The Quagmire of Reason in Moral Thinking

by Brad Nelson10/31/15

An okay article by James Arlandson got me to thinking (always dangerous) again about the moral state of humanity out there. The many thin and not particularly thoughtful libertarian replies to his article are not reason to be optimistic. I didn’t know, for example, that the reason for the Federal government was simply to restrain the Federal government with no other purpose in mind. It was not to be a function for a greater union but merely an apparatus for smoothing things over between the states which libertarians still view as independent countries.

But I haven’t come to bury libertarians once again. But the point is, is there much clarity about what is moral these days? Can anyone fashion a formula or argument based on something more than mere clever rhetoric learned with all the depth of a horse learning to tap out the answer to “2 plus 2”? I have read much clever rhetoric on my travels on the web. And almost all of it leaves me feeling as if I’d eaten cardboard or sawdust. This “reasoning,” if you will, tends not to be very nutritious.

One must, of course, realize that words are not the same as the thing being described. But they, at least, are a way of expressing ideas and communicating, however imperfectly, complex things. But what I find more and more out there is a dearth of underlying clear ideas (no foundation) and a glut of outward rhetoric, rationalizations, and two-clever-by-half arguments for or against this or that policy. There seems to be no weightier anchor than political sloganeering.

A moral quagmire or question, I find, is not escaped by pure reason (read: “rhetoric”). This phenomenon is made worse by legions of young, unsocialized, undisciplined males out there who are undereducated and yet have been taught that what they believe already is tantamount to the wisdom of Solomon. The idea of “the more you know, the more you don’t know” never gets a chance to reach them because they think they already know everything.

Regarding this article itself, I find stoplight cameras to be a dubious form of law enforcement. And if this guy was regularly running red lights, god help us if it takes the all-seeing nanny state to make someone virtuous and cognizant that running red lights is a bad idea. However, there is, of course, something to be said for laws, much like locks on doors, keeping people honest.

But (unsurprisingly, given the dope-head leanings of libertarians) what we’ll find is that as yutes become more and more adrift in their thinking, they will become governed more and more by government laws as a substitute for any kind of moral formation. Does one really expect that those who show little wisdom and self-restraint are going to be the force for more limited government?

So I don’t have the answer to the question of escaping the moral quagmire and forming good moral judgments. Partly such moral foundations are expressed through, and applied by, government. But government can’t be the main enforcer or grounding or else we are indeed headed for an Orwellian nanny state. And yet with yutes today typically lacking any moral foundation other than personal anarchy and will (dolled up as “liberty”), I don’t see how one can ever shrink the state, despite a torrent of libertarian rhetorical arguments about how the Federal government was really founded for this reason instead of that.

I suppose in this age of sound bytes, low-information voters, vulgar and dumbed-down arts & entertainment, the wussification of men, the emotionalization of the education process (at the expense of academics…feelings instead of facts), and (last but not least) the emasculation of Christianity, it’s inevitable that your normal American has a hard time thinking about moral questions. Perhaps it’s no wonder that these questions tend to devolve to soundbytes or to a situation where you get little more than throwing a plateful of ideas at the wall to see if something sticks. I may be doing that here myself, for I don’t have a clear formula to offer, only an inkling here and there and a few words on what isn’t working.

But anyone who thinks a stoner generation is the way to limited government has already excused themselves from serious conversation. I can, however, appreciate Arlandson wrestling honestly with the question.

How much state and how much religion should be the inculcator of moral values is a good question. I just wonder if in this age of the tattooed where distraction and constant entertainment are the raison d’etre if we can expect anything but canned rhetorical arguments or bumper sticker slogans regarding the important issues of the day.

At least Arlandson has thrown some spaghetti and made one or two things stick. But I also see many trails of red descending to the floor. But it is indeed a difficult question.


Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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5 Responses to The Quagmire of Reason in Moral Thinking

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    The problem with rationalism is that there must still be some basic assumptions, and they can be crucial. Many rationalists fail to realize this, which can lead to the sort of arrogance that Ayn Rand demonstrated (to her, everyone should decide for themselves about everything — but if they didn’t agree with her completely, they obviously were not completely rationalistic). But if the assumptions have no room for morality, or choose a poor morality, the results can also be very bad (cf. T’Pring at the end of the Star Trek episode “Amok Time”, as I believe I’ve mentioned here previously).

    An interesting example of amoral rationalism can be found in Fred Saberhagen’s novel Octagon. A boy playing a game called Starweb (an actual game, at least at the time, run by a company called Flying Buffalo) has set up a computer file to keep track of things — but the password he uses for it happens to activate a lot of computer systems to help him win. The systems follow the game rules — but what game sees the need for a rule against murdering other players?

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Many rationalists fail to realize this, which can lead to the sort of arrogance that Ayn Rand demonstrated (to her, everyone should decide for themselves about everything — but if they didn’t agree with her completely, they obviously were not completely rationalistic)

      Timothy, that’s such a great example of just plain dishonest or manipulative thinking. I’m quite willing to admit that someone may be just as rational as I am — maybe more so — and come to a different conclusion. Many things, after all, are functions of preference, not hardened fact.

      We see the Left play the same dishonest game with “science.” They put the moniker “science” on something — using it like a superstition — and for them anyone who disagrees is “anti-science.” This is, of course, ridiculous because, again, many, if not most, things are a matter of preference or reference moral aspects — neither of which “science” can have much to say about, in principle. And science is usually a moving target anyway with today’s theories replaced by tomorrow’s.

      So we get these voodoo words tossed at us. If you’re not *for* such-and-such policy, then your are anti-rational, anti-science, bigoted, homophobic, etc., etc., etc. And this is pretty much the state of our culture in terms of thinking.

      I don’t mean that every question has to be split into a thousand hair’s breadths of “nuance.” Very often, the right thing to do is clear and uncluttered. And those who clutter are often trying to obfuscate the simple truths in order to enact some illicit preference or agenda. Yeah, sucks that God (or whomever) chose two sexes as the primary orientation of people, but that is the way things are and finding endless “nuance” and shades of “gender” is just a means to hide this fact and a means to legitimize what I view as dysfunction or just trying to mainstream being a weirdo.

      But if the assumptions have no room for morality, or choose a poor morality, the results can also be very bad (cf. T’Pring at the end of the Star Trek episode “Amok Time”, as I believe I’ve mentioned here previously).

      Yes, “reason” or logic is not the same thing as a sound moral argument. People forget that and are bamboozled or seduced by the language.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        The professor in one of my computer science courses at Purdue gave an example of how different people can rationally come up with very different answers. He put up a hypothetical chart of 4 computer companies and how their stock prices would respond both if the government intervened in the market (by breaking up IBM, which some people wanted at the time) or if it didn’t. Depending on the basis one used, each company could be the “right” purchase. (I only remember 3 of the standards — the maximum of the maximum yields, the maximum of the minimum yields, and the expected value assuming a 50% chance either way.)

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Rationality + preference + good morality = free and decent human culture. Libertarians try to pluck “reason” out of the equation and make it the whole thing. They’re left spouting gibberish and spouting it louder to try to make it stick. But it can’t.

          It’s funny that the Left speaks of “choice” (preference) but they don’t really mean it. They hate people making choices they don’t approve of. Their way of thinking leads to tyranny.

          And conservatives can also over-do “choice” as do libertarians. Not everything can and should be chosen (such as abortion, owning your own nuclear weapon, or playing music at 100 db at 3:00 in the morning). Free markets are necessary but not the whole thing. Without a moral framework, all of our choices, rationality, preferences, markets, and whatever will tend toward bad things.

          And if we don’t restrain ourselves, government will surely do so. Most of what I’ve said above would make most yutes heads explode. They’re clueless, left adrift in our culture like little monsters. What’s more to life than beer, football, and tattoos? Well, nothing if you want to live down to being a slob. But Western Civilization is a grand thing and worth honoring and saving.

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