Monday, August 11, 2008

Whose reason is it anyway? by Tom Shakespeare in New Scientist

Whose reason is it anyway?

  • 23 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Bioethicist Tom Shakespeare

5: Whose reason is it anyway?

Real people don’t live their lives according to cold rationality, says bioethicist Tom Shakespeare.
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THE 18th-century challenges to superstition, religion, prejudice, monarchical government and lack of freedom all made sense. Replacing the oppressive baggage of the past with ideas of individual autonomy, liberty and, above all, reason, was a considerable step forward. The fruits of that reason have transformed our world and brought many benefits and riches, but they have also brought problems which are rarely discussed in mainstream discourse.

Feminist theorists, for example, argue that the Enlightenment's focus on the individual, on rights, on reason, ignores the complicated and subtle web of networks that we are part of: the interdependencies and the relationships. For them, it's not just about individual choice, but about the context in which we choose.

Then there is the problem that the brain is a "feeling" brain as well as a "thinking" brain. Many modern thinkers are increasingly turning to the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza for inspiration. Spinoza was a pantheist: for him, God was immanent. He did not believe in mind/body dualism, nor that everything is rational, pure and perfect, and that the body contaminates. For people such as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio or Gaia-theorist James Lovelock, Spinoza holds promise because his thinking offers a way to integrate disparate parts of what it is to be human, and a way to avoid separating humans from nature.

Important things happen when you leave out nature, the body, emotion, the complexity with which lives are lived. The utilitarian thinkers who follow the Enlightenment to its hyper-rational conclusions create arguments with no detail, no bodies, no nature, no complexity. When they say "look, there is your solution", it doesn't work because once you have removed the richness and complexity, you're left with a judgement that is very difficult to implement. It's just not how people work.

A few years ago, I was interested to find when talking to a famous utilitarian philosopher that he and his partner did not want to know the sex of their fetus. When I asked why, he replied, what if the fetus is severely impaired and they had to decide about withdrawing care? In that case (and both of them were medical doctors, by the way), they thought it would be better not to have identified with the embryo so that it would be easier to turn off the machines.

This focus on rationality doesn't speak to how people usually understand their lives and so they reject it for homeopathy, diet pills and Sunday Sun (or The National Enquirer) stories about planes on Mars. People understand the world in stories, not dry rationality. It's not that they are unreasonable, it's that we need ways to look at the world which are both as empirically accurate and rationally sustainable as possible, but which also speak to everyday experience and do not exclude as mere superstition or irrationality the ways most people most of the time live their lives.

The trouble is we don't seem to know how to do this. Measurement, league tables and quantification dominate. A recent news story reported that UK nurses will be rated on how often they smile, thereby reducing to simple arithmetic the most complicated, subtle and important of human interactions - care. We can't agree on thick, complex issues, on our goals, so we spend a lot of time thinking about thin, process measures. How do we measure this? How do we judge that?

If utilitarianism or "straightforward" rationality dominates, and if you fail to see what makes life worth living, many things follow. Disabled or older people become too costly to keep alive. You judge people on their output or performance. Whereas if we look at what we want - happiness, fulfilment and positive living - none of that matters. Most of us aspire to, long for, a much more human-sized, human-centred, emotionally mature way of living, but the chance of that is being squeezed out. If your measure is very objective, rational and limited, you end up with a certain type of school, child, human and society, but it's not one that I'd want to live in, and I think increasingly for many people, it's not one they want to live in either.

Read about all the problems with reason in our special issue

Tom Shakespeare is a research fellow at the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre, set up by Durham and Newcastle universities and the Centre for Life, Newcastle
From issue 2666 of New Scientist magazine, 23 July 2008, page 48

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