Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Within Reason?

Bride attempts to run over
Groom’s previous lover,
newlyweds spend night in jail.

What does it mean when someone says, “that is beyond the bounds of reason,” or “that is within reason,” or “let us reason together,” or “don’t be unreasonable?” This way of speaking implies that “reason” is some kind of standard or measure that can be used to determine something, namely whether or not something is “reasonable.” But unlike other measures, reason cannot be precisely defined. It’s not like a standard measure, say a foot, or a mile, or a cup or a tablespoon or something. Those are measures that can be agreed upon as measures. The problem with using reason as a measure is that, like so many other human issues, not everyone agrees on what is reasonable. Yet we use this standard all the time, at least I do, or try to do. This is what often puts me at loggerheads with others.

For example, I think the idea that either Iran or North Korea is a danger to the U.S. because they have or might have nuclear weapons is an idea that is not within reason. It is, that is, an unreasonable supposition. In the first place no nation (except of course the U.S.) has ever used a nuclear bomb as an offensive weapon. This is obviously because nations that possess nuclear weapons know that the U.S. or Russia would respond with much more massive nuclear weapons, thus making the attempt foolhardy in the extreme. The idea that either Iran or North Korea would use nuclear weapons against the West, if anyone actually believes they would, is fundamentally a racist notion that implies Iranians or North Koreans are somehow more stupid than other people. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that if they have such weapons they, too, will use them only defensively, and it is unreasonable to believe otherwise, but obviously not everyone agrees with me.

Another idea, recently expressed by Senator Kyl of Arizona, claims that unemployment benefits keep people from looking for work, presumably because they just sit around enjoying living near the poverty level. This, again, I believe to be far beyond the bounds of reason. Besides indicating that Kyl has little grasp of the realities of life in the U.S., this, too, is, if not a racist idea, is a prejudice against what he must believe are the lower classes of our society. It seems to me if he was a reasonable man he would understand that the 10% of Americans out of work (the figure is probably closer to 20%) are out of work because there are not enough available jobs, rather than because they are by nature lazy, shiftless, and content to live on the margins of an otherwise thriving society.

Unfortunately, when I use my idea of reason as a standard, I come to the conclusion that my country acts contrary to reason perhaps more often than not. I find the idea that you can have a relatively inexpensive, efficient health care system run by the private sector beyond the bounds of reason. As long as the insurance companies siphon off some 30% of the costs for nothing more than a bit of paper shuffling, the goal of universal, inexpensive, efficient, health care will always be impossible. Similarly, I find it beyond reason to believe that democracy can be forced upon other nations at the point of a gun. This is particularly unreasonable because past experience has shown that it cannot be done. Then there is the idea that a “war on drugs” will solve the drug problem in the U.S. This, too, has been proven totally unrealistic, and yet we keep on fighting it. I find the idea that a homeowner might want to own a handgun for personal protection easily within the bounds of reason, the idea that homeowners or hunters should have .50 caliber machine guns or AK 47’s clearly beyond the bounds of reason. Having a President of the United States in the 21st century who does not believe in evolution seems to me to be far, far from the bounds of reason, but others do not seem to think so. That humans existed contemporaneously with dinosaurs is a belief so unreasonable as to be laughable, but at least some people believe this.

I believe I am a perfectly reasonable person, and yet not everyone agrees with me, at least not always. If humans are distinguished from other creatures by their capacity to reason, and if reason is a standard of measure, why does not everyone agree? I guess the reason is obvious, reason, or reasonableness is not in and of itself a goal. Something is reasonable or not depending upon some goal that is meant to be reached. If people do not share the same goals, they may be equally reasonable, but motivated by the attainment of different goals. If one does not understand the goals involved one cannot truly know what is reasonable. Thus, what if the goal of promoting the fear of Iran is to set the stage for war against that country, rather than merely their possible possession of nuclear bombs, I guess it might be reasonable. What if the goal of the war on drugs is to keep those with vested interests employed rather than doing away with drugs? If the goal of the near perpetual “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan are really meant to profit the military/industrial/political complex rather than bring democracy, perhaps they, too, are reasonable. It seems to me we are forever being kept in the dark as to what the goals of our government are, and as a result their behavior appears to be completely beyond the bounds of reason. Reason can be a measure only if everyone agrees on what goal is to be reached. In some cases, where the goals seem to be obvious, it is possible to conclude whether the means are reasonable, as in the case of the “war” in Afghanistan or the war on drugs. If the goal of interrogation is to learn the truth about something it would appear that torture is not a reasonable means. But can you think of any other motive for torture (other than sadism). But if goals are secret, as they seem sometimes to be, they may not be as unreasonable as they appear. But how would we ever know? I used to believe that thinking government is evil (a la that moron, Saint Ronnie) was beyond the pale of reason, but the nightmare years of the 21st century have put some doubt in my mind.

He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not is a slave.
Sir William Drummond

In the 19th century caribou were apparently still found in Southern Idaho.

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