The role of reason
‘Reason alone may be incapable of determining right and wrong, but that is not to say that establishing what is right and wrong has nothing to do with reason.’
Stephen Law, The War for Children’s Minds
We have earlier said that reason cannot justify our basic moral principles. Nonetheless, once we have decided on our moral beliefs, on whatever foundations we base them, reason can support us to think critically about them.
How can reason help?
Scientific reasoning can help reveal new facts about the world that can inform our morality. The argument that girls should be entitled to the same education as boys, for example, is supported by research that reveals their equal intellectual capacity. Slavery can no longer be defended on the claim that human beings can be divided into different species. Refuting the previously accepted scientific claim refutes the moral position that was built on it.
If the consequences of our actions are important to us, then reason can support us to deliberate about what they will be. It can support us to sift the evidence and form rational conclusions.
Reason allows us to consider what the world would be like if everyone were to act the same way. For example, if everyone chose to lie whenever it suited them, then trust in human communication would break down.
It can also help reveal unacknowledged consequences of our existing moral beliefs. It may not have dawned on us that our moral commitments place requirements on us that we simply weren’t aware of. If, for example, we believe a reason we should not harm other human beings is that causing pain is to be avoided, then does that not mean we must also avoid harming non-human animals for the same reason?
Reason can support us to make our moral views more consistent with each other. We can become more willing to universalise our principles when we recognise that there is no relevant difference between different cases. For example, one might argue that the suffering of those on the other side of the world is equally as bad as the suffering of those near to us, hence they are just as worthy of care.
Reason can also reveal faulty logic within our arguments. Take the refuted claim that homosexuality is unnatural. Even if it was true, it would no more support the conclusion that homsexuality ought not to be practiced than that it ought to. Such an argument makes the mistake of drawing an ought from an is.
Reason does not force you to believe one thing over another. However, as we learned in Week 2, reason shows you what you ought to believe if you want to give your beliefs the best chance of being true.