Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: THE COMMANDS OF REASON - The Liberal Mind
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
II.: THE COMMANDS OF REASON - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
THE COMMANDS OF REASON
Reason is one of the totems of the liberal movement. Yet the difficulty is to discover just what reason is and stands for. Reason must, for example, be something other than the abstract statement of all those cases in which people behave “reasonably,” for reasonableness is like commonsense, and depends very much upon time and circumstance. Nor can reason stand for that style of philosophizing from a priori ideas which is found in Plato and Descartes among many others; for Plato, at least on Professor Popper’s view, is marked down as highly irrationalist. Nor again can it stand for the presiding faculty of that critical tradition of intellectual curiosity which has produced science, philosophy, universities and intellectual culture generally. For many people who are attacked as rejecting reason undoubtedly belong to this tradition, carry on arguments and seek to discover truths. In that sense, all who argue are using the power of reason, but they are not doing so to the satisfaction of liberals, because they do not all come to the conclusions which appear to constitute rationality.
The reason with which we are concerned is by definition an agency or power in the mind, one which asks and answers questions like: What do I want? By which kind of behavior can I attain the greatest number of my ends? How can I attain them most efficiently, that is, with least danger to other ends which I also pursue? Reason explores the logic of policies, and supplies knowledge derived from experience relevant to attaining the ends desired. Rational behavior excludes habitual action, impulsive action, or acts done in slavish imitation of ossified traditions. Rational individualism assumes that all behavior can be explained in terms of desiring policies, and that we are in a position to discover and rationalize the ends which arise in our striving.
But reason has a more ambitious role to play than this would suggest. For, as it occurs in liberal thinking, reason appears capable not only of exploring the logic of policies, but also of supplying us with guiding policies which act as criteria to discriminate between our ends. It tells us, for example, that the life-preservation policy which we all at times follow is to be preferred to the murderous policy arising out of hatred. And it yields us this judgment on the strictly limited ground that our satisfaction will not be maximized if we follow the murderous policy. Reason thus appears to solve the insoluble but much assaulted philosophical problem of discovering a source of prescriptions which cannot be exposed as simply a disguise for someone’s special interest—the sort of enterprise Aristotle undertook in arguing for the existence of natural slavery, or Locke attempted in asserting that private property was a right of nature. The problem is strictly insoluble, and there is no consistent course of behavior which does not benefit, and harm, various groups of people. Therefore such bundles of prescriptions may be regarded as ideologies—outgrowths of some way of life in the society from which they spring. In so far as it is expected to produce general rules of behavior, reason can only produce an ideology. What is the ideology of reason?
Reason primarily commands respect for other individuals as selves whose desires are as legitimate as one’s own. Therefore it places a very high value on individual life. The Hobbesian first law of nature, by which one should seek to maintain peace in so far as the behavior of others makes this sensible, is a good example of this concern for one’s own life which makes the prescription rational. The seeking of peace, though it is for Hobbes the supreme command, is logically dependent upon the general rationale of the laws of nature—“ Do not that to another which thou wouldest not have done to thyself.”4 Here the communal bias of the Sermon on the Mount has been, by a negative formulation, transformed into a kind of right of privacy, a freedom from the invasion of others.
The formulation approved by Locke softens the rigors of the Hobbesian version. Locke quotes with approval “the judicious Hooker”: “. . . how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature. To have anything offered them repugnant to this desire must needs in all respects grieve them as much as me, so that, if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should show greater measures of love to me than they have by me showed unto them.”5 Although Hooker (and Locke) regard this as creating “a natural duty” of bearing reciprocal affection to one’s equals, what has been established is simply a rule fitting into a technology which we might call the Art of Liberal Living. In order to get X, it says, I must do (and as the rule develops, feel) X towards others. The rule is in fact psychological but it is claimed as ethical to the extent that it derives from a moral recognition of other individuals.
It is significant that in Locke’s Treatise this argument comes in the context of a discussion of natural equality; for it is only where equality reigns that people will treat you as you treat them. The serf’s deference to the squire carries no guarantee that the squire will respect the serf. Nor would so charming a rule of reciprocity have the same effects in a despotic society. Here, as so often in abstract rules of behavior, a society is being assumed to underwrite and fill up the gaps in the abstractions. Partly, Locke is relying on English society as he knows it—a society long composed of free men who will tend to have a civil respect for each other—and partly he is jumping ahead to the kind of society for which he solicits our support.
Respect for human life is thus at the center of liberal thinking even in these early formulations. Partly this is a Christian respect for each individual as the possessor of a soul; but whereas in medieval times (and in modern non-liberal formulations) the care of the soul is of far greater importance than the actual life of the individual, the liberal view is more “naturalistic.” The soul exists, but that is another department. “Life” is valuable because it is a condition of any desiring; death is the end of all desiring and therefore the worst possible evil. On liberal premises, it is irrational to die for one’s country, unless perhaps the self-sacrifice is interpreted as an attempt to minimize the extinction of similarly desiring selves. Heroism can only be admitted through the rational back door. Of course, any nation involved in war does value heroism—but that is only to say that liberal countries, in a crisis, forsake parts of their liberalism. There are moods, and there are doctrines, in which human life is regarded as simply serving some higher cause—the nation, the race, the creed. There is the circumstance of martyrdom, in which the continuation of desiring is subordinated to spiritual integrity. But such circumstances have no place in the way of life which, liberalism asserts, is recommended to us by reason.
Reason is thus pacifist in its conclusions. War is only justifiable in the clear extremity where national survival is at stake, though limited or colonial wars—the kind which widely prevailed in the eighteenth century—may serve as outlets for surviving irrationalities. The nature of military life also changes; the element of honor, so prominent where defense is the task of an aristocratic class, is put aside as irrational, and military virtues are only admitted into the rational way of life in so far as they can be explained as serving individual desires. This is the strictest effect of liberal attitudes in the field of international relations. Projects for peace, the establishment of peaceful leagues of nations—these are by-products of liberal sentiment, and have seldom been taken seriously by governments when the national interest is imperilled.
The rational man is, further, a moderate man. Excess as a general principle can only lead to disaster—too much food to ill-health, too much drinking to cyrrhosis and a muddled head, too much . . . one need not go on. The rational mood is a mood of caution and moderation, one in which the traps of the short run and the safety of the long run are vividly before the mind. Habits of moderation arise from calculation and give rise to further calculation—and calculation is obviously the presiding activity of the man who, conscious of many and often conflicting or tangential desires, wishes to maximize his satisfaction. Part of the calculation is how to increase the goodwill of others, and this leads the rational man to appreciate gratitude, accommodation to others, and a refusal to grab at benefits from which others are excluded. Whatever acts arouse the resentment of others endanger the performer materially or morally.
The policy of the rational individualist bent on preserving himself carries the rational ethic to its limits. Pressed in this direction, rational behavior is determined by fear, and amounts to the search for a policy which can infallibly keep the individual alive. No such policy exists, and the man who consistently attempts to follow it is an impossibility. Yet this is at least the direction in which a self-consciously individualist ethic would lead. As with any abstract moral principle, it can lead to various kinds of behavior. In a despotic social system, being the apotheosis of self-preservation, it would lead to a kind of servility. Indeed, in most social situations, men are unequal—that is to say, there are always some who may be treated with indifference, and some whom it pays to placate. Subservience is the obvious policy which a rationally desiring man will follow in a society of unequals. He will wish to please those who can harm or benefit him. Again, this policy of self-preservation may lead to the self-righteousness of one who knows he has conscientiously refrained from giving offense to others. A similar moral mechanism at times operates in international relations, for liberal states, confronted with the aggressive demands of dictatorships, have a disposition to find moral ambiguities, and to retreat rather than fight, since fighting always presents moral problems requiring rationalization. The self-sacrifice involved in such personal and national situations is of an empty kind, implying no love for or involvement with the beneficiaries of the sacrifice.
Perhaps the core of rational behavior is the idea of flexibility or resilience. The rational man, seeing his world collapse, will never turn his face to the wall (like a tragic hero) if there is the slightest possibility of accommodation with the force which has overwhelmed him. Hobbes, the uncompromising ratio-nalist, deals with this possibility without attempting to disguise it. Overwhelming force determines the will of the rational man whose primary aim is to stay alive; there is no place for honor or heroism. The importance of flexibility also comes out in the hostility of rational thinkers to the social institution of the oath. One cannot rationally make a promise binding beyond the point where one gains from it, a point which Spinoza, for example, brings out clearly. The oath, in fact, is a feudal institution which seemed to liberal thinkers an attempt to impose more on the human flux than it could bear.
Rational flexibility involves an overriding concern with what will happen in the future. Such a concern is far from universal. For clansmen, priests, aristocrats, scholars, the past is seen as the source of a heritage which must be conserved and continued. For the artist, the past is a spiritual backdrop which deepens our apprehension of the immediate. But for the rational man, the world begins anew each moment. As the patterns of present environment change, so the rational man must adjust himself to what happens and to what, on the basis of his knowledge, seems about to happen. The single criterion of this adjustment is the satisfaction of desires and the conservation of a desiring self. Thus for Hobbes it is a law of nature that “in revenges, men respect only the future good.” It is also for this reason that oaths are a restriction upon the perfectly rational man. Contracts and promises—where clear benefits are exchanged—are the only instruments by which a rational man can consider himself bound.
This then is a general and simplified account of the ideology of reason as it developed during the seventeenth century. It is an indispensable component of liberalism. It has about it the look of a philosophy of old men—the kind of advice that gout-ridden fathers write off to their bibulous sons. It stands as a solemn check on everything that is spontaneous, wild, enthusiastic, uncaring, disinterested, honorable or heroic—in a word, irrational. Early in the eighteenth century these romantic phenomena were referred to derogatorily as “enthusiasm” and appropriately scorned. One of the early presentations of this kind of rational man, softened by a romantic situation, is Robinson Crusoe. And rational man soon turned into economic man, a suitably dismal hero for a dismal science. We begin to enter a world of functions in which religion is for consolation, art for decoration and distraction, and armies for defense.
We have already noted that abstract formulations of the rational way of life recommended as laws of nature rely upon the details and circumstances of a society that actually exists. Or, to put this in a manner to which Professor Oakeshott6 has given currency, they are “abridgments” of that way of life. But rational man is a curious plant to have grown in any soil. Whence, then, does the rational ideology derive?
One might perhaps derive rational ideology not from the behavior of any particular man or groups of men but from the moods of self-conscious deliberation which we all experience. Our actions are sometimes deliberate, sometimes impulsive. As a matter of experience, it appears that disaster follows more frequently from the impulsive than from the prudently calculated act. If prudent forethought cannot help us avoid disaster, then success is entirely beyond our control. Machiavelli, who also constructed a technology of success, admitted freely that his rules might be effective in perhaps half of the situations they dealt with; beyond the controllable half of men’s life lay another half over which fortune presided. The laws of nature would thus arise out of linking together these moods and constructing an ideal man behaving in an ideal way. In other words, what they really recommend to us is less a collection of rules than a mood, an emotion, a way of looking at things.
The Marxist answer is clear and unequivocal. The seventeenth-century philosophers are said to be expressing the outlook and defending the privileges of the rising bourgeois class whose advance had already broken the shell of medieval society and was now in the process of constructing one more fitted to its demands. This in fact is a double answer. It might mean simply that the “laws of nature” express the demands for rights of a certain group of people; or it might mean that rational prescriptions describe the kinds of procedure and attitude needed for success in such “bourgeois” activities as buying and selling, bargaining, double-entry bookkeeping and entrepreneurship. The emphasis on calculation would be appropriate to these activities. The interest that, say, Locke has in proving a natural right to property would support an interpretation of rational behavior in terms of bourgeois class privileges. The Marxist explanation might at least explain why the rational ethic crystallized at one particular point of time.
The mention of Machiavelli highlights a point which might even give us a third answer to this question. Machiavelli created a technology appropriate to the requirements of politicians working within a certain system. Now inspection makes it clear that the laws of nature are useful to politicians in two ways. Firstly, in so far as the citizens behave in accordance with them, the work of the politician will be made easier. And secondly, they describe a highly politic manner of behavior. The rational preference for peace, and the reasons for it, is one which any ruler will be foolish to disregard. Rational man has the single fixed objective of his own preservation; how much more true this is of states, which can command the sacrifice of their parts in order that the whole should survive intact in its given structure. States equally are unwise to cultivate enemies and irritate other states. Nor should revenge ever be a motive of their behavior. And pacts and alliances are of small value in the field of international relations, where no state can possibly pursue any loyalty or obligation in a direction which leads to its own ruin.
Pursuing this line of thought, a logical similarity forces itself upon us. The state, on this rational view, is an artificial whole composed of a multitude of individuals; but then, so also is a human being. He is a whole—also perhaps artificial and certainly unstable—whose art of living must consist in the accommodation of a multitude of desires. Rational living is a prescription for the governance of desires. The form of government, furthermore, is democratic; each legitimate desire may have its day, but no more than its day. Impulsive desires are despots whom reason must control, and a democratic majority of desires can best facilitate the long-term interests of the whole.
This analysis, which deliberately echoes Plato’s treatment of democracy, might seem no more than a facile exercise in analogy were it not for one thing. And that is, that throughout the modern history of political thought, the mind of man and the field of society have been the two competing structures in terms of which human behavior has been explained. Given a convincing and effective social structure, such as medieval Christendom or the modern nation state, philosophers will explain man in terms of social conceptions. A man has such and such a character because he is serf or aristocrat, French or German, proletarian or bourgeois. But if for any reason there is scepticism about or rejection of these larger structures, philosophers will turn to psychological explanation as being the only “real” understanding of human behavior. A man will be described as rational or passionate, enlightened or ill-instructed, sane or neurotic, mature or immature.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were times when this retreat into psychology took place, and all social arrangements were regarded as utilitarian and artificial. The progress of knowledge, instead of being a co-operative social activity, was regarded as the work of the faculty of reason. The theories of tolerance which became current in the decades after the end of the Thirty Years’ War all admitted the right of the civil power to coerce the outward behavior and control the speech and assembly of citizens; freedom was found in what then seemed the most secure bastion of all—inside the human skull. Here alone was an area into which magistrates could not effectively pry, and attempts to do so, such as the Inquisition, were regarded as in the highest degree despotic and illiberal. All of this finds its most general formulation in the philosophical distinction between subject and object, between the inner and the external world.
Description of social activities, by a process of abstraction, as arrangements entered into between independent and rational minds was an altogether typical seventeenth-century manoeuvre. It has been widely observed.7 Religious and moral authorities turned up as Protestant conceptions like conscience and the “inner light.” Knowledge cultivated in such social institutions as the university became the search for the indubitable propositions of reason. There was indeed a good deal of intellectual co-operation in seventeenth-century philosophy and science; but it was a thin era for the universities. The best men worked on their own. It is as though, in fright, men had gathered all their possessions inside the house and pulled down the shutters. Then they peered out through the slats and turned to the epistemological question of how accurate a view of the countryside the slats gave them.
But, while many forms of authority gave way to some sort of psychological conception, nothing was found to replace government. There were of course reasons for political obedience, and in Spinoza we find the view that a society of rational men would have no need of a political authority: such men would co-operate naturally and without the need of coercion. But while other social institutions decayed, government, strong, centralizing, sovereign government, prospered. The seventeenth century is the century in which the theory of sovereignty, the heavy weight of political order holding together a mass of centrifugal individuals, came into its own. The political intricacies of the medieval order were stripped down to the dualism of Sovereign and subjects, of State and individuals. Philosophers reacted to this in different ways. Hobbes clearly gave most to the Sovereign power, a compound of king, judge, high priest, university rector, censor and father. For Hobbes, all authority is political and can have only one source. The people are never allowed any real existence; at the very moment they emerge from the state of nature, their common identity resides in the sovereign and thenceforth he acts in their name. Locke, on the other hand, sets up the State and Society as distinct entities. And while everything he says about the State purports to show its utter dependence on the wishes of the people, the very fact that it is a separate and complicated institution is a recognition of the importance of authority—and the starting point for many liberal developments.
The laws of nature as prescriptions of reason may be seen not as the uniquely wise way of life which they purport to be, but as a set of abstractions arising out of the intellectual and social milieu of the seventeenth century. They provide not so much an ethic as a set of prudent manners, and were to be extensively developed as time went on. But they remain the core of liberal thinking.
[4. ]Leviathan, Ch. XV.
[5. ]Second Treatise on Civil Government, Ch. II, Sec. 5.
[6. ]Rationalism in Politics, London, 1962.
[7. ]David Riesmann, to take a recent example, sees part of it as a movement of social character from tradition direction to inner direction. See The Lonely Crowd.