The Owl of Minerva truly takes off at dusk; and our awareness of what we lose when “common decency” departs is often too late. So it is on the eve of the inauguration of a new person to hold the office of President in the United States. And so, we need to start again. The storming of the Capitol building in Washington was a consequence of more than a Trumpian prodding. It was unconstrained desire – want a Lincoln bust? Take it. Want the Vice President’s podium? Take it. Want to sit in Pelosi’s chair? Take it. And the swift reactions of social media, the House and the Senate (most of whom were Trumpian allies until January 6), and the general public… was an interpretation that it was an attack on democracy, forgetting it was unrestrained desire – even though they had just witnessed it. It was a violent expression of want without reason, and of alienation unsupported by facts. We could see unrestrained desire with our eyes and hear it with our ears. And we consumed the news that said it was an attack on democracy. Voting is no shield against unrestrained desire. Violence always overcomes rights.
Was it an attack on democracy? Maybe. Is it an act of terrorism? Most certainly – even by the old definitions of terrorism used with Osama bin Laden. And so we recognize that this is not just a bit of insanity, but it represents an attack on being reasonable – whether “being reasonable” is considered a virtue or a set of rules prescribing how to have an argument.
Let me paint it this way: one side of the coin has unrestrained desire; the other side of the coin is the contestants for employing reason in the restraint of desire. The first contestant to anchor the restraint of desire is for pragmatic reasons. The second is for idealistic ones.
What does it mean to defend reasonableness for pragmatic “reasons”? Francisco Mejia Uribe argues in Psyche,
“Now let’s ask ourselves: does that sound like a fair description of today’s average citizen? Does anyone still truly offer reciprocal terms of cooperation, refraining from using political power to favor their own worldview or repress the views of other reasonable people? Does anyone still recognize that in politics, ethics and religion ‘the full truth’ is divisive and hard to attain, and accept the limits this places on what can be brought into the political arena? No, no, and no. If this is what being reasonable means, then the average citizen of our digital global village is unreasonable par excellence.”
In other words, Uribe describes types of Rawlsian citizens, who do not reciprocally cooperate, who won’t refrain from using violence to get what they want, and who don’t believe truth is effective against power. In other words, he accepts the following definition of a political person – an abstract individual in a constant state of pursuing the desires of her abstract heart. Following Clifford’s insights in The Ethics of Belief, Uribe argues that she should not be trusted to communicate prideful, untested, and false beliefs – which, as an abstracted individual, she will undoubtedly have. And so Uribe gives up. And if you look over the history of pragmatism – from C.S. Pierce to W.O. Quine to Richard Rorty – so does that whole pragmatist way of “supporting” reason. These people think relationships are deals. But you and I know they are much more.
Even if such people actually exist, Uribe shows no faith that they could be more. Instead, he paints for us a straw person of the average citizen. Pragmatists have forgotten their literature class. The Romantic notion of the individual places her in relationships, especially with the natural world. An idealist defense of reasonableness picks up on the essentially relational quality of being an individual and applies to it a communal relationship as well. Why should we be reasonable with other people? An idealist would answer: because they are a part of who we are. We wouldn’t be who we were without others. And if we recognize this, then we also see that at the core of our own authentic selves is a dialogical relationship with others, with our significant others, and with ourselves – as we might have even when we think in solitude, and “bat ideas back and forth”. Reasonableness isn’t a moral axiom; it is the mechanics of how living together is possible. Unlike the radical and abstract individual conceived by Uribe’s characterization of Rawls, an idealist knows that individuals only make sense against the background relief of their communities – and those communities embody not just truths (which the pragmatist plausibly asserts are either ultimately unknown or ineffective) but also ideals. Ideals are the seeds of our higher selves that are located in, and nurtured by, the community.
How does this offer a defense of reasonableness? Well, it sources its security in articulated ideals, not in “truths”. In other words, reasonableness is not in the nature of things; it is what grows the seeds of inarticulate ideals; we ought to aim for it, and we know it deep down. Pragmatism gives up on reasonableness because it epistemically can’t justify truth. Idealism sees reasonableness not so much as an argument about the truth but as an articulation of our higher selves.
I could go on about this philosophically. I could explore Hegel’s advance on Kant in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But we don’t need to go through those difficult texts to know what we have seen and heard: unconstrained desire in the act of taking. If both the pragmatist and the Rawlsian assume the abstract individual then the following consequence is inevitable: their individual desires will be unconstrained by reason, and by reasonableness. And we see when that happens, one who is provoked sufficiently will storm the Capitol.
Now the people who stormed the Capitol are Trumpian, but not all Trumpians stormed the Capitol. After all, there are some pragmatists in the Trumpian camp. But the difference here is only a matter of degree. And we are blinded to the fact that the majority of people on the other side of the aisle are also pragmatists too. After all, Pelosi and McConnell are collaborating.
What gives reason to being reasonable is the rejection of the atomistic individualism running rampant in mass society. And the pragmatists who have supported or tolerated Trump, and the ones aiming to prosecute Trump, or to turn off his microphone, have yet to do that. When the detained people who stormed the Capitol are prosecuted, my guess is the charges will have something to do with sedition, destroying property, or threatening lives. Democracy will be defended, but it is this terrorism on what it means to even be reasonable that needs to be tried. The Owl of Minerva may have flown, but the sun will rise tomorrow.
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