Published Humanitas, Volume XXVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2015

In “How Desperate Should We Be?” Claes Ryn argues that “morality” in modern societies is generally understood to be a form of moral rationalism, a matter of applying preconceived moral principles to particular situations in much the same way one talks of “pure” and “applied” geometry. Ryn finds a number of pernicious consequences to follow from this rationalist model of morals. First, the purity of the principles, untainted by the particularities of tradition, creates a great distance between what the principles demand and what is possible in actual experience. The iridescent beauty and demands of the moral ideal distract the mind from what is before experience. The practical barriers to idealistically demanded change are occluded from perception, and what realistically can and ought to be done is dismissed as insufficient. And “moral indignation is deemed sufficient”to carry the day in disputes over policy.

Further, the destruction wrought by misplaced idealistic change is not acknowledged to be the result of bad policy but is ascribed to insufficient effort or to wicked persons or groups who have derailed it. A special point Ryn wants to make is that, “One of the dangers of moral rationalism and idealism is that they set human beings up for desperation. Especially in unanticipated and highly charged situations . . . [they] leave people disoriented.” Matters can become so complex, unstable, and tense that they threaten simply to overwhelm the abstract ideal. Ryn concludes: “Because it disarms, confuses, and discourages attempts to make the best of real situations, there is even warrant for calling this idealism immoral.”

I agree with the substance of Ryn’s criticism of moral rationalism, and wish only to add two amendments which might strengthen the case. First, is “immoral” the best way to describe the “idealism” of moral rationalism? I suggest the pathology is best thought of as an ontological disorder rather than a moral one—though, of course, moral disorder follows as a consequence. Second, if the disorder is ontological, then the problem is not the use of “ideals” as such but the ontological disorder itself which need not have an ideal character. Finally, I would like to make these two points by working through David Hume’s critique of rationalism both because it is insightful and because it is little known.

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