It seems accepted among educated Westerners that the rationality of an action is a matter of means and ends, of what we want and whether what we do is going to bring that about.

That’s true even among people who consider themselves right-wingers, reactionaries, traditionalists and so on, and who in many ways really are so. I’ve complained about that tendency in Roger Scruton, and to my mind a recent discussion over at Bruce Charlton’s blog put it on display as well. It seemed impossible for many of those in the discussion to see the issue (contraception) from any other perspective. The problem was not that they thought consequences were relevant, but that they thought only consequences were relevant, and that raising other issues was simply nonsensical.

That ought to be a big problem for the participants in the discussion who are committed to anything like orthodox Christianity. For one thing, the view that acts and failures to act can only be judged rationally by reference to their factual this-worldly consequences abolishes the possibility of sacraments. At the very least it radically restricts the sacramental to a few anomalous situations in a world otherwise composed of a seamless network of material cause and effect, in which the significance of each event is wholly determined by its function in that network–whatever “significance” would mean on such an understanding.

The view also raises other puzzling questions. For example: suppose John and Mary fancy each other but don’t want a lifetime commitment to each other or to children. They might choose to go their separate ways, or they might choose to get it on, have a baby, and when the project no longer engages them go their separate ways and kill the kid painlessly and without his awareness. As to factual this-worldly consequences, on the face of it the second is the better choice. The ultimate consequences are the same–John and Mary are separate, and there’s no kid–but there have been distinct benefits: they’ve explored life a little, given their feelings for each other physical expression, and given someone a life that he would not otherwise have had–a short life, but a life nonetheless.

So we’re back to the Scruton problem—a view that limits practical reason to means-ends rationality makes traditionalism and indeed the most ordinary human decency irrational. All of which takes us back farther to the big claim I’ve been making for a couple of years, that the problem with the modern world is the reduction of reason to technology—not the recognition of technology as rational, but the assumption that it exhausts rationality. A traditionalist movement will get nowhere, I think, without overcoming that problem.

19 thoughts on “Techno-traditionalism?”

  1. Not sure about this
    “It seems accepted among educated Westerners that the rationality of an action is a matter of means and ends, of what we want and whether what we do is going to bring that about.”

    I’m not sure about this.

    I used to be a libertarian and that phrase describes my own views then – but I found that in interaction with the most ideological Leftists they did not share the perspective; or, at least, they were happy to re-write reality in conformity with their wishes (which may amount to the same thing, perhaps).

    The problem is that the prevailing elite view is not rational so it cannot really be summarized in an axiom.

    • Reason and human nature
      Man is a rational animal, but people are irrational, so no description is going to capture the whole scene. Still, you make what comments you can.

      Among “thoughtful,” “responsible,” “realistic,” and non-ardent people means-ends rationality tends to take over altogether, and I think that has a big effect on who wins arguments and how issues eventually sort out. So it’s important, especially in an age of big government, big business, big bureaucracy, and big expertise.

      Ardent people can’t stomach technocracy. So lefties tend to put forward arbitrary principles and become abusive when questioned. I don’t think though that they have a concept of rationality other than technology. That’s why they rewrite reality, so they can argue e.g. that discrimination is irrational because sex differences don’t exist and therefore have no practical consequences. (I suppose the categorical imperative is non-technocratic, but if you actually accept Kant’s demand to exclude everything substantive I don’t think it tells you much of anything.)

      • Rationality
        Game theory says that in a unknown-end iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it is more rational to cooperate than to defect. Be careful in conflating short-term rationality with long-term rationality. Social/Traditional rules work pretty well, because of the limits of our rather limited minds.

        ALSO be careful of suggesting that the average person is being irrational. It is far more likely at this present stage of our understanding of people, that you have failed to apply Hanson’s Razor: What appears to be irrational behavior is usually rational signalling behavior.

        • Rationalities
          I agree that what looks like irrationality can look that way because the observer has too narrow a conception of rationality. That’s especially true today when the conception of rationality is so restricted.

          If that’s the case though, then the actor very likely has the same narrow conception of rationality since that’s something that is normally shared throughout a society. But if so, then the actor will indeed (in a different sense) be acting irrationally, since his fundamental conceptions and stated principles will be at odds with what he’s doing.

          The point of what I said is that in such a case, especially in a rationalized society like our own, there will be a tendency over time for actors to conform their actions to the stated conception of rationality, because that’s what wins arguments. If that happens, then I suppose we can say either that actors are becoming more rational, since what they do lines up more with the principles they say they hold, or they are becoming more irrational, since their conduct corresponds more to an understanding of rationality that is too narrow and therefore leads to crazy results.

  2. Mechanical thinking, i.e.
    Mechanical thinking, i.e. Positivism is quite recent but it became widespread for a reason. It works quite well. Of course not in all situations, but today people are trained to compete in a workforce, and you need to have think clearly of cause and effect if you want to make any commercial project.

    Your point on contraception struck me, as it makes sense, and I never thought it that way.
    But still I can’t help being a positivist, thinking that disallowing contraception leads to Indian style overpopulation, with the lower classes over breeding and all that. Maybe I shouldn’t be thinking like that, but I have to, it makes sense too, and I care for the consequences. Don’t you?

    • It’s not cause and effect
      It’s not cause and effect reasoning that’s new but the general view that cause and effect reasoning is all that matters. The latter makes reasoning more focused and conclusions more forcible, and in some settings that can be an advantage, but I’m not convinced that even in commerce it works out well long term.

      As to contraception and ever-multiplying fecklessness, I agree there are practical issues. There are also practical issues that result from viewing contraception as legitimate. In concept the former could be handled within the limits of Catholic teaching. How the practicalities sort out and what offers the best prospects is of course a topic for discussion. My big concern in the entry though was the evident conviction among many people that it’s simply nonsensical to say that contraception raises intrinsic moral difficulties.

    • Consequences
      Are people in India not using contraception because they are mostly Catholics interested in following Catholic teaching? Surely not, but even if their motives in not using contraception were to follow Church teaching, why assign the consequences of disallowing contraception to the Catholic Church without assigning the consequences of following other Church precepts? What would be the consequences, for instance, if in addition to not using contraception, the Indian population also prepared itself to make a sincere and sacramental confession at least once a year, as the Church also requires of Catholics? Might not this also have an effect on the consequences in terms of population growth? Why is the Church’s teaching on contraception singled out without also taking into consideration the consequences of following the Church’s other teachings?

      • Well I don’t see how
        Well I don’t see how following the sacraments does nothing against population growth. I also don’t know the Church ever saying anything about it. And if the Church said, hypothetically, that Catholics should abstain from intercourse to avoid population growth; then you’ll have high-conscientiousness people following the precepts and not having children, and low-impulse control people not being able to and having the children. What we know about heredity tells us that this would increase the share of low-impulse control in the population.

        etcaetera etcaetera. I say this from a position of sympathy, I wish the Church no ill. But there are many valid criticisms of Church teachings based on their consequences. There’s big problem in the Church failing to acknowledge differences among people and how they matter in the real world.
        Of course maybe I am being reductionist, but direct consequences are easier to compute than the metaconsequences of process.

        • I think the difficulty of
          I think the difficulty of computing metaconsequences bolsters the point Mr. Kalb is making. It is true they are difficult, if not impossible, to measure; but they are nonetheless relevant, sometimes more so than the physically measurable direct data. To criticize the goodness or badness of a policy based only upon quantifiable data or statistical probabilities is very likely not to take all relevant information into consideration, and very likely to cause a misguided criticism.

          • Not this crap again…
            Morality isn’t based on ‘data.’ It’s a matter of intrinsic truth or falsity. It’s a whole other world that data can’t give you. Data gives you the ‘what,’ pure numbers. We could all contracept and plan ourselves into a super-race of genuises, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s right, unless comfort is considered the primary good and goal of human life. I am so, so sick of these utilitarian, pocket protector HBD people corrupting the traditional conservative movement.

            Yeah, let’s birth-control dem negroes n’ welfare peop’a outta existence so tha white man wit’ 120+ eye-queues cin’ hold dominion! An exaggeration? Yes, but it has a slight ring of truth when you read some of these people (you, I don’t know, but you seem to have been influenced by them, to your detriment). They were interesting when they stuck to purely quantitative conclusions, but now it’s turned into a moral crusade. That’s not how science (in the modern sense of the word) is supposed to work.

  3. Roger Scruton
    I haven’t read a word of Scruton, but you may be happy to learn that in his documentary “Why Beauty Matters” at 21:41 Scruton says:

    “This returns me to Oscar Wilde’s remark that ‘all art is absolutely useless.’ Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever. It turns out that nothing is more useful than the useless.”

    • Scruton link fixed
      Oops! Just noticed I got the Scruton link wrong above. I’ve fixed it.

      I wonder what Scruton would say about putting the beautiful ahead of the useful, given what he says about first-person justification at that link?

      • Scruton champions prejudice
        I don’t think it’s correct to say that for Scruton “there is no good reason for the individual to do what’s good from a social standpoint,” as you charge, because he does say “there are very good anthropological reasons for this [i.e., traditional conduct].” He is saying that generally individuals are not really guided by reasoned justifications but by “deep and immovable prejudice.” He appears to celebrate and champion prejudice. Perhaps for him it is a form of the natural law written on the conscience.

        • I don’t think so
          Natural law would (I suppose) be available to a rational person, but Scruton says the justification “is a justification that cannot be conducted from our own perspective, but only from outside.”

          • Hmmm
            Thanks for alerting me to that line. There seems to be some kind of subjective/objective dialectic going on in Scruton here.

            I was referring to natural law as a moral sense rather than as a systemized body of rational truths. When Scruton writes, “The real justification for a prejudice is the one which justifies it as a prejudice, rather than as a rational conclusion of an argument,” ISTM he’s not absolutely opposing moral sense to reason or saying prejudices can’t be rationally justified. He seems to be saying that a *scientific* account of moral sense *as prejudice* will take us out of the subjective place where that moral sense unquestionably prevails. To identify a moral sense as a prejudice is to “ascend” above it to a place of transcendent observer, to no longer be moved by the moral sense as a prejudice. At this point, the prejudice has lost its primal hold upon us and is now up for examination and discussion.

            I think this is what Scruton is getting at when he says that “to justify them [our most necessary beliefs] will lead merely to their loss.” He bemoans this loss.

          • There are other lines too:
            There are other lines too:

            “Our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective .. the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss … The sexual liberator has no difficulty in showing that those motives are irrational, in the sense of being founded on no reasoned justification available to the person whose motives they are…”

            So he believes that moral conduct is not rational from the agent’s standpoint. My claim in the original entry was that such a belief is based on an insupportably narrow understanding of rationality, one that’s at odds (among other things) with Christian orthodoxy. I’d add that it’s a belief that leads to the view that morality etc. is just great for other people. Aside from issues of rational tenability, that’s not a belief that’s going to get us anywhere.

          • It may be
            As I mentioned, I am unfamiliar with the contours of Scruton’s thought. It may be that Scruton’s is based on an “insupportably narrow understanding of rationality” at odds with Christian orthodoxy. I noticed he referenced several philosophical ideas in “Why Beauty Matters,” that jarred my religious sensibilities. I recall he mentioned Kant.

            Kant’s two-story account of reality, i.e., the noumenal vs. the phenomenal, makes it impossible for those who inhabit the phenomenal to actually know anything about the noumenal except, perhaps, by revelation. Christian orthodoxy, OTOH, teaches that God is knowable through the use of natural reason apart from grace.

            I was reading Scruton to say that prejudices– outrage, shame, and honor– are the real motives that ground our existential perspective, our standpoint. Rational explanations that can be found for these prejudices are after the fact justifications as far as *we’re* concerned. We did not choose our prejudices through reasoned deliberation, but inherited them when we were born into a particular way of life (or converted to a new religion).

            By definition, a prejudice cannot be justified in terms of the phenomenal realm it governs.

            Sexual liberators make hay in pointing this out. But we can show that the liberators choose their libertinism out of a vicious prejudice: the presupposition of ultimate lawlessness.

            The justification of prejudice can only be found in an appeal to the divine.

          • “morality etc. is just great
            “morality etc. is just great for other people”
            That is a frighteningly common belief. It has probably died down somewhat since the 1900’s (a reasonable interpretation) but it is still an issue. It leads to a lot of the sexual hypocrisy in this country particularly.

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