Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Non-rational animals

One of the most useful insights I have gleaned from reading philosopher John Kekes is that conservatism is, or should be, anti-ideological. This is partly because ideology is a form of rationalism, that taking of an idea (almost always untested by practice) and imposing it on society as the solution to a problem. A kind of unhinged intellectual obsession. Enforced
equality is now the ideology of choice in the liberal West...a strange obsession for the victors of the Cold War against Marxism, the ideology of enforced equality.

Kekes helped me articulate why my libertarian sympathies never developed into a Libertarian affiliation. Libertarianism is an ideology, the consistent and comprehensive application of the principle of non-coercion. Something, by the way, that has never been tried.

Advocates of gay marriage often have a similar rationalist argument. Ignoring what works and what doesn't in this most complex and crucial area of gender and reproduction, they announce a theorem of equality. Poof. A solution.

It strikes me that we never make decisions in this way about our own lives, or the lives of our families --a non-rational institution if ever there was one. We calculate all kinds of factors, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously or even lazily ("Sorry, that just doesn't work for me"). But we are hardly ever ideological about our most personal interests. Does that bode well for using rationalist and ideological arguments for the larger world?

For example, how many of the white enlightened class in San Francisco, who hold only the most advanced racial views, move heaven and earth to get their kids into a good school, often private?

A lot of the cumulative decisions of many humans over many ages sometimes goes by the name of tradition. In some cultures, that word has positive and even determinative value. But in ours, it is practically pejorative. Because tradition, supposedly, is not rational.

And rationality is better than "blind" or "mere" tradition, which, after all, was made up by all kinds of inferior (and dead) people who were not...us.

It may have been Chesterton who called tradition "the democracy of the dead", since it continued to give a voice to lives that had been live through to the end. I find it ironic that people I know who sigh enviously at how "spiritual" brown and yellow and red people revere their ancestors will, at the slightest inconvenience, dismiss or pathologize their own, often in the forms of life that they have handed down to us, like marriage, for instance.

Since I am a believer in The Fall, I do not grant sinlessness or infallibility to human tradition. But I do, especially as I get older, give it the benefit of the doubt for starters and then try to understand why it turned out as it did. Some things become obvious only with time.

A trivial example. When I was a monk, there was a long tradition of eating meals together but in silence, with one monk reading aloud during the dinner. This inhibited "community connection" and so, during the era of The Church Efervescent, it was largely abolished, along with the long tables, etc. We sat together at smaller tables and talked. All the time. Morning, noon and evening. Do you know how wearisome it is to try to make conversation with people you live with for years and don't even like? God, how I wanted the old way back. It was kind, not cruel.

For all its benefits, one of the things the Enlightenment did, I suspect, was sow the seeds for the de-racination from reality of the Western mind. It helped us believe the Star-Trek-silly notion of "universal human rights" transcending human attachments to soil and tribe and self-interest.


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