This short reflection is motivated by my vague uneasiness about some twists of the ways in which people – “ordinary” people as well as those with academic background and aspirations – sometimes talk about (and praise) rationality.
We are told that rationality is what distinguishes those who vote responsibly and, well, rationally in the elections, from those who vote for various populist parties or politicians, having succumbed to their emotions. Rationality is also what distinguishes those who are intelligent enough not to believe in any sort of God (or god, or gods), from those who are blinded and deluded enough to remain, say, Christians. We are also told that rationality is what distinguishes those who lucidly see human nature in terms of our evolutionary inheritance (whatever this means), from those who cherish naïve illusions about, say, gender equality or the indeterminacy of gender roles. And so forth. (Uneasy and surprising alliances and overlaps may arise through this stress on rationality, understood along analogous conceptual lines. Such as between the “new atheists”, the popularisers of science for whom humanities can only get a scientific credit if they let their own methods and viewpoints go, the “men’s rights activists”, or people who think that, when talking about “traditional democratic parties”, not a shade of possible confusion sticks to their words.)
Underlying this embracement of rationality is often a strange “philosophy of emotions” – an idea of emotions as mere blind instincts, remainders of our evolutionary past, products of our “lizard brain”. Where does this leave emotions like compassion with those who are not close to you or easy to sympathise with? – emotions that we need to cultivate and let grow. Where does this leave the very idea of moral emotions?
But this is also a strange take on what rationality itself is supposed to mean. Rationality is something utterly and intentionally dispassionate, and only as such can it provide the right answer to whichever question or problem we face.
One topic towards which “rationality” dictates us to adopt a firm and clear attitude is homelessness and people who live on the streets. Rationally speaking, providing short-term and unsystematic help to homeless people (such as that which is provided by Food not Bombs) is wrong. The idea is that the majority of homeless people live on the streets because this is their choice – they would be perfectly capable of incorporating back into the society, if only they were properly motivated! Sure, distributing food and clothes to them draws from an intuition that this is the morally right thing to do. But this underlying intuition is a sentiment – the feeling that “one simply cannot act otherwise” –, respectable perhaps, but essentially deluded and misleading and ultimately harmful. When we apply some rational consideration (some may even have the guts to call this “growing wiser”), we see that the real help is to be tough and to provide thereby efficient motivation to the homeless people for pulling themselves together. Thus the story goes: emotions make us blind, they make us do more harm than good. Guidance for moral action is provided by reason, that is, by actively discrediting our emotional responses.
The embracement of so understood “rationality” sometimes makes us surprisingly stupid. Understanding, or appreciation of art may be one such example. There is more to a good story than the elaborate construction of its plotline, for one thing.
Other times, as with homelessness, this embracement may make us morally blind. What makes this blindness specifically moral is not so much the simple fact that we may fail to see something important. (What is truly important will always remain open to some disagreement.) The trouble lies in the fact that we think we have, and are glad that we have, a perfectly good excuse for failing to see. We are then a bit too eager to let ourselves be persuaded that the moral thing to do is turning the blind eye. If this is rationality, we need to handle it with some caution.