Well-Reasoned Humanism

David Brooks writes in the New York Times:

First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

I would nuance Brooks’ point and say that the basis of our reasoning flows from how we define our “self.” If we begin by asking “Who am I?” and assume that we are the body and mind, then with that reasoning our emotions will follow. We are afraid of dying–we feel fear at that prospect–so we have an emotional drive to maintain our “self” based on the reasoning that our existence is limited to the body and mind.

However, our sense of identify can expand to include our family, community, nation, religion, ethnicity, etc. We could even identify with humanity as it progresses through time. If our reasoning were to begin with the assumption that we are a small part of humanity and our actions either propel humanity forward or backwards, then we might be emotionally inclined help the people around us for the benefit of humanity’s future rather than protecting a limited notion of a bodily “self.”

This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions.

If we analyze the origin of our powerful emotions, we might find identify faulty reasoning. I’m not sure if this is what Brooks means by “educating” our emotions, but I would argue that emotions are not without reason. Still, reason has an end; then faith and love take over. What are relationships without faith and love?

When you synthesize this research, you get different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics. You pay less attention to how people analyze the world but more to how they perceive and organize it in their minds. You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.

I hope these ideas catch on in our culture. We really need new ideals.

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