This article is a follow-up to the article Weighing Without a Scale: Duty, Honour and Dignity, and though this article stands on its own it is recommended to read the linked article first. Here we attempt taking a step down on the abstractness scale and discuss more concretely the problems connected to duty raised in the above mentioned article in the context of modern society. We ask the question: is it reasonable to think that uniform social norms can be arrived at and obeyed by appealing solely to the individual’s reason?
If one does not care about, say, the poor, why should one help them? Because, if one was poor oneself one would want to be helped? If the air was warmer I would take of my shirt, but it is not so the shirt stays on. No one disputes that if the world was different it may not be the same… Maybe, upon learning how they became poor one would sympathise and want to help, but then reason did not make one care – it merely found an element that one already was inclined to care about but did not know of.
The only way reasoning and rational argumentation can instill a sense of duty is by investigating the different aspects, causes, consequences and implications of something to see if there is anything that one cares about. On the personal level this is a most worthy function that, as one can say, helps one “act according to oneself”. On the societal plane, however, one needs a certain unity, some level of common agreement and understanding of how one should act – “oneself” should not be too far away from everyone else!
One could hope that humans in their unpolluted nature all care about similar things in relatively equal measure, and then reason can be a tool to achieve the necessary level of unity. Given that what we actually care about by nature is such that an ordered functioning society will result from acting according to our personal cares, of course. Is there any reason to believe this is the case though – a rational reason? The religious, spiritual or simply illogical beliefs and opinions that the modern trust in rationality, reason and science combats and seeks to lessen or remove exactly by reason can certainly not be triggered by reason and rational arguments. Either one cares for them by nature, or one has come to care for them by other means – perhaps, as psychological experiments and research often suggests, through humans’ social and “groupish” instincts or drives, as we may call them. Indeed, does not caring come from some sort of attachment, and attachment through some form of interaction?
All societies so far expose the members to some kinds of interactions and pushes, consciously or unconsciously, some buttons through other means than reason. The duties and values have been emphasised in themselves, as truths, not by logical arguments or often not by any arguments at all. The ideal held by society about how a person should be includes and has always included not only how they should think, but how they should behave and act, and what they should believe. There are done experiments where some children are shown a black pyramid and all except one of them are instructed to say it is white when asked, and then the last says it is white as well after hearing the answers of the others’. Even with adults experiments (see e.g. http://ecclesiastes911.net/suggestion/black_is_white.html), not to mention experience, show similar behaviour, and we see that not all of it is conscious on the individual’s behalf.
It is reasonable to think this drive pushes one to conform to the ideal of the group one feels attached to – and perhaps being driven towards this influences what we care about. In precisely which manner it does influence we do not have enough information to say, yet it seems many assume a very definite answer to this. For by most “educated and reasonable” people of the modern age it is assumed that if the ideal is only to be reasonable, that is, to base one’s opinions and actions on reason, we will end up with a good society. Do we know what sense of attachment will be achieved this way, and what will this attachment make us care about? There does not seem to be much indication, scientific or logical, that working towards such a society of reason is a good direction to move in.
Even though we seemingly move in this direction, we may not know what it leads to. “Seemingly” is the keyword here, for the ideal of reason often contains, as the ideals of old, elements of behaviour and thinking that do not pertain to reason. It does so for the same reason the ideals of, say, christians societies contained elements not derivable from the bible: because we care. We have a tendency to think that what seems natural to us must be in accordance to our ideals. Thus, to those who has reason as an ideal, the duties and values one deeply cares about are implicitly assumed to be reasonable. They are reasonable, however, only for the person that cares.
One often speaks about science and reason, but scientifically we have little reason to believe that reason is the answer to everything. Or, to phrase it more correctly, it is not reasonable to demand only that people be reasonable. Reason tells us that essential elements of human life cannot come from reason alone.