To an optimist, things are constantly getting better: disease and extreme poverty are down; life expectancy, literacy, and equality are up; and it’s all thanks to the glory of human reason.
Is reason our only guide to the true and the good? Or can reasonable people disagree on what is true and good? Is it simply a mistake to fetishize reason? These are some of the questions we tackle as we take on the broader question of whether reason can save us.
“Save us from what?” you may be tempted to ask.
Unfortunately, there are dark forces of unreason, which threaten to engulf us in a new dark age, everywhere you turn. There are demagogues busy undermining democracy, climate deniers addicted to fossil fuels, and religious zealots who see unspeakably evil acts as tickets to paradise.
If that sounds a bit Manichean—as if I think there is an eternal struggle between forces of darkness and light—I’m afraid I must plead guilty. It may comfort some to believe that the dark side has been losing, ever since the early days of the Enlightenment. But surely the current political situation in the United States—or the folly of Brexit, or the morally chaotic mess in the Middle East—gives the lie to such sunny optimism.
Sure, the good guys have had their share of victories over the last few centuries. I celebrate the abolition of slavery, the rise of democracy, the defeat of fascism, colonialism, and Stalinism. Not to mention progress in science, technology, and medicine. And some of these victories might well be thought of as triumphs of reason. But the Nazis, for example, weren’t argued out of existence. They were bludgeoned to death. That suggest that the so-called "force" of reason, just taken on its own, is a pretty limp force. And to make matters even worse for reason, don't forget that without the Red Army, Hitler would never have been stopped. So to the extent that we think of communism as one of the forces of unreason — not that we should necessarily think fo communism that way, but there are certainly those who do think of it that way — we’d have to say that in the case of the dark force of Nazism, it took an alliance with other dark forces unreason to defeat an even greater threat to reason. So much, again, for the unaided power of reason to win out over unreason!
Now about Stalin and the communist. Stalin himself was a monster, no doubt about it. But Marx, the great founding father of communism, was as much a man of the Enlightenment as Adam Smith or Immanuel Kant were. Marx endorsed scientific rationality, opposed religious dogma, and advocated for human dignity. Marxism is, in fact, lovely in theory. Unfortunately, in practice it gave us Stalin’s Gulag and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And what this shows is that it's a mistake to fetishize reason in the first place.
I know it will sound perverse to some, but there is actually a part of that wants to blame reason itself for the Gulag! After all, Stalin had his scientists and engineers. They adhered to the canons of scientific rationality, did they not? He had his party apparatchiks. They managed a sprawling state by means of bureaucratic rationality, did they not? And ask yourself how the “great leader” managed to control his gaggle henchmen? He did it, I suggest, through various rational incentives.
"You mean, like with fear and intimidation," someone may incredulously ask. And I do have to admit that these are not your everyday tools of rational management. Hopefully, they are not ones that you or I would ever find a need to resort to. But look at it from Stalin’s point of view, for a second. From his perspective, the gulag was just one more manifestation of bureaucratic rationality! And all things considered, it worked pretty well. Those management techniques enabled him and his successors to run a sprawling technocratic state that dominated half the world for three quarters of a century.
To be sure, if you start out thinking that way, you may end up concluding that reason even played a significant role in giving us the Holocaust! Not that reason gave us the Holocaust all its own. But surely it would no one can deny that the sort of bureaucratic-technocratic rationality that helped to sustain the Soviet state also played a role in creating and sustaining the Nazi state.
I can almost hear the indignant retort, even as I write these words. "What are you, Taylor? Some kind of post-modern relativst? Reason didn’t give us the Holocaust. Virulent antisemitism did! Somebody who thinks that will say that if you’re inclined to see Jews as cockroaches, fit only for extermination, you’re completely out of your mind. And you’re not at all using your reason correctly."
I know that the thought that reason simply went dark in the Nazis has a certain intuitive moral appeal. And it is terribly comforting for those who want to believe that reason can save us. Unfortunately, though, this view vastly overestimates what might be called the normative power of reason. Reason on its own doesn’t and can’t tell us what to value. All it does is take our values, whatever they are, as given and tell us how to build a world that accords with them. The sad fact is that if you take anti-semitic values as input, then reason will produce the Nazi state as output.
Kantians will disagree. They will insist that reason can and should determine our values. But Kantians tend, on my view, to over-romanticize reason. I side more with Nietzsche and with Hume. They were both more naturalistic, sober, and circumspect about the powers of reason. Hume, for example, was pretty explicit that, as he put it, "reason is and ought to be a slave to the passions." To be sure, Kantians and others will insist that views like Hume’s or Nietzsche’s wrongly imply that Nazis were rational. And they take is as something like a brute fact that any view that implies that the Nazis were rational, cannot possibly be right. Reason went dark in the Nazis, pure and simple, according to the Kantians.
Now this is a longer and more substantive debate than I want to get into here. For one thing, Kantians and others tend to distinguish so-called normative reasons from so-called motivating reasons. Motivating reasons may "explain" but they do not "justify." The Nazi's may have hade their motivating reasons, but they had no normative or justifying reasons, the thought goes. And when Kantians say that reason "went dark" in the Nazis they don't mean to deny that Nazis lacked motivating reasons or were incapable of instrumental reasoning, that is, of adjusting means to end. They mean to say that nothing could rationally justify what the Nazis did. Personally, I have argued that there is less to the distinction between motivating reasons and justifying reasons than philosophers imagine. But setting the subtleties of that issue aside, I will just say that Kantians and others miss, though, is that those of us who refuse to romanticize reason, may still abhor the Nazis too. We simply insist that our abhorrence of them doesn't mean that they are irrational. It just makes them… different. "Different as in evil," the friend of normative reasons will ask. Well, yes, I am willing to respond, the Nazis were evil. But "evil" still isn't the same as irrational.
So who gets the better of the argument? The Kantian who thinks that naturalistic sorts like Hume or Nietzsche vastly underestimate reason and who insist that if we are to be saved from the darkness, surely reason is our only hope? Or Humeans, and the like, who reject what they see as the Kantian tendency to romanticize reason? And by the way, Hume and Kant are both widely heralded as heros of the Enlightenment. So even during the Enlightenment, the supposed heyday of rationality, the very idea of reason was hotly contested. So it’s not entirely surprising that it may still be contested today, in what maybe shaping up to be another period perhaps dominated by new and powerful forces of unreason. Clearly, there is lots to sort out here and we'd love to have your help in thinking through it all.