Friday, April 30, 2010

The Triumph of Emotion Over Reason

"Part of our difficulty in the Christian world of late Western modernity has been that the mind, the faculty of thought and reasoning, has become detached.  As happens if you have a detatched retina in your eye, when your thinking becomes detached you stop seeing things clearly.  "Thought" and "reason" seem to have been placed to one side, in a private world reserved for "intellectuals" and "academics."  (Note, for example, the way in which sports commentators use the word "academic" to mean "irrelevant," as in "from now on the result of this race is academic.")  Furthermore, we often speak of our thoughts as if they were feelings: in a meeting, to be polite, we might say, "I feel that's wrong."  Similarly, perhaps without always realizing it (which itself is a sign of the same problem!), we sometimes allow feelings to ovveride thoughts: "I feel very strongly that we should do this" can carry more rhetorical weight than "I think we should do that," since nobody wants to hurt our feelings.  As a natural next step, we allow feelings to replace thought processes altogether, so that what looks outwardly like a reasoned discussion is actually an exchange of unreasoned emotions, in which all participants claim the high moral ground because when they say, "I feel strongly we should do this," they are telling the truth: they do feel strongly, so they will hurt and "rejected" if people don't agree with them.  Thus reasoned discourse is abandoned in favor of the politics of the playground.

On the day I was drafting this chapter someone wrote to the newspaper I read to express a view about "assisted suicide"--that is, euthanasia.  "That is how I feel about it," he said after stating his opinion,  "and I know a lot of other people feel strongly the same way."  I don't doubt it was true.  But his feelings were irrelevant to the questions of whether the proposal was right or wrong.  Lots of people feel very strongly that we should bomb our enemies, that we should execute serious criminals and castrate rapists, that we should abolish income taxes and let the fittest survive.  Lots of other people feel very strongly that we should do none of these things.  An exchange of feelings may tell us where the pressure points are likely to come, but it won't tell us what is the right thing to do.

Unless a person can give reasons, there is, literally, no reason why anyone else should take that person seriously.  But without reasons, all we are left with is emotional blackmail.  We sometimes call it "moral blackmail," but it has nothing to do with morals, only with the implied juvenile threat of having a tantrum unless everyone else gives in.  As a result, the making of moral decisions has been downgraded to the weighin of quasi-moral feelings and thence into a squadgy morass where, yes, the present age has quietly but firmly squeezed us back into its own shape.  It is as though the new age had not dawned.  That is precisely the point."

N.T. Wright After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, page 155-156

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1 comment:

Pilgrim said...

"Lots of people feel very strongly that we should bomb our enemies, that we should execute serious criminals and castrate rapists, that we should abolish income taxes and let the fittest survive."

Yes, lots of us do. :-)

I get it. I'm just sayin'.