Rationality: our guide through the dark

by The Editor


ARTICLE: Why is rationality important? Well, for one thing, it allows us not only to understand principles (which are by their nature often counter-intuitive) but to apply them to those decisions we make in pursuit of the good life. That is not always easy, because emotion’s pull in the other direction can be powerful. But rationality and reason are the tools we can use to help exercise the best possible judgement.

Rationality: our guide through the dark

By: Gareth van Onselen


24 May 2012

Imagine a continuum that runs from rational choice through to emotional desire and you are imagining a sliding scale that underpins the relationship between most democratic principles and their opposites.

Tolerance and hate; excellence and mediocrity; transparency and secrecy; many others. All of them embody, on the one extreme, an intellectual tenet, often counter-intuitive, usually contested and always with a well-established history; and, on the other extreme, an emotional impulse, born of the moment, self interest or pride.

At the edges it is easy to tell the one from the other, but as one moves towards the middle of our imagined spectrum, reason and feeling blur, and here we enter dangerous territory indeed.

There is no word to describe what is found in this halfway house – a warning sign in and of itself. Instead, those that would promote its ambiguity justify it by what it is not: upsetting; difficult; hard work; insensitive; disrespectful. That is, they champion the fact that, because it all things too all people – principle and pragmatism – it is unthreatening, a safe concession between a hard intellectual decision and an easy emotional indulgence.

What is a practical example? Take the idea of respect. In principle it is well defined: respect must be earned. In practice, though, many people demand it or expect it from first principles. So in much of current affairs it assumed both aspects apply. People understand the principle, but expect respect none the less. And for many that is just easier than being strictly principled about the idea. It gives one the illusion of integrity but the comfort of emotional indulgence.

Those ostensible democrats, who talk principle but practice compromise, would claim this middle ground as belonging to right-thinking people, concerned with best democratic practice. They are wrong. Far from it, in the same way that even a drop of ink pollutes a glass of water, some small compromise renders any principle corrupted. And so that middle ground belongs firmly to emotion and principle has no claim over it. Those that would pretend otherwise wish the best of both worlds: the esteem associated with principled action and, simultaneously, the unthreatening safety of appeasement and compromise. They fool only themselves, however, because principle cannot be bent to one’s will.

A principle is an ideal. Its attainment, a goal towards which one constantly strives. And its value to society lies in that aspiration. Emotion, by contrast, is the urge that lives inside us; a default position; the thing that fills the void. And its value lies in its potential, how best it can be understood and directed in our pursuit of the good life.

This is not to defame emotion, which is responsible for happiness as much as it is despair, only to point out that it is unthinking; and its affect, unseen or obvious, singular and profound.

One begins to see then, the role that rational thought plays in any democratic order. Reason is our guide through the dark; its principles, the light towards which we walk. In a democratic society those principles are well known: choice; freedom; accountability; responsibility; fairness; justice, these are the beacons by whose light we make our decisions. The closer we get to them, the brighter the world around us and the further behind we leave the dark.

Is reason always right? The answer to that question is yes; and the key to understanding that answer, understanding unreason, its nature and affect.

Historians will tell us, even with the benefit of hindsight, it is not always possible to deduce what course of action was the most rational. But they will also tell us that the history of democracy, of progress and the betterment of the human condition is also the history of reason, of humankind’s application, through trial and error, of rational thought. Always with a particular set of ideals in mind, directing choice and informing understanding.

Whenever that process has erred or regressed, it is because irrationality and emotion have been allowed to run free, unchecked; with it, our worst traits – prejudice, control, fear – have become legislated for, as emotion tries to take on the guise of reason. And one can be sure that, when that happens, the roots of that regression are to be found in the case advocated by those determined to give that middle ground the appearance of considered thought.

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