Pascal tells us that the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing about. David Hume added that reason is a “slave of the passions.” I used to think these men were simply wrong and I resisted their claims because as a philosophy professor I was determined to try to help young men and women think more clearly about complex issues. After all, what’s the point of thinking clearly if, in the end, a person is just going to be ruled by emotion (the “passions.”)?
But as I grow older I have come to the conclusion that these men were right. Ultimately, our decisions — the important ones — are determined not by what we think, but what we feel. We accept or reject claims not based on their reasonableness, but on whether or not they fit into our belief system. (Strictly speaking, our beliefs do not form a “system,” as George Elliot reminded us. They are a rat’s nest of conflicting feelings and hunches mixed together in chaotic fashion to protect us against a fearsome world.)
This is why even though it is certain that there will be an earthquake of mammoth proportions in California along the San Andreas fault, thousands of people insist upon living there. It is why thousands also continue to live in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, even though it is certain that there will be another eruption that will kill thousands. We believe what we want to believe, and while in extreme forms this amounts to denial, for most of us it amounts to little more than ignoring the facts or looking the other way, keeping reason in neutral while being ruled by their emotions. Don’t hassle me with the facts, I want to live here!
I taught ethics for nearly forty years, including business ethics. I realized even as I taught those courses that what I was teaching wasn’t really making a huge difference in the lives of my students. In the end I could teach them a few rules and we could discuss ethical principles and methods of approach to ethical issues, deontology or utilitarianism, for example. But in the final analysis, whether or not they did the right thing in a certain situation depended on the kinds of people they were. Hannah Arendt thought it was a matter of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. If a 20-year-old student was dishonest by inclination and character, taking a four-credit course was not going to turn him into an honest man.
In the end, I sided with Aristotle and determined that ethical choices are a matter of character and character is formed early in a person’s life and doesn’t change much as we grow older. But what a course in ethics could do, even business ethics, is to help us sort things out, work through our inclinations and sift through the mud of hunch and prejudice, and determine what ethical principles were at stake and what the best course of action might be in a specific situation. Whether or not in the end the person chooses to do the right thing, again, is a matter of character — or what Hume called “passion — but the path to that decision could be made smoother by careful thought. Reason may be the slave of passion, but without it we grope in the dark and stumble around from notion to hunch and frequently regret later that we didn’t think things through.
There are any number of key issues facing humans today and while it is certainly true that reason cannot dictate what choices we make, it can make clear which paths have been tried before and which are the most likely to prove fruitful in the future. Reason will tell us, for example, that whether or not we accept the fact that the human population is exploding out of control and heading us toward calamity, the continued growth of human populations, taken together with the finite amount of food it is possible for us to produce, will inevitably result in a clash at the intersection of these two trends. The earth has only so much carrying capacity. So even if at present we could solve the problem of starving people in Third World countries by figuring a way to get surplus food to them, at some point it will no longer be a matter of logistics. It will be a human tragedy. Which means, that reason would lead us to the conclusion that if we are to avoid a human calamity on a scale hitherto unseen on this earth, we should plan now and take steps to not only maximize food production and improve delivery systems, but also do what we can to reduce the number of mouths that will have to be fed.
Whether or not we choose to do that will not be determined by logic and reasoning. It will be determined by “passion,” or “character,” the kind of people we are. But reason certainly demands that we start thinking about it now.