[The following review appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Modern Age.]
The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West, by Lee Harris (New York: Basic Books, 2007)
What do we make of radical Islam? Of Islam in general? Of the present state of the West? It is easier not to deal with such large questions, but events force them on us. Lee Harris wants us to take them very seriously indeed, since he believes that weaknesses of the liberal West make radical Islam a threat to its very survival. To avoid disaster, he believes, we need to abandon a great deal of fuzziness, insist on the unique value and fragility of liberal society, attend to considerations drawn from sociobiology and social Darwinism, and moderate the liberalism we want to preserve.
At bottom, his argument is quite simple. American and Western society has a particular way of doing things, which the author calls “reason,” that is based on the rational pursuit of individual interest. We are very much attached to that way of doing things, and it has great advantages. Other peoples have very different ways, to which they are also attached, that also have great advantages. In particular, Islam has achieved great and enduring success by slighting the rational pursuit of individual interest in favor of group solidarity and expansion. The consequence is that Muslims act aggressively to extend the dominion of Islam. To preserve our way of life in the face of such a challenge we in the West need to restrain our one-sided emphasis on individual interest and our tendency to assume that other people do not differ from us in any way that matters.
His discussion claims to be coldly analytical but is evidently designed to provoke. The reasons for his approach are apparent. He notes that a preference for consensual solutions makes Westerners reluctant to accept conflict as a basic human reality. We are universalists, and find it hard to view liberalism as an outlook that some people reject. Since dramatization is needed to get our attention, his presentation insists on exaggerated polar oppositions between the West and the rest, in particular the West and the Islamic world.
The author spends much of the book developing and applying a simple analytical scheme in what he claims is a value- free way. The scheme is far from rigorous and mixes together things that have little to do with each other. It lumps together alpha males gone wild with unquestioning acceptance of social authority, and altruistic self-sacrifice with the reign of brute force. What unites such disparate tendencies is simply that they involve rejection of “reason”—of rational self-interest as the highest standard of action. That makes them all the same from the author’s perspective. His categories of analysis, or rather dramatization, include:
- The law of the jungle—the reign of brute force, which apparently includes everything outside liberal modernity. In particular, he associates the law of the jungle with what he calls “tribalism” and “fanaticism.”
- Tribalism—acting by reference to the group. Since doing so involves thinking with the mind of the group, while he views reason as an essentially individual activity, it is directly opposed to reason.
- Fanaticism—willingness to sacrifice oneself for something greater. He suggests that resentment is its “root cause,” but in general makes it equivalent to tribalism.
To all these things he opposes “reason,” which primarily means enlightened individual self-interest. It is not altogether clear what he means by “enlightened,” although at one point he suggests it just means “good manners.” In general, though, reason implies an emphasis on law, contract, representative government, and other institutions and habits that accept self-interest as a general principle of conduct but try to pursue it through discussion and agreement rather than force.
At bottom, “reason” for Harris means the outlook that seems sensible to most present-day Westerners. The reasonable man, by and large, is the economists’ “rational actor”—the shrewd, skeptical, arm’s-length businessman, always striving to advance his own interests within the limits of an overall orderly scheme designed to facilitate that quest for everyone. For the author, Marx was right: liberal society, the society of reason, is simply an expression of the hegemony of the bourgeoisie.
The author is able to identify the bourgeois order with reason because it is calculating and orderly and tries to make itself universal—it works better if everyone accepts the rules of the game. It therefore has at least some of the attributes of reason as traditionally understood. He also identifies the two because “reason” is an honorific. The author favors his own society and can imagine no better one, so he praises its standards and presents those who reject them as crazed barbarians.
Although he uses honorifics and evidently means them, the author’s view of reason is even more reductive than Marx’s. His view is genealogical. If reason is not based on universal law or human nature, it must be established ab initio as a scheme of attitude and conduct. But how can that be done? Natural man, the author believes, is a being motivated purely by self-interest. Hobbesian fear of violent death is not enough to restrain him because some men—jihadists and warrior aristocrats—value some things more than life. The only thing that reliably restrains self-seeking individuals is social shaming. Shame, however, is fundamentally physiological, a Pavlovian response to childhood conditioning. Reason, then, is the effect of a shaming code, a result of early childhood conditioning into visceral aversion to whatever is rejected by the local society— in this case, Western society.
Analyzing reason in such a way might debunk it in the eyes of those who want to base social obligation on a higher standard, but that is not a problem for the author and it enables him to present reason as an historic fluke. Most of the world, he says, has always been ruled by tribalism, fanaticism, and the law of the jungle. It was the oddity of the American situation that led to the ultimate triumph of liberal capitalist democracy—and thus reason—in America and the West. His American exceptionalism thus heightens his ability to present our kind of society as something fragile that will be lost unless we are careful to guard it.
The point of all the foregoing for the author is that Islam is a sort of artificial tribe based on the cultivation of tribal thinking supported by alpha male aggressiveness and fanatical self-sacrifice. Left to itself, Western reason demolishes the not- altogether-reasonable—that is, not altogether individualistic and self-interested— habits and attitudes it needs to survive in the face of such a force. It leads to a hedonistic individualism that neglects duties, a multiculturalism that accepts tribalism, and a tolerance that protects fanaticism. It thereby commits suicide. To maintain itself the West is going to have to limit such tendencies. Reason must be mitigated by realism.
So what to do? Reason cannot exist in perfection in any event. Young people have to be trained into it, even though training involves imposition of a shaming code that is at odds with liberal autonomy and often makes liberal education better at inculcating PC platitudes than critical thinking. We do not live in a perfect world. The author therefore proposes two “alternative paradigms” intended to organize our political life in a way that maintains reason while protecting its survivability. One would be liberal conservatism: a sort of artificial tribalism based on attachment to liberal values such as reason. It would nonetheless remain tribal and so emphasize the survival of the tribe and its ways as an overriding concern. The other would be a conservative liberalism that continues to view liberalism and reason as universally valid principles but accepts that they can be realized only to the extent particular societies make them their own. It would therefore accept the superiority of such societies and their right and duty to do what is needed to survive and prevail.
The problems the author sees are real. Islam tends toward aggressiveness. Our universalism and our success make it difficult for us to believe that others differ from us and that the continuation of our form of society is not a law of nature. Nonetheless, his analysis and solutions fall short. It seems unlikely that either of his paradigms for future political life would hold up. Both view the West as a society that accepts self- interest as the highest principle of conduct and aim at a system in which all can pursue their interests as freely as possible. The problem is that such a highest principle is fundamentally opposed to virtues like loyalty and self-sacrifice—which the author usually refers to as “tribalism” and “fanaticism.” The fact it would be socially advantageous to combine the principle and the virtues does not mean it can be done. If loyal self-sacrifice is a bad thing from the standpoint of the self-interested individual, it will be impossible to get people to buy into it forever in a society that insists on rationality and treats individual self-interest as the highest goal. The attempt to do so has been the neoconservative strategy throughout the conflicts known as the “culture war,” and that strategy has always led to lost ground.
A more basic problem is that the conflict of civilizations the author describes requires us to deal with fundamentals, and a combination of sociobiology and the democratic capitalist outlook is not enough to support rational thought about human life. To respond to Islam, an enduringly successful religion, we need a conception of what life is about that is more adequate than the one Islam offers. In particular, we need a conception of the good life that includes reason but recognizes that it is neither self-seeking nor all-sufficient. Otherwise we end up in the strange position of saying that reason is so uniquely valuable that we should be unreasonable in its defense. We need to recognize that reason is not the same as self-interest, however enlightened; that it is part but not all of the good life; that we must count on social ties and traditions to act reasonably and well; and that particular loyalties are part of what makes us what we are, and it is reasonable to hold to them because it is reasonable to preserve and perfect what we are. Without such understandings—without an understanding of the West that recognizes goods that sometimes trump liberalism—we will repeatedly find ourselves in the position of asking men to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the principle of doing what they feel like doing. That is not a position we can rely on.