By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Reason is a value that Ethical Culture prizes most highly. That reason is a good seems self-evident.
Yet reason is receiving a lot of battering these days and the consequences are ominous. On the personal level, abandon reason and we descend into a surrealist, Alice-in-Wonderland realm. We need reason to order our world, feel secure and stave off anxiety. More publicly, without reason there can be no social order and certainly no democracy. Reason functions in great measure to order our emotions and our passions. Without a consensual commitment to reason, anarchy reigns; we have chaos and violence.
Let’s look at democracy for a minute. Democracy is rule by the “people.” But which people? It should be noted that throughout much of Western history, democracy has had a bad name and a very slow birth. Plato strongly disfavored democracy, believing that it was the rule of the mob. Looking at our current condition, he may have had a point. Until the late 18thcentury, there were no democracies. The prevailing view was that to be properly sustained society needed to be governed by an educated elite, which meant propertied white Christian men. The average person – the uneducated, the tradesman, the peasant – simply was incapable of rule. For the most part, such people were driven by their passions, whereas prudent governance required a capacity for enlightened, educated deliberation.
Skepticism of people’s ability for self-rule
While the United States was arguably the world’s first democracy, it retained this division based on age-old skepticism of the people’s ability to rule themselves. While most identify our nation as a democracy, it is more accurately a republic, a difference that the founders were well aware of. By constitutional design, only one-half of the three branches of government, the House of Representatives, was to be elected directly by the people. (The Senate was to follow a hundred years later.) And the enfranchised people excluded slaves, women and men bereft of property.
This historical division between the people as a whole, on the one hand, and what Jefferson referred to as a “natural aristocracy,” characterized by virtue and talent, on the other, was structured into our form of government from the beginning. It is a division that is arguably reasserting itself in the current moment with unprecedented vitriol and destructive ramifications. And a casualty of that division compromises the very integrity of facts, truth and reason.
By this reckoning, it has been argued by some that the very structure of democracy does not fit well with a commitment to truth and reason. If our nation began with the rule of elites, their authority has been expanded to include those whom we consider experts. The perspectives and interests of this cohort is challenged by the perspectives and interests of non-experts, the people as a whole; hence populism.
Expertise was respected
There never was a Golden Age, but I think in eras past, the people were willing to grant experts a great deal of authority, in great measure because education was seen as valuable even if one didn’t have much, and because the knowledge bestowed by specialized experts was, practically, necessary for the running of a modern society. Scientists, economists, statisticians, medical professionals, journalists, the professorate and the truths they conveyed were generally accorded a considerable amount of respect (admittedly much of it misplaced and undeserved). There was an implicit social contract. The people as a whole would be guided by experts, and the forthcoming expertise would be employed for the flourishing of society as a whole.
But in recent times this regard for what was considered legitimate expertise and its accompanying authority have greatly eroded, and for noticeable reasons. While professional experts were presumed to be com-mitted to standards of objectivity and political neutrality (take journalists, for example), they are now often viewed as aligned with massive corporate interests that render them self-serving and not at all objective or neutral. Thus it often is, or appears to be so, with scientists, economists statisticians, and academia. What may once have been considered an impartial search for truth is now rebuked knowledge wielded for the sake of power by the elitist class.
Another factor is that the dispensation of expertise is now so arcane and complex and beyond the faintest understanding of laymen, and often even experts in their very own fields, that it breeds skepticism that secret and vested interests are afoot, which opens the door to all sorts of anti-intellectualism and conspiracy theories.
Their facts, our facts
And so we have angry social divisions, with facts, truth and reason among the casualties. Expertise, rather than being valued, is assessed by large sectors of the populace as the power-seeking tools of elites and despised and marginalized as such. They have their truths and we the people have ours. They have their facts; we have ours.
With this assault on the very foundations of knowledge, the doors are opened to a politics based on feelings and emotions, often strident, militant and angry, with facts, reason and truth almost beside the point. As a society, we need to find ways out of the condition. But how? Where can we look for hope? I will explore opportunities and approaches in my address of April 7, which I have titled, “Democracy, Facts, Truth and Reason.” I look forward to seeing you then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.