Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Tyranny of Reason


I am reading an excellent book now: Max Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason. After slugging through Dialectic of Enlightenment (which, admittedly, I did not fully understand), this book is really a joy to read. The author argues that our current conception of reason is dangerous and tyrannical.

He calls this subjective reason: "It attaches little importance to the question whether the purposes [ends] as such are reasonable. ... The idea that an aim can be reasonable for its own sake --- on teh basis of virtues that insight reveals it to have in itself --- without reference to some kind of subjective gain or advantage, is utterly alien to subjective reason. ... There is no reasonable aim as such, and to discuss the superiority of one aim over another in terms of reason becomes meaningless. From the subjective approach, such a discussion is possible only if both aims serve a third and higher one, that is, if they are means, no ends."

This is the Austrian (Misesian, really) conception of rationality. Ends must be taken as given, because there is no way we can arbitrate between them. We can only speak of the appropriateness (rationality) of the employment of means in relation to given ends. Here we can say, for example, that one set of means is more reasonable than an alternative one in fulfilling a given end. But ends must be taken as given.

Horkheimer thinks this sytem of rationality is tyrannical. Here he is:

"The formalization of reason has far-reaching theoretical and practical implications. If the subjectivist view holds true, thinking cannot be of any help in determining the desirability of any goal in itself. The acceptability of ideals, the criteria for our actions and beliefs, the leading principles of ethics and politics, all our ultimate decisions are made to depend upon factors other than reason. They are supposed to be matters of choice and predilection, and it has become meaningless to speak of truth in making practical, moral, or esthetic decisions."

Now Horkheimer believes in an objective reason. But I will come to this later. Let us first see just what is so tyrannical about subjective (Misesian) reason. Here are some examples:

1.) It puts ethics in a different category from science.

2.) It prohibits passing judgment on man's actions and thereby contributes to cultural relativism.

3.) It emasculates critical inquiry (see this example:)

"Today, when you are summoned into a traffic court, and the judge asks you whether your driving was reasonable, he means: Did you do everything in your power to protect your own and other people's lives and property, and to obey the law? He implicitly assumes that these values must be respected. What he questions is merely the adequacy of your behavior in terms of these generally recognized standards. In most cases, to be reasonable means not to be obstinate, which in turn points to conformity with reality as it is.

4.) It actually destroys rationalism (in the tradition of Spinoza et al.) and privileges empiricism, whereby "Reason has liquidated itself as an agency of ethical, moral, and religious merit."

5.) Similarly, it turns reason into a mere instrument: "Meaning is supplanted by function or effect in the world of things and events. ... Truth is no end in itself." Also:

"What are the consequences of the formalization of reason? Justice, equality, happiness, tolerance, all the concepts that, as mentioned, were in preceding centuries supposed to be inherent in or sanctioned by reason, have lost their intellectual roots. They are still aims and ends, but there is no rational agency authorized to appraise and link them to an objective realty. ... According to the philosophy of the average modern intellectual, there is only one authority, namely, science, conceived as the classification of facts adn the calculation or probabilities. The statement that justice and freedom are better in themselves than injustice and oppression is scientifically unverifiable and useless."

6.) It creates the possiblity (and increases the liklihood) of political tyrrany:

"Since ends are no longer determined in the light of reason, it is also impossible to say that one economic or political system, no matter how cruel and despotic, is less reasonable than another. According to formalized [subjective] reason, despotism, cruelty, oppression are not bad in themselves; no rational agency would endorse a verdict against dictatorship if its sponsors were likely to profit by it [because it is useful to them in a purely instrumental sense]."

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Now against this model of reason is presented a different kind of reason, what the author calls "objective reason." He defines it in the following way:

"This view asserted the existence of reason as a force not only in the individual mind but also in the objective world. ... The emphasis was on ends rather than means. ... [For example,] freedom by nature is not identical with freedom in fact. His political doctrine is based on rational insight and deduction rather than on empirical research.."

And here:

"Less and less is anything done for its own sake. A hike that takes a man out of the city to the banks of a river or a mountain top would be irrational and idiotic, judged by utilitarian standards; he is devoting himself to a silly or destructive pastime. In the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power. In other words, an activity is merely a tool, for it derives its meaning only through its connection with other ends."

I like this contrast, and think it has a lot to tell Austrians. Where does praxeology, natural rights, etc. fit into all this? One thing I cannot yet accept, however, is the claim that this system "calls for a specific mode of behavior in each specific case ... there are more comprehensive structures demanding other lines of action equally independent of personal wishes and interests. "

In this sense, objective reason prescribes ends, while presumably subjective reason creates scope for the arbitrary selection of them. For this reason I think that objective reason also facilitates "the emergence of barbarism" if misused. Also, if two sides are making philosophical statements of absolute truth founded on reason, how do we arbitrate between them? Cannot subjective reason help us here? It seems that it would have to because the discovery of universal truths still remains fundamentall a subjective experience, and is therefore subject to variations in its interpretation and material application.

Now Austrians may wish to stick to their subjectivism and criticize "objective reason" for its emphasis on an "objective reality," but I think that Horkheimer attacks instrumental (subjective) reason quite effectively in this little book. He criticizes positivism, empiricism, pragmatism, and many other schools founded on subjective reason. I am inclined to agree that it is very dangerous to transform reason into a mere tool in the service of useful activities. We first have to rationally deduce the appropriate ends. Subjective reason cannot help us here.

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