Why reason isn’t all there is…

My last post blurred the line between rationality and decision-making. I made it sound as if to make a decision properly is to rely only on reason, and that reason should have the main place in decision-making. Reason, in fact, should NOT have the main place in decision-making.

The person who says, “I feel this, therefore I will do that,” is on shaky ground. The person who always does exactly what seems logical to him is on equally shaky ground. If I want to do something wrong, I can justify it rationally as easily as I can long for it emotionally. In fact, when someone does something wrong, it is almost always because he 1) desired to do it (emotion), and then 2) figured out a way to justify it (reason). Wrongdoing is always most powerful when we can find ways to not make it seem wrong, and that’s up to the intellect. In other words, reason and emotion will both serve the god of self if there is nothing to put them in line — if they are not expected to pay homage to something that transcends them both.

That something is wisdom. Wisdom places demands on both emotion and intellect. Wisdom says, “It’s not what you feel that matters, and it’s not what you think that matters. What matters is what is best.” This is a critical distinction. When I’m trying to make a decision, I can ask all day, “How do I feel,” and I can ask all day, “What do I think,” but only wisdom asks, “What is best? In this particular situation, what is the greatest good that can be done?” Just asking the question, “What is best” removes me from the equation in a vital way. It gets to the possibility that what is best may be something other than what I think and what I feel.

When the path of wisdom is followed, it will lead to what is ultimately best for both the individual and society. Think of some examples:

Despite how much some people desire to have extra-marital affairs and how hard they work to rationalize them, the world and everyone in it would be better off if everyone in every relationship were faithful.

Despite how often we fear telling the truth and how we justify lies, the world and every individual in it would be better off if everyone spoke truthfully.

Despite our great desire to get ahead in life by trampling other people down, the world and everyone in it would be better if that never happened.

To these examples you might reply, “But that’s not the real world. In the real world, people DO lie and they DO trample on others to get ahead. So I must do those things also because that’s the world I live in.” That seems logical, right? But if you say this, you show how reason can be used in service to evil. This is exactly why it is not a good idea to make decisions solely on what is logical. The statement above is logical, but it is not wise – it is not what is best. It may appear best to the individual in the short-term, but it hurts other individuals and ultimately our whole society, as we are increasingly unable to rely on what others tell us or trust those around us to not trample us underfoot. This creates conditions of paranoia, suspicion, and fear which have small immediate consequences as you don’t know who to trust, and massive global consequences in the form of wars and genocides. The path of wisdom ultimately has us do what is best for ourselves AND for the society we live in. It takes into account the fact that we do not do anything in isolation. If you feel you must lie, it’s because you are part of a society where others also lie. The others that lie do so because they are part of a society where those around them do — including you. The truth is that no one “must” lie and all those who do have chosen to rely on a logic (twisted though it is) that leads to evil in their own lives and evil in the world.

As I have said, both reason and emotion can be made to serve the god of self. So reason and emotion must be expected to seek something higher, and that something is wisdom. Immanuel Kant got at this something higher when he postulated what he called the “categorical imperative.” The categorical imperative stated that we should only act in ways that everyone in the world could act without contradiction. In a world where everyone lies, truth is meaningless and there can be no trust, and therefore no relationships, so I should not lie. In a world where everyone cheats on their spouse, the marriage vows would be meaningless, therefore marriage itself would be meaningless as a committed union, therefore I should not cheat on my spouse. In a world where everyone cheats at game play, rules would be meaningless and since rules define games, games themselves would be meaningless, therefore I should not cheat. Though generations of philosophers have found exceptions to Kant’s imperative and poked various holes in it, it gets at the idea that something should lie above and beyond the self in our quest to make proper decisions and act morally. Wisdom is that something.

There are millions of brilliant people who make terrible decisions for their lives — chances are you know a few of them. There are millions of deeply caring, highly emotional people who make terrible decisions for their lives, and you probably know some of them as well. Neither reason nor emotion is sufficient as a basis for making decisions in life. That is, if we say we truly want to do the “best” thing. If all we want is what will serve our own interests and make us feel good, then either reason or emotion — alone or together — will serve to get us what we crave.