Since my “second-order” questioning elicited little discussion (albeit 200+ responses), let me try to “take it up a notch,” as George Constanza might say (forgive the erudite cultural references). Herewith, the “third order,” the Meta-Meta Meditation on the problem of politics/morality/religion. (I gather my guest privileges will expire before we have a chance to go to the Fourth Order, which would start to make me a little nervous anyway, since I don’t know what the Fifth Order might be.) Anyway, here, from my forthcoming blockbuster, The Responsibility of Reason*, is a fragment of that third-order reflection. (Is it relevant to LDS concerns? Only, I suppose, if thinking about the relation between reason and revelation is relevant to us as LDS. You help me judge):
Reason’s responsibility is a problem because the rule of simple reason is as impossible as it is inevitable. It is impossible because a clear and distinct grasp of the meaning and goodness of human existence eludes our natural powers, if only because we human beings are naturally aware of being part of some larger whole that exceeds our grasp. Thus an answer to the practical question of human purpose cannot be simply separated from the theoretical question of the way things are, of the nature or Being of what is highest or somehow ultimate. As Tocqueville saw with great clarity, human existence, considered personally or collectively, depends on “dogmatic beliefs,” and nothing can prevent beliefs or intimations regarding what is highest or ultimate “from being the common spring from which all else originates.”[i] The good or goods to which reason is necessarily oriented cannot be produced by reason itself; therefore, the meaning of good and right—the purposes and norms that provide reason’s compass—cannot escape contamination from shared and inherited understandings of ultimate purposes and laws and thus of the nature of things. Thus reason can never be autonomous in any simple sense, if only because the independence or integrity of practical in relation to theoretical reason is not a given, but, as we shall see, a standpoint that must somehow be secured. To make reason our “only star and compass,”[ii] it would first be necessary to know what that can possibly mean.
Yet the rule of reason, however problematic, is also necessary or inevitable because this rule follows from our nature as speaking and political beings—as rational, though not wholly or simply rational, beings. Our most basic and necessary activities: self-preservation, production, and reproduction are not governed by simple instinct but mediated by thinking—by awareness, foresight, and speech. Indeed every recognition of the limits of reason, and therefore of the necessary subordination of human agency to ancestral ways or to a revealed Word, is mediated by reason. To recognize the limits of reason is itself an act of reasoning, an act that must have a positive or constructive as well as a negative or critical moment. If we are flies caught in the web of an understanding of Being that precedes and exceeds us, then we are also spiders who actively create threads of meaning by which we more or less knowingly contribute to the production of these webs. Perhaps the direct and comprehensive rule of God or of an absolutely comprehensive and unambiguous Divine Law would cancel the necessity of the rule of reason, but such a condition would not be the human condition as we know it, and the beings so ruled would not be what we mean by human beings. As long as we remain human beings, even the sacrifice of the rule of reason would seem somehow at some point to engage reason’s responsibility.
Since the simple rule of reason is impossible—because reason cannot autonomously produce the meaning or purpose with a view to which it might rule—responsible reason necessarily stands ambivalently in relation to commonly held beliefs and assumptions: it negates or questions them at the same time as it depends upon and reinforces them. Reason draws its own meaning from mere opinion or prejudice even as it guides and shapes less rational understandings. The problem of the constitution and character of the elusive public, authoritative horizon (or, if you prefer, of the field of the perpetual renegotiation of authoritative horizons), out of which we more or less knowingly assume responsibility for ourselves as individual persons, and the problem of the meaning and status of reason—of our imperfect and ever-renegotiated awareness as speaking, thinking beings of the way things are, an inescapably governing awareness of our being in relation to our surrounding world—these are pervasively, inescapably bound up together. Truth must be extracted, disentangled from opinion. Yet we must choose and act, and somehow do so reasonably, before this task is complete, because we never finish it. The existential-ethical questions as to who I am and what I am to do are inseparable at once from the political question who we are and from inexhaustible theoretical or ontological question of the way things are.
*subtitle under review: Propadeutic to an Erotic and Thumotic Ontology
[i] Tocqueville, DA II.i.5
[ii] Locke, First Treatise…