion, intuition, and experience. "Reason" was not just some isolated operation of the brain, but involved every part of us.