Two contributors debate David Hume's bold challenge to the primacy of pure logical thinkingby Baggini and Jenkins / May 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Yes – Julian Baggini
Yes, reason is ultimately subordinate to the passions. David Hume already knew in the 18th century that our thinking is less directed by logic and reason than most supposed. He would not have been shocked by psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s findings that the instinctive, emotional, fast thinking of the brain’s “system one” usually trumps the slow, logical cogitations of “system two.”
But Hume’s challenge to the power of reason is more radical and interesting than this. He wrote “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
It is one thing to accept that reason is driven by emotion, quite another to believe that it should be. But Hume was correct. He understood that pure reason is motivationally inert. Logic alone cannot give you a reason to do something or not. Through reasoning, for example, we can sometimes do utilitarian calculations to see which of a given range of actions would produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But that cannot tell us why we ought to want the greatest happiness in the first place. The only “reason” we have to want to increase the welfare of sentient beings is a kind of moral sympathy.
If someone lacks this basic emotional capacity, no rational argument could persuade them that increased welfare is a good thing. Psychopaths have lost their feeling, not their reason. Indeed, many are chillingly logical.
Reason is not a mere puppet of the emotions, mindlessly obeying them. It has the power to inform them and thus modify how we feel. But ultimately, it remains in the service of the passions and has no purpose without them.
Nothing we value can be justified by reason alone. In a world of pure logic there would be no reason for love, art, music or philosophy. Reason gives us no reason to live at all. For that, we need the “passions.”
No – Simon Jenkins
Reason is a word so abused that people often lose sight of its definition altogether. You complain that reason is not motivational and therefore slave to the emotions. I see it rather as the framework for all mental activity, and thus the map and fuel for action. The motives for our doing things are embedded in evolutionary psychology, in survival instincts, rivalries, loves and loyalties. This does not make reason their slave. Reason is a unique feature of the human condition, taking us beyond animal responses and stimuli and enabling humans to discipline their actions. It seeks “reasons” for doing something, evidence that it is an appropriate course of action, and provides an assessment of its causes and consequences. Reason is the edifice of Hume’s empirical method.
Kahneman’s behavioral economics has rightly emphasised how weak is the reasoning that often goes into economic and political decisions. It is why the formalism of mathematical economics is, in my view, so useless. But if we are sensible, the pursuit of human happiness, personal and collective, remains the goal of most of what we do. Such a basically utilitarian ideology requires around it a structure of reasoning, not passion, selfish or unselfish. I do not regard utilitarianism as mere whim. It is the one rock on which democratic politics can sensibly rest. Passion allowed free rein is not democracy.
The power to reason remains all we have to separate reliable common sense and spasmodic, instinctive, irrational behaviour. Passion can have its philosophers, and nowadays has them in plenty. They may explain the glories of art and architecture, of belief and imagination. Passion explains almost all violence, war and destruction. Reason explains why things do not turn out as intended. Let go of reason and we are lost. You see reason as a puppy. I see her as a god.
Your defence of reason is as passionate as my defence of the passions is reasonable. But if it is intended to in any way refute what I initially said, it misses the target.
The core of the problem is that you seem to buy into the old Platonic view that reason and emotion are somehow in conflict, that passion is the unruly stallion that needs to be kept in check by the cool power of rationality. Only reason, you say, separates reliable common sense from the tyranny of “spasmodic, instinctive, irrational behaviour.”
One of the great virtues of Hume’s account of the role of the passions is that he avoids this crude dichotomy with its implied zero-sum games. Hume was very much in favour of us using reason. Some of his most powerful writing spoke out against superstition and prejudice. But at the same time he was under no illusion that reason alone can be, as you put it, the “fuel for action.” Reason concerns what isnot what ought to be. It can provide a “map for action” only if the passions give it some destination to head for.
Perhaps you are mislead by Hume’s choice of metaphor. When Hume advocated reason as “the slave of the passions” he clearly did not mean that it would blindly do their bidding. The language of slavery was hyperbolic, but it doesn’t take much application of our rational faculties to see what he meant.
You say our goal is “human happiness, personal and collective.” I agree but that is no more or less rational than the desire to see humanity extinguished, or to put other forms of advancement of the species above welfare. Affection and sympathy for humanity is what makes us desire its wellbeing, not logic. To achieve this flourishing we certainly need “a structure of reasoning” not as an alternative to passion, but as an accomplice of it.
I thought we might be in danger of agreeing, but no. Hume was not being descriptive but prescriptive—reason not only is “but ought only to be the slave to the passions… and must serve and obey them.” Unless our definitions are haywire, my old finals paper’s objection to Hume still stands. I agree that reason is not a destination as such, but a means to a destination. But I will not accept that reason has no role in determining destination. In deciding how we should act, both in our personal lives and in wider society, our actions are constantly subject to conflict between passions and a considered assessment of their consequences, good or evil. Instincts unchained from reason may send us charging off towards some glorious Nietzschean consummation. But that is not an ambition I believe a sophisticated, indeed rational, individual or society should contemplate.
I am not apocalyptic about democracy’s present discontents. We have been here before and will survive. But now is one of those moments when rational discourse in politics seems peculiarly vulnerable, and tribal prejudice and blind idiocy rampant. I am appalled at how, on both sides of the Brexit debate, reasons are treated with contempt. I asked one discussant recently whether she could imagine anything I might say that could alter her view one iota. She screamed “no.” I sense a nation on her side.
I refuse to give up on reason. I accept that in politics passion is the elephant and reason merely its rider, to use social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s lovely phrase. But the rider is our best, indeed our only, hope at steering the elephant to virtuous ends. The preservation of the human species in a state of happiness and concord is a reasonable goal. But this utilitarian ambition implies a grand empirical construct—with Hume ironically as its supreme architect. The glue of that construct is reason.
I’m delighted you refuse to give up on reason but do wish you’d demonstrate your commitment by using more of it in your argument. Did I or Hume say that reason has no role in determining our destination? Have I screamed “no!” at your or have I rather reasoned with you?
I am all in favour of reason, much more of it than we see in public discourse. All I insist is that it is fantasy to pretend that reason can provide the fundamental foundations for our hopes, ambitions or morality.
That’s why I have to repeat my claim that you are wrong to frame this debate as “a conflict between passions and a considered assessment” as you put it most recently. “Conflict” presupposes two autonomous forces in opposition, one of which must win. It would be better to talk of a dialogue between reason and emotion—although even that makes them sound more clearly divided than they are. If we only follow our passions then I agree we are doomed. But if we tried to follow reason alone we’d find ourselves going nowhere since no human aspiration or desire worth having is produced by pure reason. Sentiment is what gives us reasons to get up in the morning, be compassionate and kind, to form friendships and even to pursue intellectual passions. There is no logical reason to study logic.
Excessive literalism is a common vice of self-proclaimed defenders of reason and I fear you have taken the metaphor of “slave of the passions” too literally. This “slave” is more of a Jeeves-like servant. It knows that ultimately it only exists to serve the interests of its master, and those interests are rooted in emotion. But it is in many ways wiser than the master it serves. Reason stops passion from being stupid and enables it instead to be smart. But reason cannot be its own master, so unless it remains a servant it simply has nothing to serve at all.
One man’s emotions, ambitions and morality are another’s prejudices and basic instincts. I would never discount them, let alone deny that they are often the driver of human action and decision. They are what we inherited from the animal kingdom and they gave us the fitness to survive and evolve into humankind. I remember once watching a wrestling match and checking my repulsion by thinking how much we owed to such instincts in times gone by.
I am not sure massaging metaphors helps. I see Hume’s master and slave has become Wooster and Jeeves. If so, give me a humanity ruled by Jeeves—by reason.
Emotion has a continued potency in social behaviour and public debate. That I can readily concede. What alarms me is the idea that reason, the intellectual concept that defines and sets homo sapiens apart, should be regarded as a directionless rider, servant or slave to instincts deep inside us which “give the orders.”
This is not mere wordplay, making a dichotomy out of a difference. I see the entire edifice of human intelligence, channelled through the process called reasoning, as the heart and head of what it is to be human. It is what converts instincts into coherent actions, be they of love or hate, peace or war. Reason is what holds political discourse back from fight or flight. It underpins the most utterly fundamental of all freedoms, the freedom to change our minds and to try to change those of others.
Ever since the 19th-century’s partial reaction against the Enlightenment, a romantic glamour has attached to unreason. It admired Napoleonic absolutism, it praised the “noble savage,” it eulogised Keats’s nonsense about “beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Every philosopher wanted to stand on a mountain and cry love and hate to the world. Yes, we can agree that human emotion has a power, a gut instinct that relentlessly rears its political head. Reason can seem hard-pressed. But to see it as servile, as a hireling mercenary to the monarchs of passion, never. Reason is on my pedestal, and stays there.