Friday, August 12, 2005

VDH and Reason

In an otherwise typical column decrying the lack of attention paid by the liberal elites to the words of Islamic radicals, Victor Davis Hanson (VDH), includes this passage:

Throughout this war we have an understandable, if ethnocentric, habit of ignoring what our enemies actually say. Instead we chatter on, don’t listen, and in self-absorbed fashion impart our own motives for their hatred. We live on the principles of the Enlightenment and so worship our god Reason, thus assuming that even our adversaries accept such rational protocols as their own. [emphasis added]

Sometimes I really have trouble understanding what Conservatives such as VDH are talking about. To say that in this age of profoundly and explicitly irrational intellectual movements from the nihilist left such as environmentalism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and feminism and all the other Kant-derived absurdities, that we "worship our god Reason" and that this "worship" of Reason results in "assuming... our adversaries" are equally "rational" is really quite astounding.

Clearly, we are not living on the "principles of the Enlightenment," and Reason, as practiced during much of the Enlightenment, has in fact, left the building. Rather, we are living on the principles of 19th century collectivism, now fractured into multiculturalism, and 20th century pragmatism, as well as a seemingly growing religious revival, and various other irrationalities, in various forms, both left and right. And furthermore, how can anyone argue that as a result of reasoning we conclude that our enemies "accept ... rational protocols?" Our enemies are clearly bent on our destruction as they plainly say and VHD quotes:

“The day will come when everything will be relieved of the Jews — even the stones and trees which were harmed by them…The stones and trees will want the Muslims to finish off every Jew.”


“What you have you seen, O Americans, in New York and Washington and the losses you are having in Afghanistan and Iraq, in spite of all the media blackout, are only the losses of the initial clashes.”

Only someone profoundly irrational would pretend that the people behind these ideas "accept ... rational protocols".

What then is the rational response to someone bent on destroying you? Here, Conservatives do indeed have a problem because they accept Hume's "is-ought" dichotomy. For what one "ought" to do cannot be the result of a rational consideration of the facts because they alone do not tell us what do ... or so Hume claimed. Conservatives then turn to religion in order to find the "oughts" -- the moral guidance that enables them to decide such questions. Presumably, since VDH dismisses the "god of Reason," he just knows by faith what needs to be done. The results of seeking such guidance have historically not been particularly encouraging.

So what is rational action anyway? How do we apply reason to decisions about actions? Well, let's take a simple case. Is it rational to take a nap? How can we evaluate this decision? It depends entirely on the context in which one is planning to take a nap and what purposes one has in mind. If one is at home on the weekend and wants to relax after a tiring week at work, taking a nap can be very rational action. If one is at work and wants to continue to work there, taking a nap is a very irrational action. Rational and irrational, thus firstly relate to whether in a given context an action achieves the actors purpose. In order to evaluate actions as rational or irrational we need to know what the potential actor is trying to achieve. And furthermore, a purpose or end is also subject to evaluation -- thus actions are to be evaluated in two ways: By whether the action is likely to achieve the actor's purpose, and by whether the purpose itself is rational.

The rationality of a purpose can be evaluated only with respect to a more fundamental purpose. As a result, an ultimate purpose becomes necessary, otherwise there is an infinite regress. That purpose is one's life which one must choose to value in order for all of one's other purposes and actions to be evaluated as rational and moral. It is very relevant here to note that the Islamists open proclaim that they do not value their own lives and will gladly sacrifice them for Allah.

Contrary to VDH, if we were living on "Enlightment principles", worshipping the "god of Reason", we would be faring far better in this war. I conclude with a quote from the best of the Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke (Second Treatise, chapter III), discussing what one's rational reaction should be toward the likes that VDH mentions:

The state of war is a state of enmity and destruction; and therefore declaring by word or action, not a passionate and hasty, but sedate, settled design upon another man’s life puts him in a state of war with him against whom he has declared such an intention, and so has exposed his life to the other’s power to be taken away by him, or any one that joins with him in his defence, and espouses his quarrel; it being reasonable and just I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction; for by the fundamental law of Nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred, and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion, because they are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as a beast of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power. [emphasis added]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From VDH's website
QUESTION: I wonder if the separation of church and state that we now know is so vital to democracy is due in large part to the absence of a unified religious system? No Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam, and no Hinduism to bind all members into a unified culture. The multiple gods and temples are more like a spiritual buffet. The main idea of democracy is the agency of the individual and I feel this strongly correlates to the ancient ideal of a hero's fated role in life.

Hanson: There are lots of things going on in your question. Our classical heritage is important here. Holy men in ancient Greece and Rome were everywhere and given state accommodation, but the ancients were hardly theocratic. Whether in literature (Oedipus ordering Tiresias to leave the palace) or life (Pericles ignoring the seers and prophets), the ancient Greeks defined religion as a different sphere from politics. And of course they saw the gods as big, undying and powerful humans, prone to similar appetites and weaknesses.

Those fumes of separation between state and god were never extinguished even during the period of the state church in the Dark and Middle Ages. Now the West is defined as Christian in emphasis, but tolerant in creed, and the model is accepted almost everywhere but the Middle East which still has theocracies or at least institutionalizes religious intolerance.

I was struck by Western leaders not being able to attend the final funeral service of the Saudi king this week. Imagine if a King Abdullah was turned away at Arlington by the Secret Service while attending a funeral of a Christian U.S. President with a "I'm sorry, no Muslims and other unbelievers allowed at mass." So the West has given civilization a very valuable gift that we too often take for granted.