the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
ARISTOCRACY OF THE MIND
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‘Virtue’ is the usual gloss of the ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗ word ‘ΑΡΕΤΗ’. W.K.C. Guthrie points out that ‘ΑΡΕΤΗ’ actually refers to excellence, and in fact to specific excellence.1 Guthrie in fact refers first to ‘efficiency’; ΑΡΕΤΗ is “being good at something”. It is, therefore, different from one activity to the next. The excellence in an activity is inherent to the activity. ΑΡΕΤΗ for a soldier was courage, for a magistrate, justice, for a laborer, strength and endurance.
The ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ did not preclude the possibility of a general ΑΡΕΤΗ for a person. But specific excellence for a person would be what makes a person excellent considered as a person, which requires that we understand the essential nature of a person. The question certainly engaged the ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΙ thinkers; it has not been settled since, to no great astonishment.
Any pronouncement on the fundamental quality of a person is, then, likely to be viewed as subjective and to fall in the middle of a grand controversy. But even in that, we may have an answer. The individual is, in my judgement, fundamentally a mind, a res cogitans, the element in the universal system that thinks. The mind perceives, processes, forms judgements, and effects those judgements using its limited ability to control the world. It is certainly possible that not all of these properties and processes in the universal system are attributable to a single integral entity; but this is probably impossible to establish one way or the other. All of these properties and processes do exist in the system, though, and if we consider them collectively as belonging to a single unit within the system, we can then define that as the mind, as an example of personality in the system.
The specific excellence of that element, the mind, is almost self-evident. It would be excellence in perceiving, processing, forming judgements, and effecting judgements. Not all of these, if taken at their broadest interpretations, can translate into virtues of the conventional sort. Excellence in processing within the mind is mostly an inherent quality on which the individual can have no influence, in which the individual cannot hope to improve. Excellence in effecting judgements is at least partially a matter of physical qualities, of for instance the strength that might be required in certain contests over outcomes in the world. Excellence in perceiving is likewise partially determined by physical abilities, and partially by circumstances. Those deprived of sight or the freedom to fully explore the world cannot gain as much information through perception. But none of these limitations is connected to virtues of the mind, of personality, since they are not qualities located within personality. (They are human traits, to be sure, but if we consider what would distinguish a person from a biochemical machine, they are human traits that could belong as well to the machine.) What emerges from the exclusion of uncontrollable physical traits or physico-mental traits is a center of agency, and its excellence lies in using its agency to maximize its agency. The person is an independent actor within the universal system, the location of choice and judgement; and the key choice is to maximize its choice, the key judgement that judgement is a primary function.
To step back from arcane metaphysical language, the ideal person is the one that thinks for itself, that thinks critically, that values its independence of action. It will take in as much information as it can, and seek out yet more information, so that its judgements will be as informed as possible. It will be skeptical about the information, considering its source, considering various interpretations, taking into account the possibility of misinformation and disinformation, taking what is perceived only as evidence for perception itself ― that is, appearance only means a reality of appearance, not of underlying reality.
It will place emphasis on thinking carefully and at length, so that its inherent capacity to think is used to the maximum. This means, in part, believing in its own ability to understand, to make sense of the world. We cannot truly know the native intellect of the world’s individuals until they exercise this to the fullest. That differences exist is perhaps unquestionable, and some will always be smarter than others; but how many concepts are there that are genuinely beyond the ability of the ordinary individual to understand?
The individual will believe only what logic and evidence allow; that is, the individual will only believe according to reason. It may be that reason, as I am convinced, is itself an intuitive process. But the process of understanding even intuitively is more likely to be accurate and effective if it proceeds carefully and with a maximum of analysis, breaking ideas down into simpler ideas. And even if reason is a process that cannot be fully explained or understood, its application can do no damage to the truth. Put otherwise, if something is true, it will withstand examination and still appear true.
Furthermore, rationalism is the safeguard of the truth. The exhortation to take something on faith, which is to say believe it uncritically and without or even contrary to evidence, is an affront not only to rationalism but to truth. The one who demands faith is either seeking to deceive or acting with that purpose on behalf of someone else. At some point in the chain of tradition, deception was a deliberate aim, inserted with the intention of mind control.
Rationalism is therefore also a defense against dominion, in this case the rule of some persons over other persons. The rational person would be skeptical about motives for mind control, and particularly about the process. The rationalist rejects not only the suggestion that a person concealing its motives might have good intentions, but also the idea that the concepts in question are only comprehensible by a select few ― which is the most common attempted reconciliation between the nefarious device of mind control and its claim of good intentions. Faith is the handmaiden of tyranny. That many of its proponents are actually well-intentioned does not excuse their participation. They may not intend to soften up resistance to tyranny, but this is nonetheless the effect; this is certainly what they are doing when they ask the masses, or even tell the masses, not to think. These witting or unwitting servants of dominion state that it is wrong and sinful to question and doubt. They bear some responsibility for delivering that message without questioning it themselves. They should want to know why it is so urgent that challenge and skepticism be suppressed. Such a project, the suppression of challenge, is a gift to those whose methods would not survive challenge, and whose motives must remain hidden because they are not honorable.
Religion as faith is contrary to reason; but the rationalist would also reject religion as community of systematic belief. Convergence of belief is possible and probably desirable, but considering the expansive content of the usual system of belief, convergence on all of this content is unlikely for large numbers of individuals if each is in fact thinking for itself. And in general, this convergence would only be possible with a presupposition of agreement, and that, ultimately, means that many are taking much on faith. We should be cognizant of the intersection of belief sets, and take such intersections as a fortuitous boon to society; but we should not develop intricate belief sets ― doctrines ― and then urge their wholesale, uncritical adoption.
Rationalism is the cardinal virtue of the mind. If we were allowed to urge only one virtue, rationalism would be the one, for all others of value can be derived from it. In other words, there are no irrational virtues worth possessing. But this assertion, of course, is dependent upon reason.
Self-interest is often taken as the natural and expected pursuit of the rational being. This may be so; but the usual picture of egoism ― hedonism, materialism, selfish disregard for others and for the consequences of one’s actions ― follows only from a temporal self-interest. The temporal assumption is that the individual is finite and physically independent, disconnected from its surroundings and thus in no way accountable for its actions. The transcendent assumption, on the other hand, is that the world is holistic, that all things are interconnected, and that the choices an individual makes will affect itself, the harm it causes to its surroundings will ultimately harm itself. That the truth may lie anywhere on a continuum from total disconnection to total interconnection matters only by the same degree, since the rational individual must favor the transcendent assumption.
It is a version of Pascal’s wager that settles the issue. Elaborating on the general idea of Pascal, it is proposed that a person should believe in God (the Christian God, creator and judge, all-knowing and all-powerful) because the consequences of mistakenly believing in God are little more than the loss of opportunity to do as one chooses in a finite life, while the consequences of mistakenly disbelieving in God include denial of eternal bliss and probably eternal damnation. Pascal’s wager fails as such because an individual can only choose how to act, not what to believe, and most Christian conceptions of God have God far more concerned with belief than action. The sinner who believes is saved; the saint who disbelieves is not.
But the rational choice between temporal and transcendent is entirely about action. It matters not what one believes, but how one acts. The consequences of mistakenly acting on the transcendent assumption are limited, again, to the loss of opportunity to do exactly as one chooses without consideration. The consequences of mistakenly acting on the temporal assumption can range from living out one’s life in a world marred by one’s actions to the direct experience of all the negative effects ― a rational if unprovable possibility. Of course, the rationalist will recognize the limitations on its knowledge of consequences. But the benefit of the doubt must always go to holism.
The golden rule, the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, demands that each of us acts as we would want all of us to act. The veil of ignorance of John Rawls demands that we create a system that is so equitable that we would accept its least-desirable position. These are not altruistic proposals; rather, they are principles for the agreement of a social contract, in which each individual consents to be bound by standards of behavior so that it may know that all other individuals are likewise bound. In a true social contract, individuals are not bound unless all consent, and do not remain bound unless all hold themselves to the agreement, or can be held to it. It is an exchange of an unpredictable, unreliable freedom of action for a stable, negotiated freedom of action.
Altruism and responsibility can thus be derived rationally, even if we concede that rationalism consists, as the objectivists would have it, of looking out for number one. The key is that self-interest must be enlightened self-interest. And when the self-interest of the one is construed as persuading all others to subordinate their real interests to a distorted perception of self-interest that in reality only serves the one, this is the advocacy of reason and self-interest in only the narrowest possible sense, that one should be rational and self-interested, but all others should not be.2 And we must wonder at the motives of anyone advocating this view, in which, it would seem, we are ensnared in paradox and circularity. If the proponent of temporal egoism truly believed this, would it not, in fact, be saying whatever was necessary to persuade us to act according to its own interest, rather than ours?
Indoctrination may seem antithetical to reason, but even in a rationalist world, some indoctrination would be unavoidable, if we believe that children enter the world without formed ideas, and defenseless. Rationalism is, as stated, a valuable defense against the mental predators of the world. It is likewise a defense against error. If we truly believe in reason, we would choose rationalism as the first and only object of indoctrination. We must teach children to question and doubt, including to question and doubt us. The child so indoctrinated will be defended even against the predation and error of its indoctrinators. It will also have the necessary and sufficient tool to develop altruism and responsibility. It will recognize the value of an equitable social contract built on respect for others; it will be a good partner in society, rather than a servant of one element of society.
The rationalist is not just an iconoclast, though it certainly is that. It is not just an apostate, though apostasy from error and dominion is unquestionably a good result. The rationalist is also a scholar who studies the world, and an intellectual who ponders its ideas. The rationalist is a citizen who participates in its society, rather than a subject of society’s reigning power. The rationalist is a contributor to understanding rather than confusion and deception. The rationalist responsibly creates no more problems for the world than it is prepared to deal with itself, and creates no problems for others that it would not have others create in turn. The rationalist values its own freedom; it therefore does not abuse the freedom of others, lest they feel provoked into curtailing the very freedom so valued.
Cognate with ‘ΑΡΕΤΗ’ is ‘ΑΡΙΣΤΟΝ’ ― best, most excellent.3 The rational person is the one most excellent at personality, at all those things that are essential to being a person. It also, in accord with the general conception of virtue, excels within the community and society. Any discussion and advocacy of virtues carries an implied boast on the part of the author. I am not merely an advocate of rationalism, but a practitioner. And though I do not advocate or claim to practice modesty, it is worth noting that claiming to practice rationalism (however imperfectly) and describing rationalists as the best of society is not as arrogant as it may seem. All religions, for example, lay claim to the truth; and if there is fault in holding one’s own beliefs superior, then not merely the theologians and ministers but the ordinary believers share in that fault. And yet it would be impossible to hold a belief and not consider it true and superior; otherwise, the person would believe something else.
And rationalists constitute an open class in society. Anyone agreeing with the value of rationalism as a virtue can adopt it, and is welcome to do so. Certainly a rationalist like me would desire this, as the widespread adoption of rationalism would make my own self-interest easier to achieve. Among the rational, I need only offer a good logical argument. Reason, furthermore, can be employed in degrees. It is a simple, scalable doctrine, far-removed from the intricate doctrines of conventional religion. And reason is not confined to those gifted with extraordinary intellects. It was a brilliant ruse of those who would rule the world to portray critical thought as the province of a select few, to establish themselves as the thinking class, as a nobility of decision-makers acting on behalf of, for the purported good of, and without the consent of the masses. Even our world’s democracies, in which the masses truly do decide the use of social power and the state of society, have not escaped this trap. Individuals use their individual power, and collectively use their collective power, without seeking the facts, carefully considering them, or logically arriving at conclusions. Their actions are thus often uninformed, and the results unwanted. As is so often the case with a consideration of virtue, the final observation must be the sad dearth of the virtuous in society. Our world would function more as we all claim to want if more of us met our potential as thinkers. It is not a question of ability; it is solely a question of will.
1. W.K.C. Guthrie, ‘The Greek philosophers: from Thales to Aristotle’, p8-10. Harper & Row, 1975.
2. Rouſſeau argues, quite credibly, that private property originated in the selfish act of an individual (or, we might presume, several individuals independently) who thought to seize previously- and naturally-unpossessed land and was able to persuade its fellows to acquiesce in this seizure, despite their own loss therein. (‘Diſcours ſur l’origine et les fondemens de l’inégalité parmi les hommes’, part II.) In the modern day, we find the private-property system serving well only the few, and serving most inequitably all those whom it is purported to serve, and yet having triumphed in public opinion dominated by those whose interests are so ill-served.
3. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English lexicon, abridged. Oxford University, 1989.
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