The Reason for Reason
The United States is a unique country…… but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Most countries are based on a mixture of ethnicity, language and religion. Some are confined to unnatural borders imposed by the former colonial masters – which makes absolutely no sense and has caused no end of problems.
But America is based on a philosophy – specifically, the Enlightenment philosophy elaborated by John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers. The Founding Fathers created a new republic based on Enlightenment philosophy and drafted a Constitution to define how the republic would operate and also defined the relationship between the government and its citizens. This new republic would be based on reason and, while reasonable people can disagree, civil discourse should be able to reach a consensus to guide the operation of the nation.
The Founders were opposed to faction and were appalled to watch the new nation almost immediately fall into bitter and vicious factionalism (except for those Founders that secretly led the different factions). And the vote, which initially was restricted to the landed (and supposedly rational) elite, quickly spread to the un-landed (and supposedly less rational) hoi polloi. So America, founded on philosophy and reason, has been at the mercy of raw emotion ever since it’s founding.
I blame Kahneman. Professor Daniel Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky (both psychologists) developed a theory on judgment and risk taking that was transformed into what we now call behavioral economics. This theory became widely known when he published his book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). Kahneman asserts that humans have two types of thinking - fast and slow (thus the title). Fast thinking is instinctual. Primitive man could not take the time to calculate if the sound he heard was a life-threatening danger or something benign. He has to react – and fast. He couldn’t weigh the evidence or find new facts. He had to jump to conclusions even if they were sometimes wrong.
But thinking fast would not have put primitive man on the road to civilization. He needed time and patience to chip a rock into a tool. Slow thinking is rational. It took the ancient philosophers a great deal of time cogitating the world around them to develop their theories of man and his place in the universe. And it took a great deal of time for John Locke and others to develop the concepts that became the Enlightenment that are the foundation for American democracy.
Democracy thrives on reason, not instinct. Athenian democracy was prey to demagogues. The Roman Republic fell sway to powerful generals and ultimately to an emperor. The American republic has lasted 229 years and it has not always acted rationally and it has enacted some irrational policies. But at the core, there were enough rational people to hold this country together and to continue this great experiment in democracy.
We appear to be living in an era where instinctual behavior and irrational thinking run rampant and many fear that our great experiment in democracy will consume itself as President Adams predicted. President Trump’s appeals to his “deplorables” and the progressive left’s identity politics are geared to generating tribal passions over rational thought (keeping in mind that the philosophical basis for progressivism is not the Enlightenment but Marxist Communism).
One would think that we could turn to academia for some rational thinking but the only people on campus that are thinking rationally are foreign students studying science, technology, engineering and math. Meanwhile our native born students cower in their safe zones where they are unable to discern the difference between hate speech and civil discussion.
So where does that leave us? It seems we need crises to force us to employ our better nature. The Civil War liberated an entire people from slavery. The Great Depression and World War II created the Greatest Generation. But at this point in the twenty-first century we face no crisis except one of our own making. The economy is good and most people that want to work can find a job. Despite government meddling our healthcare is acceptable and our greatest healthcare problems (rising obesity and diabetes) are due to poor lifestyle choices and not a failing healthcare system. Immigration is a challenge but the throngs of people trying to get into to our country remind us that America is still a better place to be than anywhere else of Earth.
There are pockets of rational thinking still in our country and I hope that the Edifice of Trust website, blogs and podcasts can be counted on as one of those bright spots. So I shouldn’t blame Kahneman, I should thank him. His analogy of thinking fast and slow provides great insight into human nature and why we do what we do. But as we learn more about how the mind functions we must be cautious about empowering the government even further because government can use that knowledge to control us even more and crush our liberties as is happening now in China and elsewhere in our world.
The Constitution was written and ratified to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Our self-absorbed drift into populism (either left or right) is a betrayal of that legacy. Don’t get mad. Control your passion. Activate your frontal lobes. You need to be part of that voice of reason.