On a recent blog post I received a very carefully considered response to a question from a young woman who played tennis for me while I coached and also took a class from me while an honors student. She is bright and well-trained in her area of expertise, which is biology. She is now a mother and active in her community. She refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton and, I suspect (though she never said) she will vote for Donald Trump. This has given me pause and deep concern

To this point I have dismissed the supporters of Donald Trump as mindless minions. And while this may be true on the whole, it is obviously not the case with this young woman, whom I respect and am quite fond of. But I think she is dead wrong when she says that critical thinking has lead her to the conclusions she listed as the reasons she cannot vote for Hillary Clinton. In the end it comes down to what a person will consider “good reasons.” One person’s notion of “reasonableness” is obviously not that of another. I do suspect it is largely a matter of intellectual training (like recognizing good literature), but it is also a result of the fact — noted by David Hume ages ago — that reason is largely a slave of the passions.

The young woman in question lists six reasons why she cannot vote for Clinton, two of which are religious. I cannot dispute those reasons because they do not count, in my view, as reasons. Matters of faith are not subject to philosophical debate and are seldom, if ever, altered by critical reasoning. This is a good thing, by and large, since there are things we humans are simply not equipped to know and things we must simply accept on faith. I have always held to that view. In politics, it comes down to a separation between the state and the church, one of the founding principles protected by the Constitution.

But a couple of the reasons she gives strike me as rather weak and subject to criticism. I will discuss one. She worries that under a progressive president, such as Obama and Clinton (if elected) the defense of this country would be weakened. Indeed, she thinks, it already has been weakened.  Clinton’s own position on defense has been carefully spelled out:

Ensure we are stronger at home. We are strongest overseas when we are strongest at home. That means investing in our infrastructure, education, and innovation—the fundamentals of a strong economy. She will also work to reduce income inequality, because our country can’t lead effectively when so many are struggling to provide the basics for their families

She has not advocated cutting the defense budget despite the fact that this country spends 3 1/2 times as much on defense as China, which is second on the list of countries that spend billions on defense. In the case of the United States, we spend $581,000,000,000 annually on defense. But if cuts were to result from her presidency, surely, a cut of 20% (say) would not cripple the armed forces that defend this country? And Hillary Clinton hardly rates as a dove; indeed, she has shown herself to be rather hawkish.

And there are a couple of other reasons on her list that are subject to question as well, including her personal reflections on the failure of the Affordable Care Act which in large part seems to have been a success; but I won’t go into them. I do not want this young woman to feel as though I am holding her up to ridicule. On the contrary, I applaud her for speaking up and sharing with all of us the reasons she finds compelling for voting against the woman I honestly believe would do an excellent job as president.

What has me most deeply disturbed is the fact, which I shy away from, that reasonableness — which I have taught for over 40 years and which I embrace with both arms — is powerless when it comes to deeply held beliefs and fears. For those who fear terrorism, for example, this country does not spend enough on defense. And for those who believe that life starts with conception the notion that a woman should be the one to choose whether her fetus lives is far from reasonable. No reasons whatever will dislodge those convictions so strongly held. Arguments become mere rationalizations.

Thus, I am doubly disturbed by this young woman’s response to my question because I know she is convinced her position is reasonable whereas I am not, though I know full well that I could not persuade her to my point of view. I find myself having pursued a lifetime of seeking to help my students become more reasonable only to discover that, in the end, conclusions are often, if not always, based on emotion.


6 thoughts on “Reasonableness

  1. One last response to your thoughts.
    1. I don’t equate religious beliefs with emotion based decisions. As an adult, my religious beliefs were coupled with reason. I’ve read C.S. Lewis’ “A Case for Christianity” several times which explains his use of reason to arrive at a belief in Christianity following many years of Atheism. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book someday.
    2. Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta is an example of a religious person who chose her path decidedly and without emotion at times. In fact, most of her adult life she felt devoid of a connection to God, yet chose faith in spite of a darkness of the soul anyway. Had she allowed emotion to rule her day to day, I would argue that the poorest of the poor throughout the world would have lost an advocate.
    3. My beliefs about life existing before the moment birth have been strengthened by my understanding of biology and the scientific definition of life which is presented in every biology textbook; made of cells, has DNA, response to stimuli, etc. In addition, I have been recently pondering biochemistry and the idea of irreducible complexity in relationship to the emergence of life on earth.
    4. Finally, I appreciate the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas who whose teaching methods have been respected for centuries for the education of students and bringing truth into light. He used both faith and reason to arrive at truth. I won’t try to argue with the brilliance of Thomas of Aquinas. I will try to study and understand his methodology because his leadership is at the heart of classical education.

    I would respectfully say that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. I’d also like you to consider that there exist many learned individuals who arrived at faith through reason and have not allowed emotion to cloud their intellect. Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître, Louis Pasteur, and George Washington Carver just to name a few….

    Any strongly held belief, both yours and mine, denotes emotion. These issues would not matter to either of us if we didn’t care. So, I may amend of previous view and say, yes, with a voice of reason, I am an emotional decision maker because I care about teaching my children to be good citizens, students, and to love our country.

    • Very well said. I never said, nor do I mean to suggest, that reason and faith are “mutually exclusive.” Indeed, they often complement one another. I do however, distinguish reasons held by force of empirical evidence and reasons held on grounds of faith. The latter are not really debatable, though there are been some fearsome debates about them none the less (non-debatable meaning they are not to be resolved by means of argument). Kant showed that arguments about freedom, the soul, and God are equally persuasive pro and con. These arguments result in what he called “antinomies.” Arguments about most matters of faith resemble those that Kant mentions. This is not to disparage faith; by no means. It simply suggests that faith is one thing and reason quite another — though certainly not mutually exclusive. One can arrive at the same conclusion either way at times.
      But this post was less about you and your comment than it was the effect it had on me. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to comment.

  2. I have had similar discussions, and you are right … you will never convince her of your point of view, nor vice versa. I think your last sentence says it all, though … conclusions are often based on emotions, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the person. I remember in 1960 when JFK was running for the office of president, hearing many say they would vote for him because he was “good looking” or charismatic, while others swore never to vote for him because he was Catholic.

    • The “reasons” people often give are simply statements about their deeply held beliefs. Critical thinking requires perspective and intellectual distance and few of us are able to find either of those!

  3. Nice job Hugh. I have a shallow point, but a true point, on terrorism: go back about 120 years and there was terrorism in this country…with dynamite. Only the tools have changed. There is so much information we need to know to make a good political choice.

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