It is said that modern civilization is a rational civilization and this is the most important aspect of the modern scientific society. In modernity, reason is taken as the basis of knowledge and the rational self is taken as the final arbiter of truth. For Gandhi, truth was moral and could only be found in the experience of one's life. It could never be correctly expressed by rational theoretical discourse. Day by day the importance of rationality has become so prominent that it is over-shadowing all other aspects of life. Gandhi had a problem with this domineering rational tendency of modernity. He said in 1939 (quoted in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy by Ronald Terchek):
Rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of rock and stone believing it to be God. I plead not for the suppression of reason but [an appreciation of its inherent limits].
In some areas of human experience such as morality and politics, reason was inherently inadequate and needed to be guided by wisdom, tradition, conscience, intuition, and moral insight. He argued that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize. For him, love, generosity, trust etc. do not flow from reason (for some rationalists, such feelings are unnecessary complications that spoil their beautiful equations). He sees these dispositions and actions that flow from outside reason embodying the best in human beings. He knew that the opposite of these feelings is not always reason. When love and trust is involved, the choice is not invariably between them and reason but between love and hate or trust and suspicion.
To assume that reason should always be the arbiter is to misunderstand both its strengths and limitations. Reason can speak to an impulse to love, for example, but after a while reason is exhausted and has nothing more to say. Gandhi would constantly critique faith to ascertain whether it was meaningful and reasonable in terms of basic human values. He demands of reason adherence to these values as well. Gandhi was not against reason or rationality at all but his was a critique of the domineering nature of modern instrumental rationality.
Rationalism also valued only one form of knowledge, namely the scientific, and only one form of life, namely the secular, individualist, and competitive, based on the mastery of nature. Further, for the rationalist, human life was transparent, fully knowable if not today then tomorrow, and whatever could not be scientifically known either did not exist or was not worth knowing. Rationalism therefore bred the arrogant and irrational belief that human beings could shape the world in whatever way they liked.
For Gandhi, a watertight compartmentalization is not at all possible between the mind and heart, rationality and morality. In fact, an individual’s comprehensive personality depends on both rationality and intuition. Thus, we should not accept only one aspect as a whole, as that would be a partial perspective. In Gandhi’s words, 'I have come to the conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more important to the head.' He realized that truth can be reached through a complex dialogue in which reason alone is not sufficient; therefore, he suggested that the arguments need to be reinforced with "emotional and political pressure." In Gandhi in the 21st Century, Prof. Bhikhu Parekh writes:
Like the rationalists, he stressed the importance of rational discussion; unlike them, however, he realized that what passed as rational discussion was often little more than alternative monologues or a public relations exercise, and that sticking to it under such circumstances was an act of irrationality.
Even as Gandhi was aware of the limits of rationality, he was acutely conscious of the dangers of violence. He knew that narrow rationalism and violence tended to feed off each other, and that the failure of rationality rendered violence morally respectable.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy is linked to the basic tenets of capitalism and her popularity supposedly keeps growing. She conceived of rationality as man’s basic virtue, the source of all other virtues. The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. She argues for a conception of self-interest grounded not in desires (or emotions) but in facts and reason. We are often told that the reason is the area of the mind, working at its peak, most purely logical level. Emotions are found in the lowly area of the body, busy with its chaotic, irrational passions.
Antonio Damasio shows in his acclaimed book, Descartes' Error, that the brain, the body, reason, as well as emotions are inseparably connected together into a seamless whole. Pure reason, reason uninfluenced by emotion, seems to occur only in pathological states that are characterized by impairment of day-to-day decision-making and social interaction. Says Damasio, “Certain aspects of the process of emotion and feeling are indispensable for rationality.” To think otherwise was Descartes’ error.
Damasio writes of patients with damage to the frontal regions of the brain which leaves them incapable of feeling emotions that a normal person would. When such patients are presented with a slide show that includes graphic pictures of sex or violence, for instance, they can identify them and describe their horrible details normally, but they show none of the emotional responses that are always present in normal people. As Damasio points out, these patients are the very epitome of the cool-headed, passionless thinkers philosophy has typically encouraged as the ideal, and yet that very lack of emotional reactions renders them incapable of real world time-pressured decision-making.
Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, says that we were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.
Haidt views morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. Moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong. Moral judgment comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.
He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant. In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert M . Sapolsky writes:
The synergistic advantages of combining reasoning with intuition raise an important point. If you’re a fan of moral intuitions, you’d frame them as being foundational and primordial. If you don’t like them, you’d present them as simplistic, reflexive, and primitive.
But as emphasized by Woodward and Allman, our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end products of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic, as implicit as riding a bicycle or reciting the days of the week forward rather than backward.
In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that sure didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognizably different. Our guts learn their intuitions.