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The Irrationality of Rationalism

This condition, Epidermolysis bullosa, with which I was diagnosed after birth, is as painful as described. Singer’s language is compassionate, but what he advocates for is infanticide.”

To be rational is held as life’s main goal by those invested in science as the preeminent explanation of (and guide to) life and how to live. Rationality means taking reason over experience or revelation as the basis for certainty in knowledge. The arguments around it go back to the ancient philosophers in Greece and Rome, seeing its epistemic apogee with the work of Thomas Aquinas. The 20th century philosopher Leo Strauss argued for a tension between the rationality of Greek philosophy and the revelation of Judaism’s home of Jerusalem. The tension between the two must always be kept in check, lest one side win out to ill effect, leading to what Samuel Gregg calls pathologies of reason and faith. 

Those who come down on the side of rationalism to the exclusion of all else find their hero in Peter Singer, the world’s leading utilitarian and bioethicist. One only needs to listen to his thoughts on disability, euthanasia, and the way to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number to realize the insanity and danger of his thought. 

Singer’s heroism to the world’s right-thinking people is confirmed by his institutional status and the accolades attached to his name. The positions of men and women like Singer point to what we value as a society, the status attached to them and to the thoughts they express, touching something in our cultural psyche that we accede to by accepting their ideas. Ideas and beliefs matter when held by enough people in institutions to apply them in real life. Singer’s ideas matter.

What are these ideas? In a debate with the theologian Andy Bannister last year, Singer put forward his case for why severely disabled children should be euthanized at birth. As Singer argues, considering the prospects for a happy and worthwhile life should be the overriding concern, and he suggests that it will increase the sum of happiness if a disabled child died, making way for a healthy, happier child in his place. When asked who he is to judge the worth of the life of a disabled child, Singer cites Epidermolysis bullosa, a rare genetic condition, in support of his arguments. He ends by saying: “I think it is possible to say objectively really that that is not a good life, that it’s better if that child—whenever born or if they are born—that they die swiftly and humanely, rather than we try to prolong their life as long as we can.”

This condition, Epidermolysis bullosa, with which I was diagnosed after birth, is as painful as described. Singer’s language is compassionate, but what he advocates for is infanticide. Human life is stripped to a cost-benefit calculation of happiness versus suffering, the only two measures that seemingly matter. Singer argues elsewhere that “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” He also applies this lens to euthanasia, arguing that those without mental capacity should rationally be seen as no better than animals. Those without reason—whether due to infancy or mental incapacity—do not, therefore, count as fully human persons in Singer’s eyes. 

This all demonstrates the dark paths we can travel when we revere reason to the exclusion of all other moral influences.

Singer is obviously not a Nazi, but the ends reached via his utilitarian reason (instead of racial atavism) have a chilling similarity. The reality of doctors as paladins of scientific reason enabled genocide by euthanasia is described by Ashley Fernandes. So, those who enthusiastically shared a recent tweet captioned “Imagine a world ruled by scientists, not by politicians” would be wise to recall that 8 of the 15 top Nazis at the Wannsee conference, where the Final Solution was decided (and which precipitated the Shoah), held PhDs. Mechanized mass murder was initiated by educated men, seeing it as the rational course to take. 

This all demonstrates the dark paths we can travel when we revere reason to the exclusion of all other moral influences. These other moral influences are deemed illegitimate in a world where scientific knowledge is all that matters for what passes as ethical judgement. Rationalism elevates the power of rationality to an unyielding faith in the power of the human mind to attain access to universal human reason for the betterment of our condition. The rationalist school of political theory is rooted in the work of Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Baruch Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant. 

Excessive reverence of reason is the shadow side of the Enlightenment, which as Peter King writes in The Antimodern Condition, “sought to question all traditions, habits and institutions on the basis of a universal idea of reason.” What King calls Modernism is Enlightenment’s offspring, a worldview “concerned with a particular rational approach to the world, that sees human perfectibility as a necessary aim and that this can be achieved through the application of scientific or technical means. It involves the placing of innovation and newness over tradition. Indeed, as with the Enlightenment, it will tend to involve the general denigration of traditional practices and reject the past as a guide for future action. It will tend to neglect our ancestors and the old-established ways of doing things in favour of innovation and originality.”

This is key to understand when discussing the beliefs of Singer and his fellow rationalist utilitarians. As Yoram Hazony writes, “Virtually all of liberal thought today—including that of ‘social liberals’ such as John Rawls; and that of ‘classical liberals’ or ‘libertarians’ such as Robert Nozick—is based on Enlightenment rationalist political theories that were purposely designed to be independent of all inherited political traditions.” Liberals from Locke to Rawls hailed reason alone as the means by which we can ascertain the correct answers on how to live, of our origins and ends: “Reason alone was said to be all you needed to derive and wield ideas like individual freedom, equality, consent, and universal rights—the central ideas in the toolkit of contemporary liberalism.” 

The religion of rationalism, however, is not enough, and we come nowhere near to forming a stable consensus on anything using only the power of our rational faculties. Hazony quotes the English political theorist John Selden, who argued in 1640 that reason can bring us to virtually any conclusion. As he wrote, “[N]o one of any education can be unaware that in ancient times even the masters and practitioners of right reason, i.e., the philosophers, took part in endless discussions about good and evil, and the boundaries that separated them, in which they were completely at odds with one another. There was no one to put an end to these disputes. The number of sectarian groups multiplied.” 

The result of reaching for universal truth with reason alone was exponential growth in incommensurable value systems: “Thus people who have set about seeking the universal principles of living well have arrived at very different conclusions, among which everyone considers his own to be the best, and usually either condemns or criticizes everyone else’s.” Selden then runs through a selection of philosophers from the Greco-Roman and early Christian worlds who each argued for the ideal way to live grounded in their search through reason, each fundamentally different to the other. 

As Selden concludes, we should treat the unfettered and simple application of analytical reason alone” with great circumspection,  as it is “so unpredictable and unstable that what one person sees (particularly in this kind of investigation) as a very evident principle, or a conclusion which follows from a principle, will often seem to another person of equal intelligence to be obviously false and worthless, or at least inadmissible as truth.” Most importantly for us here, “This is just what happened all the time among those heroes of the discipline who used free and untrammelled reason to argue about the nature of good and evil, the shameful and the honourable, as everyone knows who is even slightly familiar with their writings. This is why Tertullian says as follows about the philosophy of the gentiles, i.e. about using the kind of reason which they generally called ‘right’: It reserves nothing for divine authority; it makes its own opinions into laws of nature.”

Rationalism alone is woefully insufficient: It gives no account or measure of the good, true, beautiful, right and wrong, good and evil. As a result our societal view—guided by rationalism—of the human person, we seem capable of slipping back into a world redolent of the days of ancient Greece and Rome, when crippled infants were discarded in town rubbish heaps, or exposed on hillsides. This was the normal state of affairs throughout history, in places untouched by Jewish and Christian moral teachings, and in those which ignore them. 

Now, under the guise of rational, compassionate liberalism where talk of individual rights and the maximization of autonomy is all-pervading, we witness a re-paganization of our conception of personhood, a desacralization of our God-like image. This is expressed through the mechanistic utilitarian philosophy that argues for infanticide for disabled babies, euthanasia of the elderly, and the cruel neglect of the mentally incapacitated, under the banner of “choice.” We have our own icy hillsides and civilizational trash-heaps: They gleam white and smell of antiseptic. 

Given the revealed preferences of our cultures towards the disposal of unwanted elements, it is doubtful whether our world will be better without the waters of faith that nourished the tree of life. 

The utilitarian language of rational science is used by those like Singer to pursue ends that we can only call immoral as a result of religious and moral belief systems handed down over millennia. Divorced from these constraints against evil and guides towards the good, our rationality becomes unmoored, running wild. Education and the cultivation of reason is no barrier to evil as all moral distinctions are erased in favor of utilitarian conclusions, treating the human person as an issue to be solved with scientific technique. What Selden called “free and untrammelled reason” has left us disorientated, caught in a perpetual revolution in which all moral judgement is erased. All must give way to the light of reason. 

Tom Holland writes in Dominion that what we see as secular, humane ideals (whereby the afflicted and dependent are comforted and cared for) are, in reality, the product of a particular cultural inheritance grounded in the transcendent truths of Christianity and its Jewish parent. Given the revealed preferences of our cultures towards the disposal of unwanted elements, it is doubtful whether our world will be better without the waters of faith that nourished the tree of life. 

The moral teaching and guardrails entrenched by faith served to cultivate our rational faculties as part of community towards the right, true, and good. Without them, we are left with those like Peter Singer, throwing the weakest among us into the sewer of civilization, all the while wearing a face wracked by compassion and uttering words of kindness. It is time we rebalanced our faith in universal rationalism with one that gives a truer accounting of the human person and its sacred finitude, that accepts the limits of our existence as embodied souls with all the constraints that entails. We are not perfectible and are not meant to be; we are living fallen lives in a broken world. Acceptance of our brokenness comes with appreciation of life’s gift. 

We must move away from the pursuit of the maximization of individual autonomy and seek solace in the particular and established. Any universal truths of existence can only be dimly ascertained through the particulars of our place and time, our culture, and its inheritance, an icon that points beyond itself. Being rooted, a feeling of home, community, inheritance, and legacy can encourage a sense of gratitude with which to withstand life’s vicissitudes. This vision of the good life means that despite Singer’s insistence to the contrary, it is still possible to be glad for one’s birth, as I am. It is, as Leon Kass writes, possible to live a worthy life of meaning and purpose in modern times. 

It is time we remembered that reason on its own, without our inherited traditions and faith as a guide and measure, can lead to the most irrational ends of all.

Henry George is a freelance writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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