Prescription, Reason and Force

By Daniel A. Kaufman

Philosophy is largely a normative discipline, which means that philosophers expend a good amount of energy telling you what you ought to believe, say, and do.  Just look at the concepts with which philosophy is most preoccupied: ‘truth’ – something you should believe – ‘justification’ – a reason you should accept – ‘good’ – something you should value – ‘right’ – something you should do – ‘justice’ something you should receive – ‘authority’ – someone you should obey.  Even the business of defining terms and concepts, philosophers’ favorite pastime, has a prescriptive mode: provide necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a term and you’ve also determined all the things to which it does not apply. Define ‘X’ a certain way, and you can be certain that some philosopher, somewhere will tell you that something that doesn’t fulfill the definition shouldn’t be called “X.”

What is the actual force of these sorts of prescriptions?  Why should anyone be moved by them?

____

Prescriptions ascribe imperatives, so it’s probably useful to distinguish the different kinds of imperatives.  There are, of course, the “have to’s,” by which I mean those things that you will do involuntarily, if you fail to do them voluntarily: urinating; defecating; breathing; that sort of thing.  Then there are the “must do’s,” by which I intend those things which, if you refuse to do them, will result in consequences, the unpleasantness of which may convince you into doing them after all: arriving at school before the bell rings; driving within the speed limit; paying your taxes; keeping at least somewhat healthy; taking certain safety precautions … These are all things one must do, though it should be noted that if a person is willing to bear the pain of the consequences, such must-do’s ultimately fail to have force.  Philippa Foot once observed that people seem to think moral imperatives have some sort of intrinsic, binding force, but it would seem obvious that once one gets beyond the “have to’s,” such force only exists if a person feels him or herself compelled. [1]

Then there are the “should do’s,” which include the list of things we started with, and here, characterization is much more difficult.  There are many moral shoulds, the violation of which will earn a person no social punishment whatsoever, and the same goes for authorities and one’s refusal to obey them.  And when we consider the rest of the list — calling things by their right names, accepting justifications, believing truths, valuing goods – it should be quite clear that refusing or failing to follow the relevant prescription carries no coercive penalty or sanction whatsoever.

____

One thing that would seem to connect all of the should-do’s is that refusing to do them is in some way contrary to reason and will earn a person a certain label which, generically, I will brand as that of being “unreasonable,” and which, depending on the should-do in question, may turn more specific – the person who refuses to accept evidence and logical argumentation will earn the label “irrational,” the person who rejects what is right will earn the label “immoral,” and the like.

But what is the force of earning such labels?  Suppose that I reject all the scientific evidence and insist that my local hillbilly pastor is correct, and the earth is only six thousand years old, for which I am deemed irrational by Lawrence Krauss and Co.  Or I ignore the counsel of Peter Singer and refuse to give everything I can to starving children in Africa or wherever, for which I am deemed immoral.  So what?  We are not in must-do territory. There isn’t sufficient consensus or passion to coerce me in any way … and unless I want to be a paleontologist or gain access to the Effective Altruist club, all that’s happened is that I’ve been called something.  And if this is all the force that such prescriptions have, then I would maintain that they have no force at all and consequently, fail to be truly prescriptive.  After all, what is a prescription without force, other than some person’s or peoples’ desire, which may or may not be fulfilled?  With respect to logic and evidence, one may want to say that it is not peoples’ desires that are being frustrated by a person’s refusing to buy in, but rather, reason or truth itself, but such talk is purely metaphorical.  Such prescriptions have nothing more than what G.E.M. Anscombe — when describing modern moral imperatives stripped of any grounding in divine law or natural teleology — called “mesmeric force.”  “It is as if the word ‘criminal’ were to remain,” she wrote, “when criminal law and criminal courts have been abandoned.” [2]

____

In ethics, this type of question falls under the “why be moral?” line of inquiry, and surprisingly, what one discovers when surveying the great works of moral philosophy on the subject, it is largely unexplored, and where it is explored, it is done rather poorly.  Kant tells us, essentially, that to be immoral is to cease to be a rational person, but unless someone cares about this – and how many immoral people do? – it fails to provide moral shoulds with any real force.  Mill maintains that the ultimate “sanction” of moral obligation is that we suffer when we do wrong, and it is this potential pain, then, that gives moral shoulds their force, because they are, in fact, must-do’s.  Undoubtedly this is true of some people – those with particularly strong and sensitive consciences — but equally undoubtedly, it is not true of many, if not most, given how poorly so many people behave, so this too would seem to fail to provide moral shoulds with any real, consistent force. And we must always remember that we are not only talking about morals, but about should-do’s across the conceptual landscape — should-do’s pertaining to truth; justification; (non-moral) value; authority – and with respect to these, the accounts of force that we find in ethics, sparse as they are, simply will not do. So, even were we to accept the accounts of moral force given by Kant or Mill, we still would be left without an account of the force of all the other should-do’s that we have been talking about.

That this really matters – that failing to have any account of the force of an imperative that lacks either external or internal coercive power is worrisome — is evinced by the fact that when people offer prescriptions, they tend to use language whose aim is to imply the stronger forms of imperatives, where the matter of force is not in question.  How many times have you been told that you “Have to ….” or that something “has to be …,” when what comes after the “have to” clearly, obviously, manifestly does not fall into the first category of imperatives?  What I always do, in such situations (providing I fail to find the imperative compelling), is simply repeat the phrase “Have to,” with increasing emphasis and decreasing speed, until the person finally relents, after which he commonly will switch to “must do” language, trying to help himself to the force of social sanction.  More often than not, this is also bogus, and the best response is simply to inquire what precisely he will do if you refuse, after which he will tend to retreat – at this point usually somewhat sheepishly – to “should do” ways of speaking.

Which is where he would have started, was he not painfully aware that a prescription without force is nothing more than the voicing of a desire.  But people don’t want to ask nicely and hope for the best, accepting the fact that you may not accede.  They want to try and make you think that you have no choice.

____

Among his many insights, Kant had one that really stands above the others, and that is that in a modern, secular framework we should understand morals as a kind of self-legislation. Now, I think his conception was too narrow – focused, as it is, only on moral shoulds – and he made the mistake of simply assuming that rational personhood was somehow compelling – and thus forceful – in itself, but the core idea is rock solid, and provides the ground for an account of what the force of at least some shoulds consists in.

Prescription at the level of some should-do’s is an invitation to self-governance, broadly understood as the opportunity to regulate one’s own behavior, within the bounds of what is reasonable, and as a result, it must be seen as a precious gift.  Because a should-do can easily turn into a must-do, if the matter at hand is one of sufficient social consensus and concern.  Put plainly, you can be reasonable on your own or we can make you be reasonable.  And if you are foolish and stubborn enough to be willing to bear whatever coercive force we apply and persist in being unreasonable, you will be removed from our midst permanently and perhaps, even killed.  The day even may come when, A Clockwork Orange style, we can “reprogram” those who refuse to be reasonable, in which case the should-do’s, which have turned into must-do’s, will become have-to’s.

The force of should-do’s like these, then, lies in the value one places on one’s own autonomy and welfare.  There are already a number of things that we have made legal must-do’s and not left to self-regulation — either because enough people have demonstrated that they will not govern themselves in sufficient numbers or because feelings are so strong on the matter than we are not willing to take the risk — so the question is how much more of our autonomy we’d like to give up, something we should take very seriously, every time we are considering behaving in a mule-headed fashion.

But these are a small minority of  cases, among the shoulds described at the beginning of the essay, which means that the rest still lack any identifiable force and thus, fail to be prescriptive.  And it is this fact really that led me to put down these thoughts in the first place.  As Anscombe believed with regard to moral oughts, I think it would be to all of our benefit to drop the language of shoulds, when the “should” in question has no actual force.  For as irritating as the unreasonable person is, equally irritating is the person who loudly proclaims what you should think and do, with regard to things for which there is no — and never will be — sufficient public agreement and concern to provide them with the sort of force we’ve described. But beyond irritation, there is a real, substantial risk to overdoing the “should-do’s.”  Just as stupid, petty, and unenforceable laws cause the public to lose respect for law generally, and just as – I think – the wild overuse of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ and their cognates has eroded respect for morality, the proliferation of weak, groundless, often self-serving “shoulds,” whether of the moral variety or otherwise, may cause people to lose respect for reasonableness itself.  The language of coercion and implicit (and sometimes explicit) insult – which is what the language of prescription ultimately involves – when used with no real force behind it, is much more likely to have the effect of causing a person to hunker down; to become even more defiant and extreme, and thus, even more unreasonable.  (I have written a number of times about defiance in the face of this sort of hectoring here at the Electric Agora.)  The language of wishfulness however, when combined with politeness and respect for the other, may bring people closer to your position, and at least, if they fail, will not push them even farther away.

Notes

  1. G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” p. 6. (1958)

http://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf

  1. Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” p. 310. (1972)

http://www.mapageweb.umontreal.ca/laurier/textes/phi-6330-h12/Foot-Morality-Hypothetical-Imperatives-72.pdf

Categories: Essay, Essays

31 Comments »

  1. what are your thoughts on the prescription of “you have…to be positive” which someone like Gary Vaynerchuk is so forcefully always telling us to do, without any really account for the variety of wills at work in the world. you could also stretch this to any New Age pseudo prophet. i don’t prescribe to their ideas, but i wonder your thoughts as they are using a belligerent rhetoric style to positively reinforce us, for our benefit, apparently.

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  2. For the contractualist, things moving from prescribed to forced or back the other way are not that surprising, I would think.

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  3. What is the actual force of these sorts of prescriptions? Why should anyone be moved by them?

    We are embedded in a social mesh and the strands that bind us in this mesh are a web of mutual expectations. I expect something from you and you expect something from me. None of us are free from expectations(unless he is a mountain hermit). Every day we navigate a complex web of expectations. The strength of these expectations depend on the intimacy of the connection. The density of these expectations depend on the number of neighbouring nodes in the social mesh(technology has increased the number of neighbouring nodes). We have the highest expectations of ‘significant others'(dreadful PC term!). We have strong expectations within family, weaker expectations within friendships and still weaker expectations within societal groups. We label these expectations ‘must-do’, ‘have-to-do’, ‘should-do’, ‘would-like-to-do’, ‘may-do’.

    The way we navigate these expectations depends on the way we balance the following considerations:
    1. our fear of sanction;
    2. our self absorption or selfish need;
    3. the importance of liberty and freedom from constraint to ourselves;
    4. the strength of our respect for others and institutions;
    5. our degree of consideration for others;
    6. the strength of our empathy and compassion;
    7. the depth of our love.

    Our success in navigating the web of expectations is determined by a sensitive maturity. Our maturity is shown by our ability to respect the mutuality of expectations and by our qualities of character(1 to 7 above).

    We all have to deal with failed expectations and this is another important measure of our character. We may react punitively, with coercion, with persuasion, with guidance, with advice or with acceptance. Wisdom is the correct reaction to failed expectations.

    The success of society depends on the harmonious reconciliation of mutual expectations. An effective society is a seamless social mesh vibrating in harmony. The vibration come from the limited freedom permitted to each node. This movement can become excessive or destructive, disturbing the harmony of the social mesh. On the other hand the social mesh needs to be adaptive and this adaptation comes from the energy contained in the movements of the nodes. The needs for adaptation and harmony have to be reconciled.

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  4. I’ve often wondered if the in-human (and occasional inhumane) demand by many in the ananlytic philo crowd that we should not have contradictory beliefs, not engage in contradictory actions, etc is symptomatic of a kind (in a loose familial sort of way) of personality type and will the growing body of neuro research uncovering just how kluged/conflicted/cog-biased/etc we really are as a species (and barring some kind of post-human physiological adjustments will remain) ever come to displace this norm?

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  5. dmf,
    and will the growing body of neuro research uncovering just how kluged/conflicted/cog-biased/etc we really are as a species (and barring some kind of post-human physiological adjustments will remain) ever come to displace this norm?

    For a long time, while mankind was loosely organized in warring clans, enslaving each other and exploiting the rest, it was hard to believe in the goodness and rationality of mankind. Life was brutal, short and unjust. A few lone voices spoke up for the inherent nobility of mankind until finally the age of enlightenment arrived. The age of enlightenment and scientific revolution represented the flowering of this ideal.

    It was an age of hope and optimism. That hope and optimism has faded to be replaced by cynicism and ennui. The once perfectible human being is now a flawed being with defective rationality and questionable judgement who can hardly be trusted to manage his affairs.

    And yet all the evidence points the other way. Our aesthetic and scientific achievements are extraordinary. We have created a rule of law and system of governance that was unimaginable 2000 years ago(a mere blink in the evolutionary time scale). We have created an economic system that has spread wealth far beyond the monopolists and tollgate keepers. We have harnessed technology to free us from the Malthusian Trap. We have improved health so greatly that it would have seemed miraculous 2000 years ago. Our rationality and judgement is surely not so defective after all.

    What has happened? Why has this new mood of pessimism about the human creature swept through the academy? It could be the flavour of the day where contrarians wish to make their mark by discrediting yesteryear’s dogma. It is always tempting to do that. It could be an expression of liberal envy of power where they are indirectly saying that the common man cannot be trusted with power; that it should rightly be exercised by an elite(luckily free from all those pesky biases). Certainly there is something of this in play though I doubt they would admit this.

    While these are influences I think there is something deeper involved. It is a flaw in methodology. Certainly individuals vary widely in their rationality and judgement. When we measure individuals we can get quite poor results. But put the individuals together and something else emerges, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We learn from each other, we stimulate each other to find new ideas and new approaches, we test each other’s ideas, eliminating the bad and refining the good. We compete and the fire of competition produces excellence. This is called society. The flaw in our methodology is this, we test individuals whereas it is not individuals but their function in society that produces results. We are testing the wrong thing.

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  6. Hi DanK, while I liked this and agreed with the general argument being made, I am not sure if it holds up regarding specific language used. For example what you call “have to” I would call “need to”… things like that.

    And in some sense (or at least in some particular cases) I think one can make an argument in different fields (ethics, epistemology, etc) that “If you want X, you will need to do Y”. This doesn’t come from social sanction, just necessity. A you can’t get there from here kind of thing.

    Of course outside of those cases, it resolves along the lines I think you argue.

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  7. This thought-provoking piece reminds me of the moment, back in the early nineties, when I noticed I kept reading political texts, sociology texts, philosophy texts, all leading up to a final proclamation of what ‘we should do.’ ‘We should do x to bring about peaceful relations,’ we should spend z billions to cure this disease,’ ‘we should do y to improve the economy,’ etc., etc.; and it just got to the point where I finally told a friend of mind who particularly loved the S-word, “people should stop telling people what they should do.” Which led me to begin responding to such texts by asking, ‘yes, but are we actually going to do this? is anybody actually going to do this?’ Which in turn led to asking what it would really take to get people to agree on such matters, and how would such agreement be reached, and so forth. In other words, I began using a much more pragmatic language, and adopting a much more pragmatic attitude. This attitude I admit is somewhat more pessimistic than I had previously, because it becomes quite clear, once the pragmatic questions are asked, that there’s a whole lot of things people say we ‘should’ do, that we will never do or get done. But that also means I learned to accept the world as it is, and I sleep better at night for it.

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  8. “accept the world as it is” v. “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

    As to the idea there are little true necessitation, I still think this comes down to the “paradoxes” of individual and joint action in a society. That is, most of what we individually do to maintain or destroy the society that itself sustains us is of little influence. From that strand of Kant that highlights practical reason, what one wills for oneself as an individual should be what one wills for the society or humanity. If enough people do this, then maybe things will go as well as they can.

    As an example, since Australia only produces 3% of global carbon emissions, it doesn’t matter if we join or don’t join in with global control agreements, especially since any major adverse effects are still generations into the future. At the level of interacting with other countries and other people, this doesn’t really impress at the moral level, however.

    “When happiness is equally dear to me and to others, then what is special about myself that I strive after my happiness alone? When fear and suffering are not dear to myself or to others, then what is special about my self that I protect it and not another?…
    If I don’t protect another because his suffering cannot hurt me, the sufferings of my future body are not mine. Why is that hurt protected against? ‘I am the same even then’ is a false conception, because the one that dies is very different from the one that is born.”

    http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2015/07/JBE-Lele-final1.pdf

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  9. Hi Dan, yes so I agreed in general with your arguments based on differing taxonomy.

    And I understand you were arguing that “other than things like going to the bathroom, there aren’t really any “necessities.” That’s where I would disagree in some particular cases even though I agree with your argument in general.

    For example I think it might make sense to say (there is a necessity), “If you want to get to downtown in 15 minutes, you need to take the subway.”

    Moving that sort of thing to philosophy (let’s say ethics), “If you want to face this situation bravely, you need to overcome your fear.”

    These are contingent of course, and there is no inherent “need” to do any of them… if say you don’t want to get downtown in 15 minutes, or feel the desire to act bravely. But once conditions arise (or are agreed to), some necessities arise with them.

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  10. EJ,
    But that also means I learned to accept the world as it is, and I sleep better at night for it.

    The problem with that line of thought is that most of the impressive progress of our species has come from people who do not accept the world as it is but earnestly, sincerely and passionately desire a better future, committing great energy to this goal, often at huge cost to themselves. Accepting the world as it is, becomes a recipe for stasis. I once subscribed to the Stoic idea that there are things we cannot change and we must accept them with equanimity. That is true but it tempts us to set the bar too low. Setting the bar higher stretches us to reach greatness, even though my greatness may be your mediocrity.

    Instead I now subscribe to the idea of ‘the contest culture‘ , ‘the moment of truth‘ and of the ‘glowing spirit‘, described so well by Carlin Barton, in Roman Honor,, pg 31:

    This was the Roman discrimen, the “moment of truth,” the equivocal and ardent
    moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the
    agon, the contest, when truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in
    the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.

    and(pg 35)

    Undergoing the ordeal (labor, periculum, discrimen, certamen, contentio, agon) was the
    act of defining one’s boundaries, of determining one’s share or portion. It was
    necessary for one’s sense of being. 6 And because in a contest culture no one’s part
    was fixed, the discrimen established, momentarily, one’s position. It located one in a
    field, in a pecking order. One gambled what one was. 7

    To have a glowing spirit, one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous
    series of ordeals. Labor, industria, disciplina, diligentia, studium, vigilentia were, for the
    Romans, the strenuous exertions that one made in undergoing the trial and in
    shouldering the heavy burden.

    This is the path to progress and greatness where we embrace ‘the contest culture‘ by competing against ourselves and ignite in ourselves ‘a glowing spirit‘. Dylan Thomas expressed a like sentiment when he said:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    He was of course speaking of the end of life but I am protesting against those who die before they are dead.

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  11. EJ,
    But that also means I learned to accept the world as it is, and I sleep better at night for it.

    The problem with that line of thought is that most of the impressive progress of our species has come from people who do not accept the world as it is but earnestly, sincerely and passionately desire a better future, committing great energy to this goal, often at huge cost to themselves. Accepting the world as it is, becomes a recipe for stasis. I once subscribed to the Stoic idea that there are things we cannot change and we must accept them with equanimity. That is true but it tempts us to set the bar too low. Setting the bar higher stretches us to reach greatness, even though my greatness may be your mediocrity.

    Instead I now subscribe to the idea of ‘the contest culture‘ , ‘the moment of truth‘ and of the ‘glowing spirit‘, described so well by Carlin Barton, in Roman Honor,, pg 31:

    This was the Roman discrimen, the “moment of truth,” the equivocal and ardent
    moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the
    agon, the contest, when truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in
    the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.

    and(pg 35)

    Undergoing the ordeal (labor, periculum, discrimen, certamen, contentio, agon) was the
    act of defining one’s boundaries, of determining one’s share or portion. It was
    necessary for one’s sense of being. 6 And because in a contest culture no one’s part
    was fixed, the discrimen established, momentarily, one’s position. It located one in a
    field, in a pecking order. One gambled what one was. 7

    To have a glowing spirit, one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous
    series of ordeals. Labor, industria, disciplina, diligentia, studium, vigilentia were, for the
    Romans, the strenuous exertions that one made in undergoing the trial and in
    shouldering the heavy burden.

    This is the path to progress and greatness where we embrace ‘the contest culture‘ by competing against ourselves and ignite in ourselves ‘a glowing spirit‘. Dylan Thomas expressed a like sentiment when he said:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    He was of course speaking of the end of life but regrettably there is a tendency for people to die before they are dead.

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  12. “Just as stupid, petty, and unenforceable laws cause the public to lose respect for law generally, and just as – I think – the wild overuse of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ and their cognates has eroded respect for morality, the proliferation of weak, groundless, often self-serving “shoulds,” whether of the moral variety or otherwise, may cause people to lose respect for reasonableness itself.”

    Would it not rather be the case that respect would be lost for the person – and by extension the category of person – doing the ‘shoulding’?

    Frankly, I don’t think reasonableness is at risk. Reasonableness is and will remain widely respected. It has power and force and always will.

    You could say, I suppose, that it is not reasonableness but the *appearance* of reasonableness that counts. Calm and cool wins arguments. Even Donald Trump strives to appear reasonable at times.

    But the thing is, it’s hard to separate reasonableness from the appearance of reasonableness, because reasonableness is not just about reason but also about manners and behaviour.

    And if you are giving a good enough *impression* of reasonableness then you are – for all intents and purposes – *being* reasonable.

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  13. Mark: No, I will stick with what I said.

    When people get sick and tired of being should-ed to death about environmentalism, what do they do? Buy gigantic trucks with “Prius Repellent” stickers. When people get sick and tired of being should-ed to death about political sensitivity and manners, they vote for a loud-mouthed dick like Donald Trump.

    These are all acts in defiance of reason. And they reflect a loss of respect for it, because it has been cheapened into a partisan tool. There are a lot of things being paraded around as shoulds, which, really, are nothing more than the desires of particular groups of people.

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  14. HI Dan and Mark, while I think Mark has a point about reasonableness and appearance of it, regarding the overall point being made by Dan I think that isn’t important. People can become unreasonable, proudly so, in the face of moral parentalism. Not only have some people bought trucks to piss off environmentalists, some people rigged their engines to be less efficient (double cost to them) in order to pump out more smoke.

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  15. Dwayne: And remember, it’s not just moral shoulds I’m talking about. Think about the way religious people are accused of being “irrational” by the New Atheists. Think of the constant demands for “justification,” with regard to things that are personal and harmless. Pushing too hard in all of these areas can easily result in a person’s retreat into deliberate unreasonableness.

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  16. Dan

    “These are all acts in defiance of reason. And they reflect a loss of respect for it, because it has been cheapened into a partisan tool. There are a lot of things being paraded around as shoulds, which, really, are nothing more than the desires of particular groups of people.”

    The examples you give are acts of defiance but they are not acts “in defiance of reason” in my opinion. They are acts of defiance against people perceived as phony moralizers, deceptive manipulators, etc.. (I am not claiming, by the way, that these sorts of acts are instances of ‘reasonableness’, though they are, as you recognize, quite understandable and there may be method in the madness, as it were.)

    The last sentence of the quote I agree with wholeheartedly.

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  17. Mark,
    Frankly, I don’t think reasonableness is at risk. Reasonableness is and will remain widely respected. It has power and force and always will.

    I agree.

    But we must ask whose reasonableness and in what context. I have never known anyone to deny being reasonable. In fact they all claim to be reasonable. Everyone I know endeavours to behave reasonably and so you are right to say “It has power and force and always will“. But reason is embedded in a framework of assumptions, emotions, needs and intuitions. Within that framework they appear reasonable, but if you do not share that framework they appear irrational.

    Everyone of us of course thinks his reasoning is free of the distortions imposed by of assumptions, emotions, needs and intuitions. It is always the other person whose reasoning is faulty, absent or compromised by these factors. And by that very fact we demonstrate that our reasoning is as much compromised as that of the others.

    But, within all of us there is a striving for rationality and I think you are right to claim “Reasonableness is and will remain widely respected“. And all of us, without exception, face the same problem, to free our rationality from the distortion of assumptions, emotions, needs and intuitions. We try, succeed and fail. Reasonableness is a fallible, human thing as the comments on this and the other blog demonstrate so well.

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  18. The abortion question is a perfect example of the problem of reasonableness.

    I happen to think that abortion is a grave moral wrong; so grave that it is evil, because it targets the most helpless, innocent and most vulnerable for the worst possible reasons. However Dan-K, for example, vehemently disagrees with me and I suspect he thinks that I am being completely irrational about this. When you examine our arguments it can be seen that we have entirely different assumptions, values and intuitions that serve as the starting point for our reasoning. Given these different starting points we precede to draw our different conclusions in a logical, reasonable way. Both of us are being reasonable, both of us respect the power of reason, but arrive at very different conclusions.

    This example illustrates why we have to be so careful about throwing the accusation of unreasonableness at the other person. I suspect that more often than not we do this to demonise the other person rather than honestly examine their position. Oh, and I am not trying to start an argument about abortion. Leave that for another time. We should not derail the discussion. I just needed a good controversial example to make my point about the problem of reasonableness.

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