Americans of every race, creed, social and economic condition are increasingly concerned about the decline of their country. Why, they are asking, has common sense given way to nonsense, wisdom to foolishness, sanity to insanity, harmony to discord? This essay addresses that question.
From the time of the ancient Greeks to a few generations ago, most philosophers have held that humans alone have the ability to reason and this ability alone enables them to distinguish right from wrong, just from unjust, and good from evil. The philosophers understood, too, that this knowledge is necessary to fulfill the imperative of doing good and avoiding evil—in other words, for “doing the right thing.” These views have also been central to Christian thought. Fortunately, neither Greek nor Christian philosophers considered reason foolproof. They knew that because humans are imperfect, their reasoning can be led astray by misinformation, wishful thinking and/or self-deception, so thought processes must be conducted with care and conclusions re-examined whenever new evidence is found.
That teaching of Greek and Christian philosophers produced the twin scholarly fields, Ethics and Moral Theology, that provide guidance in defining the “right thing” in particular situations.
A little over a half-century ago, however, a very different view gained a large following in Western culture and in time became dominant. In that view, human nature is defined by feeling rather than reason. Impressions, hunches, and emotional reactions are considered more natural and more reliable than reason. Proponents of this view claimed that we should never question our feelings because doing so can erode our self-esteem, injure our egos, and prevent accomplishment.
In time, as the dominance of feelings became more widely accepted, many people came to regard their points of view and opinions as unquestionably correct and thus closed their minds to opposing points of view, even ones found in the Bible and their own religious traditions. In short, they came to believe that having a “right to their opinions” made their opinions right.
Society has changed dramatically since feelings and emotions displaced reasoning for distinguishing right from wrong, justice from injustice, good from evil. Those who believed feelings could never mislead them saw no point in wondering whether their words or actions were inappropriate or wrong, no reason to examine them, and therefore no value in Ethics or Moral Theology.
I believe this widespread choice of feelings over reason is the major cause of the social disruption in America today. “Do whatever you wish” is the new motto. If you feel like lying, then lie. Stealing, then steal. Cheating in school or at work, cheat. Committing adultery, do it. Sexually harassing or even assaulting someone, go for it. Beating your children, go ahead. Defaming those you don’t like, defame away.
Moreover, if you are a teacher who feels like preaching your opinions rather than teaching prescribed material, a journalist who feels like reporting what you want, a shopper tempted to put merchandise in your pocket without paying for it, a drinker who feels like driving while under the influence, an elected official tempted to sell your vote to the highest bidder, or a protestor inclined to riot, loot, injure innocent people, commit arson, and even destroy your own neighborhood—if you are any of these, the prescription is the same—act out your feelings.
Am I suggesting that all feelings are bad? Of course not. Many are worthy, moral, even noble. The problem is, both the good and the bad arrive unbidden and spontaneously without validation of their worth or indication of their likely consequences. For such information we need to apply reason, examine the feelings, and decide whether they are wise or foolish, helpful or hurtful, and to do all this before acting on them.
Some people argue that following feelings rather than reason makes a person more tolerant of others. In other words, that the person says to herself, “Other people’s feelings may lead them to a different view than my feelings do, and that’s fine with me.” But that is seldom the case. Instead, believing our view is unquestionably true means that opposing views are unquestionably false, and this belief makes us intolerant of opposing views and the people who hold them. This intolerance can easily lead first to resentment, then angry confrontation, and finally to alienation from those with different views, even if they are family or friends.
This alienation is increasingly evident in America. The age-old, natural, incalculably valuable process of exchanging views on meaningful subjects with others has been abandoned and many people have been left isolated in their own narrow perspective, associating only with those who hold the same views and depending on the news sources that reinforce those views. Such intellectual incest has shrunken learning, petrified understanding, suppressed humility, and obviated insight and wisdom.
Restoring reason to its rightful place and making feelings subordinate to it will bring a number of benefits. It will help us admit our human imperfections, recognize our vulnerability to error, and end the self-exaltation marketed as self-esteem. These changes will enable us to see the value of humility and open-mindedness, encourage us to respect and learn from others, and seek insight and wisdom outside ourselves. Equally important, accomplishing this restoration in our own lives will enable us to nurture it in our families, education systems, and culture, and reverse our country’s decline.
Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved