The following is something old and something new. Sometimes one happens upon concurrent themes in the “Great Conversation” as Mortimer Adler termed it.
Dennis Prager, conservative talk show host and noted intellectual, produced this short video about the conflation of the rational and the good. He does a good job of explaining why these things are not the same. To be rational is not necessarily to be good or moral. However, those on the left seek to define them thus.
This has a variety of consequences, not all of which Prager talks about, including the pernicious abuse of what is deemed rational and that which is deemed irrational. For if rational can be defined as good, then many things can be “rationalized,” conversely, if what is called irrational can be defined as evil,– or counterproductive to society – if the term “evil” is unacceptable, than certain events may follow. Many totalitarian regimes simply defined their political adversaries as insane and subjected them to barbaric psychiatric “treatment” which generally had the desired effect of shutting them up, often permanently.
This system of redefining words comes in handy for those who want to conceal their motives, even from themselves. President and Founding Father John Adams understood man’s capacity for self-delusion long before Prager’s excellent video challenged the rational = good, irrational = evil formulation.
There is nothing in the science of human nature more curious, or that deserves a critical attention from every order of men so much, as that principle which moral writers have distinguished by the name of self-deceit. This principle is the spurious offspring of self-love; and is, perhaps, the source of far the greatest and worst part of the vices and calamities among mankind.
The most abandoned minds are ingenious in contriving excuses for their crimes, from constraint, necessity, the strength or suddenness of temptation, or the violence of passion, which serve to soften the recordings of their own consciences, and to render them by degrees insensible equally to the charms of virtue and the turpitude of vice…, if we look abroad, shall we not see the most modest, sensible, and virtuous of the common people, almost every hour of their lives, warped and blinded by the same disposition to flatter and deceive themselves? When they think themselves injured by any foible or vice in others, is not this injury always seen through the magnifying end of the perspective? When reminded of any such imperfection in themselves, by which their neighbors or fellow-citizens are sufferers, is not the perspective instantly reversed? Insensible of the beams in our own eyes, are we not quick in discerning motes in those of others? Nay, however melancholy it may be, and how humbling soever to the pride of the human heart, even the few favorites of nature, who have received from her clearer understandings and more happy tempers than other men,… are often snared by this unhappy disposition in their minds, to their own destruction, and the injury, nay, often to the utter desolation of millions of their fellow-men. Since truth and virtue, as the means of present and future happiness, are confessed to be the only objects that deserve to be pursued, to what imperfection in our nature, or unaccountable folly in our conduct, excepting this of which we have been speaking, can mankind impute the multiplied diversity of opinions, customs, laws, and religions that have prevailed, and are still triumphant, in direct opposition to both? From what other source can such fierce disputations arise concerning the two things which seem the most consonant to the entire frame of human nature?
Interestingly, Adams spoke of self-deception as in opposition to reason, and perhaps did not entirely agree with Prager. However, a careful reading of Adam’s argument reveals that Adams felt that pursuing virtue was supreme rationality. In this light, Adams states that the loss of virtue leads to the inability to discern and reason.
Indeed, it must be confessed, and it ought to be with much contrition lamented, that those eyes, which have been given us to see, are willingly suffered by us to be obscured, and those consciences, which by the commission of God Almighty have a rightful authority over us, to be deposed by prejudices, appetites, and passions, which ought to hold a much inferior rank in the intellectual and moral system. Such swarms of passions, avarice and ambition, servility and adulation, hopes, fears, jealousies, envy, revenge, malice, and cruelty, are continually buzzing in the world, and we are so extremely prone to mistake the impulses of these for the dictates of our consciences,—that the greatest genius, united to the best disposition, will find it hard to hearken to the voice of reason, or even to be certain of the purity of his own intentions.
But as Prager points out in the video, reason is no more than a tool that can be used for good or ill. Its use, as Adams wrote, depends upon the strength of the self-love of the one who employs it. Self -love empowers self-deceit to cloud the world as it is and replace it with a more agreeable reality.
And that explains why destructive policies are followed by still more destructive policies and, as disasters pile on, an inability to admit either fault or error.