Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.

Seneca’s letters

img_1045Seneca was criticized in his own day (and in the 2,000 years since) for his hypocrisy. Maintaining his wealth and elite political status meant not always practicing what he preached.

Does this means his words are empty? Well, who am I to judge Seneca? Am I better than him? Am I less of a hypocrite than him? No. And neither are you.

 

Anger

Whatever his faults were, Seneca was an insightful man. Penguin Classics publishes an edited collection of letters he wrote to a friend in the days before Emperor Nero told Seneca to go kill himself. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.

I previously wrote about Seneca’s book On Anger.  Seneca said that anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Anger is about the desire to punish someone for real or imagined harm.

But what about righteous anger over oppression and exploitation? The logical conclusion is that the more inclined to anger someone is the more decent that person must be. But was Socrates an angry man? What about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr? When we think of a wise person, we think of someone who is calm is the face of evil. Reason seeks fairness, but anger seeks only the appearance of fairness as a justification for lashing out.

Emotional independence

Seneca’s letters add to this line of thought. He writes that Stoicism doesn’t mean being emotionless. Instead, the goal of Stoicism is to feel your troubles without being overwhelmed. A sage doesn’t want to lose anything but also doesn’t pine for what’s been lost. A sage wants to have friends but can survive alone (#9).

Taking criticism while keeping your ego at bay is also important. Besides, someone’s criticism might be an uncomfortable truth, and listening could make you a better person.

But the flipside to this is handing out compliments sparingly. Flattery is manipulation. It’s better to praise people (without being patronizing) for what can neither be given nor taken away from them – which is their character. (#41).

Egotism

Stoicism helps keep egotism in check. Seneca observers that “We’re born unequal, we die equal” – much like Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” because “a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

Seneca’s ego deflating views may be a hard pill to swallow in the 21st century when so many seem eager to tell their tale of struggle and woe as if their suffering is unlike anyone else’s.

But Seneca says, look, everyone has to deal with life’s troubles. So why do we think our struggles are unique? We’re not as special as we think.

That’s only depressing if you think it is. Reminding yourself that life is a struggle for everyone, regardless of the face they put forward, puts it in perspective. And that leads to equanimity (#91).

You are what you think

It really is all about the way you frame it. Thinking that moving, travelling, finding a new romantic partner, being richer, etc. will make you happier avoids the real issue, which is that you need an attitude adjustment.

Someone once complained to Socrates that travelling abroad never did him any good. Socrates replied, “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?” (#104).

Epictetus: Ancient wisdom for the modern world

Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. From his students’ notes IMG_0307we have four discourses, a handbook, and a few fragments.

In the Enchiridion (or handbook) Epictetus wrote that external events are not up to us. And though we can exert varying degrees of influence, our desired outcome isn’t guaranteed. But our goals, values, and actions are up to us. It’s important to know the difference, and what to do about it.

If that sounds familiar it’s because someone cribbed it and called it the Serenity Prayer.

Epictetus’s discourses have a different flavor, though. The same themes are repeated. But Epictetus talks a lot about God in his discourses – to the point where it almost reads like a religious text.

Ancient Stoics (like almost everyone in the ancient world) believed in deities. Other Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were not atheists but didn’t place as much emphasis on God.

Stoicism today is neither explicitly theist nor atheist. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion, and it can accommodate almost any personal faith or lack thereof.


Knowing what is and isn’t ours.


Epictetus advises us to turn unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Lust is an opportunity to cultivate temperance. Pain can help us improve our endurance. And verbal abuse is a chance to develop a thick skin and learn patience.

The key, Epictetus says, is knowing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Things that don’t belong to us are other people, wealth, power, and even our reputations. The danger is that wanting what someone else has means letting that person control us.

But how we think about our impressions of the world and what we choose to do about it are ours.


What can really harm us.


Most of us expect harm or benefit from external things, but wise people expect harm or benefit from themselves. The Stoic virtues of being just, temperate, and self-controlled are central to human excellence.

When people criticize us it’s often because they think they have a moral responsibility to do so – but usually they’re just projecting an internal psychodrama. But don’t confront them. Instead, we should remind ourselves that their opinion has no value.

Progress means less blaming and praising of others, being less defensive, and not being so swayed by flattery.

On the other hand, anxiety is caused by wanting something that’s not within our control. Nothing lasts forever. If we lose something, we should willfully surrender it.

Epictetus adds that life is like a banquet. If something is offered, accept it – but don’t be greedy. And it’s okay to refuse what is offered. But if it doesn’t come our way, forget about it.


Reason is a skill. Cultivate it.


Tying all this together is the Stoic view that reason separates humans from lower animals. As such, Epictetus advises us to learn to desire what we have, not what we don’t have. Expect the unexpected, even if it’s undesirable, so we can be prepared. Focus on our sphere of control – our values, choices, and actions.

He says life are like dice, which indifferently fall where they will. But making skillful use of where they fall isn’t indifferent. We should train ourselves to avoid vice and endure the things that peeve us the most.