“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

24 May 2013

Should We Try to Create a Rational Society?

Should we try to create a rational society?

It may seem obvious that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, since being rational is almost by definition a good thing. If being rational is good, then it is logical that we should want a rational society because that would mean a good society; therefore it would be a good thing for us to try to make that society come about.

However, when we start to unpick the different words in the question we quickly run into difficulty.

Let’s start with ‘society’.

Society is composed of a great number of different elements without which it wouldn’t be society; or rather it wouldn’t be this society. The idea that all of those different elements should form a rational whole and that we are capable of bringing it about is a major claim.

But saying that we should try to create this rational whole from present society (the elements of which are constantly changing, for example by immigration and emigration), is an even greater claim. Do we have the power to do this? And are we certain this power will achieve its rational ends without making things worse – something we might or might not become aware of?

Intervening to create a new society out of an old society entails a great deal of confidence that by our actions we can change all the elements for the better. There is something quite God-like in this idea.

So should we try to do it?

Firstly, who is we? Are we the whole people – the society itself – looking to change itself through calculated intervention? Or are we talking about the Government and related institutions like charities? Are we really talking about an elite claiming complete understanding and power to change things for the better through action on others without them having hardly a say in the matter?

Lastly, we can ask, what is rationality? Who are we to know what is ultimately rational? How do we know we have taken everything into account and made correct decisions on everything?

Amongst the reading I have done recently, both Karl Popper and Chantal Mouffe offer some interesting thoughts on this sort of debate.

Neither Popper nor Mouffe argue that we should refrain from trying to make things better in our world, through individual, group and government action.

They do however caution that we can ever be completely confident that what we are doing is for the best. In social and political life, Popper in his writings argued for ‘piecemeal social engineering’ (Popper was a great phrase-maker, but this wasn’t one of his best) and a ‘critical rationalism’ that monitors practical initiatives for unintended consequences.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper wrote:

“The political demand for piecemeal (as opposed to Utopian) methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends. In their case, we may perhaps have a certain right to try to impose our scale of values – our preferences regarding music, for example ...This right of ours exists only if, and because, they can get rid of us; because friendships can be ended. But the use of political means for imposing our scale of values upon others is a very different matter. Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the ‘agenda’ of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The ‘higher’ values should very largely be considered as a ’non-agenda’, and should be left to the realm of laissez-faire. Thus we might say: help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.”

Mouffe meanwhile advocates what she calls ‘agonism’ (basically an acceptance of conflict). In her little book On the Political, she said:

“It is not in our power to eliminate conflicts and escape our human condition, but it is in our power to create the practices, discourses and institutions that would allow those conflicts to take an agonistic form. This is why the defence and the radicalization of the democratic project require acknowledging the political in its antagonistic dimension and abandoning the dream of a reconciled world that would have overcome power, sovereignty and hegemony.”

This dream of a reconciled world is a Utopian dream that has been expressed in totalitarian regimes the world over through the 20th Century in particular.

But now, especially on the Left, we should be wary about the claims we make for our favoured plans and policies. We should accept criticism of them and be prepared to abandon them if and when they are shown to have significant negative consequences.  This is surely the best way to ‘create’ a better world – by being conscious of our limited and problematic powers of creation, and by being open-minded that our ideas can never be perfect or completely rational.

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