The Good, The Bad, and The Rational

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By Deborah Heikes

Enlightenment thinkers tell us “all men are created equal” while simultaneously owning slaves, disenfranchising women, and supporting colonialism. The article offers solutions to overcome problems of racism and sexism, citing the people’s understanding of rationality as its root cause.

The Enlightenment ushered in a world in which all men are supposedly created equal. At the time, of course, these newly found universal rights applied only to men. Women lacked most of the political rights guaranteed by men’s equality, a fact which concerned very few intellectuals of the time. Today we are much less blind to the literal meaning of “men”. Less noticeable has been the fact that “all men” never actually meant all men. As the history of colonialism and slavery attests, universal rights are not granted to most men. Why is it that the age of equality has produced such radical inequality? And can we overcome the sexist and racist legacy left to us by Enlightenment thinkers?

The answer to the question concerning overcoming the narrowness of Enlightenment thinking requires understanding why it is so narrow in the first place. With the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, modern thinkers come to trust a mathematical, quantifiable understanding of reality much more than what their senses tell them. Such attention to the ways in which we intellectually come to understand the world leads philosophers to gaze away from the world and toward our ideas about the world. In other words, philosophical interest shifts inward. The result is that knowledge comes to rely solely on ideas and the resources the mind has to understand these ideas.

This may sound like no big deal, but it is indeed a big deal. By the latter part of the 18th century, philosophers are aware of a problem, and it is a significant problem, one with deep and abiding moral consequences. The problem is this: If our knowledge of the world depends upon how it is we think, what happens if people think differently?

Philosophers have always understood the threat relativism poses to our understanding of the world.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, they managed to avoid cultural relativism by arguing that reason must operate according to certain rules and procedures.

These rules were, not surprisingly, ones followed by white, male, European philosophers. Anyone who failed to meet the standard established by philosophers was taken to be reasoning incorrectly. But since the capacity to reason is closely linked to our capacity for moral thought, to reason incorrectly means to lack full possession of moral rights. Even thinkers who touted the equal rights of man could be untroubled by owning black slaves. They could be content to leave women disenfranchised and uneducated. After all, those whose skin was not white or whose sex was not male simply did not reason in the correct way and, thus, were not entitled to the same sorts of rights.

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In our own day, racism and sexism remain significant problems in part because we are the heirs of this sort of Enlightenment thinking. But this thinking is not an accidental by-product of modern philosophy. Narrow definitions of reason and personhood allowed Enlightenment philosophers to assert the objectivity and necessity of their own supposedly universally valid ways of thinking. It allowed them to avoid the messy consequences of relativism. But it did so by dismissing competing ways of describing and understanding the world around us.

Unfortunately, our understanding of moral notions like justice, equality, and fairness come to us from philosophers like Hume and Kant, who did not believe all men to be created equal. For Hume, only whites had civilisation. For Kant, all women and most men were incapable of acting according to principles. And these are philosophers who are foundational to our contemporary understanding of morality and human rights.

Fortunately, almost no one still believes that Enlightenment philosophers offer us universal, timeless truths. Modernism has lost much of its hold on the philosophical imagination. The repeated challenges to Cartesianism have revealed a deep-seated cultural and gender bias in modern accounts of reason and rationality. These challenges have also revealed a need to better understand human reason not as something distinct from the world but as something fully integrated with it. As a result, contemporary philosophers are reviving more ancient, pre-modern ways of understanding the nature of reason. After all, the idea that mind or soul exists as something integrated with the rest of realty is an ancient idea.

The ancient Greeks, who essentially invent the concept of mind, understood that human beings have minds. They also understood that minds reside in physical human beings who live in a physical world. The mind that first emerges in western world is one fully integrated within that world. Even Plato, with his realm of the Forms and his deep suspicions concerning the body, understands that our rational faculties are, in fact, embodied. Aristotle goes one step further, insisting that human beings have both a mind and body. And he explicitly criticises other philosophers who disregarded scientific investigation into the mind.

Because Aristotle understands the soul as something composed of material elements as well as mental ones, he recognises reason to be something much more complex and diverse than the version of reason put forth by philosophers of the Enlightenment.

On an Aristotelian account, reason doesn’t just intellectually understand the world; it interacts with the world. As a result, his notion of virtue includes both intellectual and ethical aspects.

What Aristotle means by “virtue” is a stable state of character acquired when practices become habitual. It is something akin to a skill which can be adapted as necessary. Being generous, for example, requires giving. But not just one time, and not to just anyone. If I offer my time and talents to help kids learn to read, that’s generous. If I offer so much of my time to these kids that my own children never see me, the generosity is lost. And if I offer my time and talents to help an evil scientist destroy the world, that’s not at all generous. Of course, many cases of generosity fall in between these extremes, but the person who is truly generous will know how much to give, whom to give it to, and what time to give it. We can’t say what it is to be generous without knowing the situation. In the same way, we can’t say what it is to possess any virtue outside of the context of living and acting virtuously.

This placing of reason within actual lives allows us to consider rationality as something much broader and more open than Enlightenment thinkers allow. It allows us to consider not just reason but also reasonableness. Reasonableness is the part of rationality which requires us to consider the situation as well as our methods of reasoning. What is reasonable to believe or do changes with time, place, and circumstance. This makes reasonableness much more sensitive to context and much more variable than simple rationality. For instance, talking during the showing of a film is generally something a reasonable person would not do, unless, of course, that person is the film’s director and those watching are listening with rapt attention. Similarly, it is unreasonable to yell in a theatre, until a fire breaks out and people need to be warned.

More broadly, reasonableness requires being deliberate and thoughtful in formulating beliefs and adopting positions, wanting to understand and be fair to others’ perspectives, accepting that humans are imperfect not only in action but also in formulating beliefs. As a result, reasonable people tend to be tolerant, or at least more tolerant than unreasonable ones. Yet reasonable people will not and should not tolerate just anything. So how do we know what is reasonable or not? And how does reasonableness shift our thinking in such a way that we can find a moral imperative to respect diversity and to treat all peoples equally and justly?

Reasonableness demands we recognise that human beings, both individually and collectively, set goals and pursue them. We value certain things, and what we value can differ.

This diversity of interests, expectations, goals, and values would appear to leave us with the very same relativism that worried modern philosophers. But just because our aims in life are culturally and individually variable doesn’t mean every one of them is reasonable.

Living, as we do, in a post-Darwinian world, we may no longer believe that living beings have an essential nature. But the fact that we lack necessary and invariable ends which all humans pursue in virtue of their humanity does not mean we lack ends entirely. Even though many of the ends we pursue are socially and culturally determined, not all are. Put differently, human beings and our ability to reason have developed and evolved in a lived and stable world that affects and limits the ends we can pursue. We may choose what sorts of foods we eat, but we do not choose what it is our bodies need to survive and thrive. Similarly, humans share needs for social expression, the respect of others, love of family and friends that transcend the specific ways in which these needs are expressed.

Thus, we can say what it is to be human and to live a fulfilling human life, and we can expect that reasonable people will seek to understand the diversity of ways we can be human. As a result, when confronting people who seem to think or act in ways other than “we” do, the assumption cannot be, as it was for many white European men, that those who are different lack principles or judgment or taste. The emphasis on a lived context in both virtue and reasonableness means that we are obligated, at minimum, to seek to understand the situation of others and the framework that provides for their beliefs and actions. It requires us, in other words, to accept that our world can be understood in diverse ways.

Still, we are allowed, after appropriate attentiveness, to determine that others are being unreasonable. The person, for instance, who seeks to oppress others, particularly on the basis of inherited qualities such as sex or race, is failing to be fair to others; is failing to consider other’s needs, hopes, expectations, and goals; is failing to act reasonably. Being fair to others or acting justly toward them does not asks us to ignore differences. Instead, it simply asks us to consider the situation and to seek to understand how others see the world – then to act in ways that respect and defend reasonable differences.


About the Author

Deborah Heikes is professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In addition to many journal articles, she has written three books: Rationality and Feminist Philosophy (2010)The Virtue of Feminist Rationality (2012), and Rationality, Representation, and Race (2016)

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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