Put Your Faith Not In Reason
Recently I was debating the matter of ISIS and the Middle East with a friend of mine, one who is a bit leftishly inclined but not dogmatically so. He made the argument, in a nutshell, that ISIS should not be considered a threat, not even a potential one, because neighboring nations to the conflict in Syria and Iraq such as Turkey and Iran and Egypt and so forth have taken no action against them, and would do so if ISIS ever were to become a danger as it is in their rational self-interest to do so.
This one particular argument has stuck with me, and I realize it is because it touches on a very flawed general assumption that is quite common these days: the naïve faith in the rationality of others.
On the face of it, the above argument makes sense. After all, it’s not in the interests of Turkish government to have their lands overrun by a bunch of fundamentalist Islamist revolutionaries. Rationally, it is in their self-interest to prevent that. This is an argument we see quite often. Rationally, Iran would never use a nuclear bomb even if they acquired one because it would be inviting doom on themselves. Rationally, we should all work together to our mutual benefit to produce the greatest possible good for the greatest number. Rationally, individually will always act in their economic best interest so who needs regulations and watch-dogs. However, the fatal flaw in this line of thinking is that it rests on the assumption that people/corporations/nations will always act…well…rationally!
The unfortunate truth is that man is not a rational creature. We are certainly capable of reason, when we put our minds to it, but we are also driven by a whole host of other motivations. Desire, fear, greed, lust, and a host of other emotions all dominate our decisions and interactions. We are impulsive. We act without thinking. Our line of thoughts often is based on shaky premises or outright delusions. All entities that are the creation of man (whether it is Lehman Brothers or the government of Iran) are similarly just as capable of descending into irrationality, being made up of human beings with all their imperfections.
Thus depending on rational action for either man or nation is a very flawed basis for any assumption or ideology. Let us go back to the case of Turkey. Rationally, yes it does make sense that Turkey would choose to crush ISIS in its cradle if it ever might one day pose a threat. The Turks certainly have the means to do so, and for all the soft-Islamist tendencies of the current Turkish government I doubt they would be willing to make all the necessary concessions ISIS would demand of them (no booze, no music, no women unless you happen to be married to one, death to gays, and the general destruction of anything that might be seen as idolatrous or un-Islamic….like say the entire city of Constantinople!).
Why then would Turkey not act if not for the reason that ISIS is not a threat? Because reason does not govern everything. For one, Turkey has long been in a silent staring contest with Iran over who will get to be the big bully boy in the Middle East for most of the last few decades. Iran’s ally happens to be Bashir Al-Assad, Turkey’s next door neighbor, who just happens to be one of ISIS’s primary opponents in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Turkey also historically has struggled with a simmering Kurdish independence movement….and low and behold the Kurds happen to be one of ISIS’s other primary opponents. Combine this with the fact that Turkey is currently ruled by an egotistical demagogue with delusions of one day restoring the Ottoman Empire and it’s not hard to see why Turkey might overlook it’s rational self-interest and allow ISIS to keep festering away, growing in strength, and fighting its way across the Middle East.
Reason is ultimately one of the most fragile forces in existence, because it is one of the least compelling ones. Appeals to the heart, the soul or to fear have always been more persuasive either on an individual or group level. Who among us has not chosen to do something that rationally makes no sense? Bought something we really cannot afford? Said something petty or unfair? Nursed a grudge long past when we should have let it go? Harbored an ambition we have no realistic hope of achieving? The idea that nations should somehow be immune to such things is folly. Anything build upon reason ultimately is built upon sand. As Joseph de Maistre himself observed, what is all enduring is the irrational: Queen and Country, Faith and Family, Throne and Alter, Blood and Soil, Tradition and Honour, concepts that have no rational basis for existence but speak to man on an emotional and instinctive level.
Sadly, we live in an age under the sway of the cult of reason. In our sad sorry modernity reason holds sway over everything. We see it in the rationalization of the supremacy of unfettered free-market economics purveyed by the Tea Party and the total superiority of the State as the cure to all ill as pushed by the left. What has this given us? The financial crisis and the Affordable Care Act? Thanks, but no thanks, by any chance do you have something in the back?
That is not to say we should shun reason of course. Such folly if taken to its logical (ironic I know) conclusion would lead to sheer and utter absurdity. What it does mean is that to build a system that counts upon the rational actions of all its participants is to invite disappointment or disaster. Whether it is the libertarian claiming we should set each individual free to do whatever he wishes or the communist who claims we should compel all to work towards the fruition of some planner’s grand design or the liberal who proclaims that “the people are always right”, all drink from the same wineskin of folly. The hangover I fear will be quite an unpleasant one.