Monday, February 20, 2006

Protection of reason

Should we refrain from harming human life because it is human life? The question seems empty. Interrogating it may lead to a notion of rationality as valuable and worth preserving as an end. What does this mean?

Surely its meaning hangs upon what we mean by 'reason', and whether this equates to or is a part of what we call 'human life'.

What is the human and what is inhuman, if, for example, reason is logic and the ability to calculate? Surely computers must be prized above Einstein, so is the latter relatively inhuman? We may harm Einstein in order to protect a computer system if here we allow that what is logical just is what is human.

If, on the other hand, human life is, by some distinction, Einstein rather than the computer, what is it about human life that prioritizes its logical capacity? What can make less logical capacity more important than a greater logical capacity? What is special about 'human life' other than reasoning, such that we must look for a worthy logic, a worthy reason, precisely here and nowhere else?

Alas, this would be my question. The truth of the matter is that what is human is unimportant, and gets shifted around, while what is important is 'reason' and its value. I have no humanistic bent here, but where else are we to start than with ourselves, where our values are discovered and embodied? We must start, it seems, with our notion of 'reason', and interrogate its value.

It might be proposed that what we can make appear to ourselves as the workings of reason what is in fact nothing of the sort - I think of course of the 'logic' of computers. It will not be necessary to consider whether machines think, but whether the notion of 'reason' as 'logic' is what we truly intend, since the notion of calculation is that which we value. Is this our vision of worth? What more is 'reason' than 'logic'? The ability, perhaps, to judge correctly?

And so it continues. Why is there value in judging correctly? Is this to say accurately and dispassionately? Is judgment the extension of logic into calculating probability? If this is for us a poise under fire, such that we can reason things through even when the going is tough? Is it for us an ability to keep an intellectualised priority while battling sensation and emotion? Here's an apparent absurdity - why protect from harm precisely that which best insulates itself from it?

Affirming an intellectual paradigm is difficult for us when flames lick around our heels, but doesn't the ability of rationality consist precisely in this struggle? Surely we praise those with poise under fire? Without the reality of harm do we destroy rational ability? And how do we acquire this ability - should we create the proposition 'harm should be lifted in order for it to be lowered later, when the mind has the possibility of dealing with it?'; have we made reason commonplace, its link with the ability to do its work under duress simply trusted or shoved under the carpet?

Is it - not an ability - but an idyllic world, a retreat from the shifting and burning sands, that we value? Is reason that which we have never attained but nonetheless longed for? Is it Nietzsche's ascetic ideal? Is it Plato's contemplation of the forms? Did Plato not say 'no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death'? That this proposition is true, is it absurd? There is certainly no need to speak anymore of harm.

An ability implies a struggle, a utopia implies salvation. Harm is necessary to the former and irrelevant to the latter. In either case we cannot prescribe that it is proper not to harm the rational.

So what do we mean, and how do we mean it?

6 Comments:

Blogger blinc said...

It is very human of us to think that we are any more important than a gnat that annoyingly flies around the house. We kill it thinking we live a much superior exsistence just as how Mao and Ho Chi Min killed millions of its citizens.
So my question is, why do you believe that we as humans, are actually important. Relatively, there are so many other species of animals that have been around a lot longer than we have and probably will last longer than all of us.
Just because we can kill them with our technology doesn't make it so that we are more important. And if we are not important, your whole point about man and reason is frivolous. Don't you think?

8:07 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

"So my question is, why do you believe that we as humans, are actually important. Relatively, there are so many other species of animals that have been around a lot longer than we have and probably will last longer than all of us."

I almost expect you to say 'important to God'. How does longevity confer importance? In any case, "And if we are not important..." certainly seems to assume that we are not. Why do you think this?

8:15 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

blinc - we are what we are. Our values are based in and around our world, which is through-and-through a human world. What we think is the truth, until it changes. Our truth approximates actuality, our truth is a representation of the world. Therefore, really, we may not be important. But to us, it is the truth. What else can we know? How else can we act? We could not exist in the same way if we subordinated ourselves to other creatures, as our economy, politics, society, psychology and philosophy is based on our superiority to them in choice, freedom, and thinking. We are more important because we make our world, which is to us the world itself, and they are in it. We are not in their world, because we are the observers, and our eyes seeing out see them seeing us.


"Should we refrain from harming human life because it is human life? The question seems empty."
I think the emptiness of the question is partly down to your tautological phrasing of it. Something like, "Should we refrain from harming human life because there is something special about it that means we should preserve it?" makes it seem less empty.
However, the thrust the middle of your article, I reckon, is to say that what is 'human' is not worth defining as much as improving upon. And the most universal way of doing this would be through reason, as hopefully it is something that everyone could take part in, as it can strive to be based on values that support themselves in a sensible manner, rather than requiring faith based on some sort of pre-existing identity with some ideology.
That is to say, to be 'human' is, in many ways, to be divided. Being human is to be part of one specific group of humans and to feel more human than other humans. It is interesting to note that some scholar's refer to the Bible's portrayal of God's taking of the Jews as the chosen people as the scandal of particularity. To talk about humanity is often to take part in this scandal, to be exclusive rather than inclusive. Rationally, to talk about a whole is to try to include the whole.
Reason as the universal quality amongst all humans that defines them is an interesting idea, but arguable. Not all humans prize reason. All humans can probably, I would wager, show some 'amount' of reasoning, but differing 'amounts'. Most perplexingly, reason is at best a method - although I find it hard to even properly call it that - rather than a result. People do not show reason by holding a certain judgement, but by coming to a coherent judgement. These judgement can be and frequently are oppositional. So does reason itself create a divided humanity, categories of people, therefore un-universalising our attempt for a universal quality?

Regarding your discussion of harm as it relates to reason, I am not sure that I understand your point. What I can conclude is that we have attained reason, it is just that in itself reason is not at all helpful, because there is nothing final about it. It is limited, and argumentational, and therefore tiresome. I can understand why it becomes mistrusted. The course is to make reason, which is seemingly not enough but all we have, of primary importance in dealing with each other, in order to 'level the playing field'. What we need to attain is an understanding of reason: what it is, how to use it, and an appreciation as to the extent to which it can be relied on.

Reason, as a discourse, is obviously an ability and an idyllic world and many many more things. That is how we talk about it, as least. Whether reason is any, all, or none of these things, I am not sure how we can say. Can reason understand reason?
Perhaps that is similar to asking whether a calculator can understand calculating.

"An ability implies a struggle, a utopia implies salvation. Harm is necessary to the former and irrelevant to the latter. In either case we cannot prescribe that it is proper not to harm the rational." I am not sure on this point. If reason is an ability, therefore a struggle, would it not be 'proper' to say that reason is the most important ability and therefore should not be harmed? Or if it is our salvation, then should it not be harmed because it is our saviour?

8:53 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

News!

"I think the emptiness of the question is partly down to your tautological phrasing of it."
Yes, that's the point. What I'm trying to provoke is the initial thought of the human as sacred (and propositions expressing this are empty since 'human' here doesn't need anything but itself for the adherent, who I assume would stare back blankly if ever asked why)

"as it can strive to be based on values that support themselves in a sensible manner"
and
"reason: what it is, how to use it, and an appreciation as to the extent to which it can be relied on."

Suggest reason as a means to an end, where the end is consistency. Imagine an ascetic logician, able above all to avoid contradiction. Does the coherent and all-subsujming understanding this person has of the world necessitate that there is only 'an extent to which it can be relied on'?

" I am not sure on this point. If reason is an ability, therefore a struggle, would it not be 'proper' to say that reason is the most important ability and therefore should not be harmed? Or if it is our salvation, then should it not be harmed because it is our saviour?"

The point is that, in the first case, the threat of a ceasing of the ability is required for there being an ability in the first place (i.e. like gravity in the case of the ability to rock climb). In the second case, reason insulates itself completely from harm as something transcendent of all experience. The 'good' man thus suppresses and ignores where reason is taken offline by the natural course of life.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Interesting article...

I think it does suggest a prioritisation of reason which, although is a very useful faculty for the impartial consideration of things, must arise from somewhere. Where does our ability to reason come from?

Perhaps one answer is that it is subservient in many ways to the emotions, and that during our lives we all struggle with a battle of reason over emotions. This all seems well and good, but where does this lead us to if we continue this thinking?

I do hope you'll excuse the crass example, but your talk of computers and reason reminded me of 'I, Robot' (a much better book than film, I might add, but then that seems to usually be the case!). When the main character talks about the car crash where he can see the girl drowning in the other car and the robot saves him, the character feels remorse over this. He explains that the machine calculated he had a higher possibility of survival. His point is, any human would have tried to save the little girl. Now, to take the position of reason, the robot is correct, isn't it? Would everyone try to save the little girl over a fully-grown man? I think society may well want to sing the virtues of reason, but how can you ask a computer to factor in this decision? Is it rational?

We praise a rational person for his command of a difficult situation. Keeping a cool head under pressure, etc is something that is valued. But where is the humanity in being purely rational? Surely this makes us alien; a kind of Dr Spock character, if you like. What about the value in a a 'heroic' attempt to save someone, even if it seems irrational? What about the things people do for love? Rarely are these rational.

I certainly believe in rationality as a prized virtue, but I think we NEED to address the issue of what makes us human. Your comment:
"The truth of the matter is that what is human is unimportant, and gets shifted around, while what is important is 'reason' and its value" seems slightly fallacious. Who, or what, is 'reason' important to? Animals? Nature? God? Or just other humans?

I'd be tempted to say that emotions make us human. Art and music seem to defy reason, as is proved by attempts to give an intentional definition. As soon as someone defines it (with the assistance of reason) someone comes along, breaks the rules and thus creates something 'new' and interesting. Is this still art/music?

3:50 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

Thanks for the comments Tim,

Just to take some of them in a useful order:

"Who, or what, is 'reason' important to? Animals? Nature? God? Or just other humans?"

Any of the above is possible. What is important in the questions that roll off in the original post is the notion of a moral priority given to humankind. You write:

"We praise a rational person for his command of a difficult situation. Keeping a cool head under pressure, etc is something that is valued. But where is the humanity in being purely rational? "

Which moves this question somewhat away from reason (in a good way), and indeed you conclude that:

"I'd be tempted to say that emotions make us human."

And so the question I have to put to you is - In what way do emotional states fence us off as valuable in some exclusive way, from harm?

6:50 PM  

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