“Reason as our guide”

“We may take Fancy for a companion, but must follow Reason as our guide,” said

Samuel Johnson, pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Samuel Johnson. I read this at the front of an introductory logic book I bought over my last Christmas break. I Googled the quote and found the rest of it on a website of Samuel Johnson sound bites. According to the site, Johnson wrote it in a letter to his stalker-biographer James Boswell.

I base my moral code on reason. That’s how my mind operates. I want to act in a way I can justify with a little more resolve than the tepid assertion an action “felt right.” To put it bluntly, I think the “right” thing to do is the logical thing to do. A deeper moral code underlies this, firmly based in compassion: reduce the suffering of others. Moreover,  I adhere to the “spirit” of the law, rather than the law itself.

An example illustrates this. I choose not to kill. Most  people consider this reasonable: killing creates suffering, eliminates chances for agents to act according their will, and determines their entire future without clear consent. It also prevents future joys for them. But should one never kill?  Zen master John Daido Roshi has an example to test the spirit of this precept. If a deer is suffering on the side of the road and I have the power to “put it out of its misery,” I will. I want to reduce its suffering, and if I flee the scene, most likely I’m just being squeamish, not trying to preserve its life.  Although I’m killing the deer, I’m fulfilling the original point of the precept: reduce suffering. The same is true of lying. I’d never tell the complete truth if I knew it could endanger many lives. My intention remains the same: despite fear or desires, I want to maximize compassion.

Many would term this “compassion ethics,” a generic form of Buddhist ethics. Agents under this system long to reduce suffering in the world. I use logic to apply this general sentiment to my actions. Thus, since anger is rarely logical, I avoid anger. Same for excessive sadness or passion. All these lead to suffering,so I reduce them. Reason is my guide.

But I had a doubt this past week. What if the logical thing to do is not the morally right thing to do? Logic may be perfect in a world without flaw–a world of mathematical proofs and tidy abstracts–but I’m not sure if it’s practical for this world. Or even good.

Our world is messy. Anyone involved with a relationship, romantic or otherwise, can probably see that humans do not function like a proof. We do not control our emotions. Fancy leads us. Our lives fill with fluctuations that defy direct explanation. A bus leaves late, causing us to miss a plane, or the airline looses our luggage. We have a healthy diet and excersise, but disease–like cancer–strikes us down. A drunk driver careens into our car. Or we win the lottery.

These are extremes, but still, as Leaonard Mlodinow, mathemitican and physicist, says in his book The Drunkard’s Walk:

In the scientific study of random processes the drunkard’s walk is the archetype. In our lives it also provides an apt model, for like the granuals of pollen floating in the Brownian fluid, we’re continually nudged in this direction and then that one by random events. As a result, althoguh statistical regularities can be found in social data, the future of particular individuals is impossible to predict, and for our particular achivements, our jobs, our friends, our finances, we all owe more to chance than many people realize (Mlodinow, 195).

“The drunkard’s walk” refers to a physics process, first observed on the minute movement of a pollen grain on a drop of water. Random subatomic interactions jostled the grain in a particular directions, although we could never predict the directions. Reflect on this: “we all owe more to chance than many people realize.”

People like to control situations. I’m no exception. This past summer I worked in a kitchen. People bounded from one sink to the next, stirring a large pot or tossing a bowl of salad; opened cans of soup; and baked a pan of bread in the oven. I couldn’t control everything. I had to trust that somehow the meal would come together without my constant oversight. I had to let go.

My morality is no exception. Logic offers a sense of control and stability. I can justify individual actions with logic, not intuition. Also, if I create a moral code and stick to it, I can find a coherent guide to all my actions. Again, intuition does not offer this. It’s case by case, bound to the shifting mysticism of emotion and subconscious habit, i.e. intuition.

I fear my own desire for control limits my capacity for compassion. It may be a false fear. But in a world subjected to chance and filled with agents guided by emotion and intuition, can I bind myself to logic? Logic offers a refuge in an island of uncertainty, but trust in an intuition based on love may hold more virtue (success and compassion) than the deliberation of reason. Perhaps, in certain situations, Fancy may be a better guide. But how does one distinguish the situation? How does one distinguish when a Fancy is false–when a drive to react will lead to possessiveness, pain, or violence? Once we leave the guide of reason, we wander in a vague jungle of feeling, conditioning, hopes, and half-formed understandings.

Perhaps we should make the leap of faith, trust in our intuition, and throw ourselves before the train to save the injured man, pick up a single starving child in village ravaged by starvation, or–in a less extreme example–lean in to kiss someone, although a social code, a state of existence, or distance may make it illogical. I don’t know what love and compassion are. Definitions exist, but their application from page to person remains vague. Same with virtue. Should i use the classical formulation: a quality that improves my success?

Whether I drop or soften my adherence to logic remains under uncertain. But I believe my code deserves questioning.

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