Reason and Goodness
by Brand Blanshard
Reason and Goodness is an essay concerning ethics, but not just one essay among many. After sixty years, it remains the high-water mark in thinking concerning fundamental ethical issues.
The book stands second in a series of three by Blanshard, all of which are broadly concerned with the defense of reason, and all of which are themselves founded in varying degrees upon an exhaustive previous study, his monumental The Nature of Thought.
These analyses were followed up, late in his life, with a truly remarkable fifth book, Four Reasonable Men. This latter study we consider to be canonical, in the sense that we believe it should be studied carefully by everyone, everywhere, without exception.
The reasons for this conviction are straight-forward: it deals systematically with the subjects of the greatest importance in life in an exceptionally clear, thorough, and authoritative way. In our reckoning, this makes it the second most important book ever written. The second most important, because it is founded upon the most important book ever written, namely, Reason and Goodness.
However, R&G is a far more difficult read than 4RM. Four Reasonable Men can be read and understood by any person of normal intelligence. R&G is a somewhat tougher nut to crack. This is not because it wasn't written with the utmost clarity, as everything Blandshard authored unfailingly was, but rather because it digs much, much deeper than 4RM.
No topic in human history as been as vexed and confused as that of the foundations of value. It takes considerable time even to understand clearly what the main issues are, and there are many traps along the way for the unwary and wary alike, including professional philosophers.
In R&G Blanshard systematically identifies these, and guides the reader carefully around all of them. It's quite impossible to overstate the importance of this accomplishment: all of human conduct hangs upon a proper understanding of the nature of the good; and human conduct, all of it, will succeed or fail to a greater or lesser extent as a consequence of whether the nature of the good is rightly understood.
As he does in most of his work, Blanshard begins R&G with a survey of the main lines of previous thought, and carefully notes the virtues and deficiencies of philosophers ranging from the ancient Stoics to the "emotivists", who were enjoying something of a vogue in the years immediately preceding the writing of R&G. With that immense range of thought carefully assessed (an astonishing accomplisment in itself), he is ready to set the stage for his own ideas.
Blanshard sees the solution of the age-old problems of ethics as lying with achieving a proper understanding of the relationship between reason and feeling.
It was fortuitous indeed that Blanshard's earlier masterpiece, The Nature of Thought, afforded him an unparalleled understanding of the nature of reason, one never previously achieved by anyone (and not truly equaled to this day). This placed him in a unprecedented and uniquely well-prepared position to evaluate this issue. While it isn't quite a requirement of understanding R&G, a persual of all of Blanshard's "big five" will certainly aid greatly in more fully understanding his ultimate position.
With a second stroke of immense good fortune, Blanshard was also thoroughly acquainted with the ethical thought of Thomas Hill Green and Henry Sidgwick, which was the most advanced of its day, and which has only been superceded more recently by Blanshard himself.
This extraordinary dual insight into both the nature of reason and of its relationship to feeling is what most fundamentally enabled Blanshard's astonishing accomplishment in Reason and Goodness - but it also seems to have placed his achievement beyond the full comprehension of any of his contemporaries, particularly as many were roiled by his trenchant critique of analytical philosophy and logical positivism, a critique most could neither refute nor accept.
But it remains true that to truly understand anything of fundamental human significance, one must read and fully comprehend all of Blanshard's books - and, above all, Reason and Goodness. Indeed, it isn't too much to say that human destiny itself depends upon humanity achieving this understanding.
Books don't always provide a mission statement, but Blanshard typically did. In Reason and Goodness, however, the entire 42 pages of the first chapter (Western Ethics) comprise the mission statement. This approach was, perhaps, forced upon him by the gravity of what he was attempting to do, but also by the necessity of getting the issues he addresses subsequently properly framed - a frame that isn't easily grasped. As we've noted, his contemporaries mostly did fail to grasp it - and for the most part even professional philosophers have continued to do so to the present day.
We cannot, of course, reproduce the entire chapter here, nor would we wish to: the reader owes it to him- or herself to read the entire book. But he begins the chapter in this way.
The main question of our time in ethics is whether moral judgment expresses knowledge or feeling. When we say that happiness or understanding is something worth pursuing for its own sake, are we expressing a belief that is, or may be, true, or are we giving voice to the satisfaction we take in these things? When we say that cruelty is wrong, are we making an assertion, or are we giving utterance to a dislike, an entreaty, or a command? Or are we, perhaps, doing both?
The issue bristles with difficulties, as we shall see. But it is of vast importance, theoretic and practical. It is important in theory because upon its outcome depends the place we assign to value both in knowledge and in the world. Traditionally, three kinds of knowledge have been recognized: knowledge of fact, as in 'this rose is red'; knowledge of necessity, as in '2+3=5'; and knowledge of value, as in 'Gandhi was a good man'. This last class of judgments is very wide for it is not confined to moral matters; judgments of value may express our sense of what is beautiful or ugly, comic or tragic, appropriate or rude, indeed in any way desirable or undesirable. The question currently raised is whether any of these judgments expresses insight or apprehension at all. If they do, what sort of attributes are these of goodness or beauty or rudeness? They seem to be neither sensible qualities nor relations, and even those philosophers who believe there are such attributes are perplexed and divided about them.
Our preference in book reviews is to provide readers with a few characteristic and valuable passages so they can get some sense for themselves of the flavor of the writer's style and concerns. As with other books of Blanshard's, this is unusually difficult to do in the present case, as there's such an embarrassment of riches to select from. It's also difficult to do because the argument is so tightly reasoned that it's hard to provide excepts that are fully meaningful in their own right.
However, here are two representative quotes.
The doctrine of psychological hedonism, that we desire only pleasure, seems always to have been accompanied by ethical hedonism, the doctrine that pleasure is the only good; that one is the real foundation of the other. To see that the first is false is to leave the other baseless. And psychological hedonism is false. It ought to have died once for all of the wounds inflicted on it by [Joseph] Butler. But it seems to be as irrepressible as the phoenix, and has cropped up again and again, to be successively scotched with elegance by Sidgwick, Rashdall, Broad, and many others. For anything I shall say of it here, it may go on with these reincarnations; the criticisms already offered seem to me decisive. We desire to eat food, and not merely to have the pleasure of eating; we desire to hear music, and play games, and understand, not merely to gain satisfaction out of objects and activities themselves indifferent. And if our goods reflect the content of our desires, we see again that those goods are not exhausted in pleasure or satisfaction. They consist of satisfying experiences as wholes.
Perry holds that . . . a thing is good not because of what it is, but because someone happens to like it.
Now it is certain that goodness, in ordinary thought of it, does not sit as loose to things as this. Do we think, to use Bentham's old case, that pushpin becomes as good as poetry if only people like it as much? If two men organize their lives, the one around the game of pushpin and the other around poetry, so that their interest in their respective objects are equally intense, preferential, and inclusive, is it therefore meaningless to question whether the objects they are engrossed in are equally good? I do not think that most people would take this as obvious; I suspect they would take it as untrue. Or supppose that two men devoted themselves, with interests equal in these ways, the one to astronomy or metaphysics, the other to counting and measuring the rocks on a New Hampshire farm; would the knowledge gained, because equal in interest, be regarded as equal in value? Again I do not think so. We seem to have a stubborn conviction that whatever may be the facts of men's interest, some things are worth their devotion and others not, and therefore that our interests should be adjusted to, and appraised by, the goodness, not the other way about.
The conclusion to R&G is found, of course, in its last chapter, The Rational Temper. It is a chapter that provides us with a preliminary elaboration of the themes later found more fully developed in Four Reasonable Men (and, to some extent, in Reason and Belief). The concluding quote is this:
But of two things one can hardly doubt. One is that the rational temper - that is, clearness of vision, justice in thought and act, and the peace which is the harvest of the quiet eye - is an end that men desire too waveringly. The other is that to achieve it would transform life.
Here we have the crux of all of Blanshard's thought - and it must be emphasized that it is a crux that has nothing to do with idealism in the philosophical, ontological sense. Human conduct, to properly achieve its best aims, must be both fully informed, in the sense of being as widely and deeply literate as possible, and carefully thought through, in the sense of being as consistent as possible in light of principle. That this can be done, and to some degree how, Blanshard established once and for all with Four Reasonable Men. Why this should be done he establishes once and for all with Reason and Goodness.
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