Reason Alone Cannot Guide Man | Jake Painter
The Great men, who in France prepared men’s minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognised no external authority of any kind whatsoever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions – everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything.Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
I will never forget what seemed at first, a relatively unassuming Humanist Society open debate a few years ago on the issue of women being allowed to abort Down Syndrome babies. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that’s what the debate was about originally but it certainly went down that road. Things got slightly heated when a member of the Humanist society suggested that women should absolutely be allowed to abort Down Syndrome babies, with little to no restrictions placed upon them as ‘they would not be able to live a fulfilling life.’
The Tory sitting next to me and I (both of us being autistic) were understandably outraged, as we knew exactly where this line of thinking could lead. If one can argue that unborn Down syndrome babies do not deserve life because they may not live a satisfactory existence, then can one not argue that for severely or even mildly autistic children? Should potential mothers be given the kill switch?
The president and others tried to draw the distinction by saying words to the effect of ‘no, no autistic people can have the ability to live fulfilling and satisfactory lives.’ We would have the privilege of not going through trial by Spartan baby purity test, where the ancient Greek city state would throw babies off of cliffs if they had any slight physical deformity. After all, if they can’t serve the state and society to their fullest, what use are they?
This gets to the crux of the issue. Whilst humanist types value reason and the scientific method as the foundation of their world view, that is not a replacement for a moral value system. I have in my previous article discussed at length as to why liberal secularism cannot drive society forward into a new Jerusalem, but in this one I seek to explain why this ideology often leads to some very dark endpoints. Whilst humanists and the inheritors of the enlightenment believe their world view to be benign, it in many cases leads to some of human history’s worst excesses.
Let’s look at the less extreme end of the spectrum here. Before the introduction of the 1834 poor law, England had a system of ameliorating the lot of the poorest in society centred around the 1601 Poor Relief Act. Under these provisions you had a proto benefits welfare system or as it was known back then ‘outdoor relief.’ The biggest difference was that these provisions were provided by the local parish. It could come in the form of food, clothing or the local magistrate could order that cash payment could be made directly to the destitute via the poor box from the local church. This was a box where the charitable would donate money into a box to be used for poor relief. This system had its flaws but it was quite humane and provided some semblance of a safety net for the less fortunate in society.
However, by the time of the early 19th century things were changing. The industrial revolution was in full swing and the ideas of economic liberalism came along with it. One of its iterations came in the form of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. To Bentham and his allies in parliament, this system of poor relief only encouraged idleness and this idleness got in the way of functioning market forces. So came the introduction of the aforementioned 1834 Poor Law, which forbade outdoor relief unless in the most extreme circumstances and almost only allowed for indoor relief in the form of the infamous workhouse, where the unemployed would often be forced to go if they had no other option available to them. As well as having their freedom of movement restricted, fathers, mothers and children were seperated into different quarters, residents were forced to do menial and often pointless tasks, much in the same spirit to a prison inmate being forced to break boulders with a sledgehammer. Indeed, that was sort of the point of the workhouse, to make being idle and unemployed so unbearable and humiliating that people would not seek to exploit the system and would get to work. When no work was available, it was not unheard of for people to take their lives, rather than face the indignity of the workhouse.
From a cold hard logical point of view you can reason it served its purpose but from a moral point of view this system was repugnant. But that doesn’t matter, to those who seek only to guide society by pure reason, the moral is immaterial. What matters is logic and utility, anything that gets in the way of that has no value. This is not to say of course reason has no intrinsic value, society must have a degree of it, otherwise it remains stagnant. To have society governed primarily by reason and the scientific method, without anything to temper it you get situations where in days gone by the poor were treated little better than criminals and where today we seriously question the right to life of those with mental or physical impediments.
The dogma of reason and the scientific method has been shown to have far more insidious consequences. It is already well known that the Nazis used scientific racism to justify their own abhorrent ideology. This is obviously not to say that the scientific method in of itself leads logically to Nazism (that would be absurd),but instead it goes back to the point I made earlier that, just like with pure reason, basing your society primarily on principles such as the scientific, without having the necessary restraints, will inevitably lead to unsavoury consequences. But it wasn’t just the far right that used pseudo Darwinism to suit their own ends.
Dialectical materialism is much more profound than just explaining that the progression of human history can be explained through the conflict of competing economic philosophies. As Frederick Engels explains, it explains the very metaphysical nature of our existence. He argues in his work Socialism: Scientific and Utopian that the way we should and can only view our existence is through material reality. What we can see, hear, feel and also through our relations with the economic structures of our society. Whether it be with the slave and the slave master, the peasant and the landed aristocracy and of course with the proletarian and the bourgeoisie. But he used pseudo Darwinian theories to justify his theories. He explained that Darwin’s theory of evolution where species compete in the natural world for survival and progression could also be applied to dialectical struggles. Much like the lion competes with the cheetah in the African savannah for resources, the lion will ultimately win out through its superior strength, so will the proletariat ultimately preserve over the bourgeoisie through their strength of numbers, once the proletariat achieves class consciousness.
Indeed, it is in the name of the work ‘scientific’ that gives it away for Engels, because he justifies his socialism through the false application of the scientific method. To him utopian socialists base their socialism on sentiment and fantasy, not based on the cold hard economic reality at hand. Socialism that is not based on dialectical economic struggle is unrealistic and through his application of the scientific method, you get an air of inevitability from Engels. It is only through this brand of socialism that society can possibly progress and that’s precisely what makes scientific socialism so dangerous.
In the end, socialism is ideological and dogmatic, as with any ideology. Most ideologies of course have their truths in reality to some degree but when you claim that your ideology is the eternal truth because you applied pseudo-science to it, it leaves little to no room for argument and dissent. It traps one into a dangerous ideological box from which my way is the only way, and at best views everyone else as simply wrong and, at worst the enemies of progress. We have seen in history through various communist regimes where the latter leads to.
Not just communists mind you. As the above quote alludes to, the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century broadly believed in such principles as well. Though Engels believed the French revolution was merely a revolution spearheaded by the proto bourgeoisie, they were equally dogmatic in their worldview. Because reason and the values of the enlightenment was their only guide, they justified mass terror that killed thousands of their fellow countrymen to achieve what they thought was just. Because they were not bound by any other external authority (like say god) and their revolution was the rejection of the old order, they did not entertain having to play by any old world standards. The ends justified the means as they say.
Here too the similarities between the French revolutionaries and Engels are uncanny and this is where Engels introduces us to Diesm. Diesm in short is a view that one doesn’t even necessarily need devine revelation to believe in the existence of God, one can merely look to physical and natural world around us as proof that God exists. However, as Engels correctly outlines, if one is to only look at the world around us, there really isn’t any hard evidence that God exists. Engels again correctly asserts that religion without the belief in revelation (in the Christian sense that it came through Jesus or in Islam that Mohammed is the final messenger of God) is fundamentally defunct. This is where dialectal materialism has its real meat, because by explaining that the metaphysical can only be explained through our physical understanding of the world, it fundamentally rejects any external authority on ourselves. Without the existence of God to administer justice in the universe, we are left to our devices and any absolutist ideology like communism or Nazism that wishes to advance their cause can do so, in the pursuit of a temporal heaven.
This brings us full circle once more. I must reiterate an earlier point that I made in that I do not reject reason, the scientific method or very broadly humanistic values in its entirety. Everything must be taken in moderation and what I have hoped to have demonstrated here is that if you take reason and the scientific method in its totally, without any restraint or moral value system, then you will most likely get unforeseen and disastrous consequences, from the poor law to the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Fundamentally also, the moral is just as important as the rational. We can as a society never reason or rationalise our way out of our obligations to our community, family, nation or allow it to erode our moral standards that are so vital to keeping society civilised.