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East and West: The Reach of Reason


W.B. Yeats wrote on the margin of his copy of The Genealogy of Morals, “But why does Nietzsche think the night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon?” Nietzsche outlined his skepticism of humanity and presented his chilling vision of the future just before the beginning of the last century—he died in 1900. The events of the century that followed, including world wars, holocausts, genocides, and other atrocities that occurred with systematic brutality, give us reason enough to worry whether Nietzsche’s skeptical view of humanity may not have been right.

Jonathan Glover, an Oxford philosopher, argues in his recent and enormously interesting “moral history of the twentieth century” that we not only must reflect on what has happened in the last century, but also “need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us” and to consider ways and means of “caging and taming them.”1 The end of a century—and of a millennium—is certainly a good moment to engage in critical examinations of this kind. Indeed, as the first millennium of the Islamic Hijri calendar came to an end in 1591-1592 (a thousand lunar years—shorter than solar years—after Mohammed’s epic journey from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD), Akbar, the Mughal emperor of India, engaged in just such a far-reaching scrutiny. He paid particular attention to the relations among religious communities and to the need for peaceful coexistence in the already multicultural India.

Taking note of the denominational diversity of Indians (including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Jews, and others), he laid the foundations of the secularism and religious neutrality of the state, which he insisted must ensure that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.”2 Akbar’s thesis that “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on tradition” is the way to address difficult social problems is a view that has become all the more important for the world today.3

It is striking how little critical assessment of the experience of the millennium took place during its recent worldwide celebration.4 As the century and the second Gregorian millennium came to an end, the memory of the dreadful events that Glover describes with devastating effect did not seem to stir people much; nor was there much detectable interest in the challenging questions that Glover asks. The lights of celebratory glory not only drowned the stars but also the bats and the owls and the insane moon.

Nietzsche’s skepticism about ethical reasoning and his anticipation of difficulties to come were combined with an ambiguous approval of the annihilation of moral authority—“the most terrible, the most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles,” he wrote. Glover argues that we must respond to “Nietzsche’s challenge”: “The problem is how to accept [Nietzsche’s] scepticism about a religious authority for morality while escaping from his appalling conclusions.” This issue is related to Akbar’s thesis that morality can be guided by critical reasoning; in making moral judgments, Akbar argued, we must not make reasoning subordinate to religious command, or rely on “the marshy land of tradition.”

Interest in such questions was particularly strong during the European Enlightenment, which was optimistic about the reach of reason. The Enlightenment perspective has come under severe attack in recent years, and Glover adds his own powerful voice to this reproach.5 He argues that “the Enlightenment view of human psychology” has increasingly looked “thin and mechanical,” and “Enlightenment hopes of social progress through the spread of humanitarianism and the scientific outlook” now appear rather “naive.” Following an increasingly common tendency, Glover goes on to attribute many of the horrors of the twentieth century to the influence of the Enlightenment. He links modern tyranny with that perspective, noting not only that “Stalin and his heirs were in thrall to the Enlightenment,” but also that Pol Pot “was indirectly influenced by it.” But since Glover does not wish to seek solutions through the authority of religion or of tradition (in this respect, he notes, “we cannot escape the Enlightenment”), he concentrates his fire on other targets, such as reliance on strongly held beliefs. “The crudity of Stalinism,” he argues, “had its origins in the beliefs [Stalin held].” This claim is plausible enough, as is Glover’s reference to “the role of ideology in Stalinism.”

However, why is this a criticism of the Enlightenment perspective? It seems a little unfair to put the blame for the blind beliefs of dictators on the Enlightenment tradition, since so many writers associated with the Enlightenment insisted that reasoned choice was superior to any reliance on blind belief. Surely “the crudity of Stalinism” could be opposed, as it indeed was, through a reasoned demonstration of the huge gap between promise and practice, and by showing its brutality—a brutality that the authorities had to conceal through strict censorship. Indeed, one of the main points in favor of reason is that it helps us to transcend ideology and blind belief. Reason was not, in fact, Pol Pot’s main ally. He and his gang of followers were driven by frenzy and badly reasoned belief and did not allow any questioning or scrutiny of their actions. Given the cogency of Glover’s other arguments, there is something deeply puzzling about his willingness to join the fashionable chorus of attacks on the Enlightenment.

There is, however, an important question that emerges from Glover’s discussion on this subject, too. Are we not better advised to rely on our instincts when we are not able to reason clearly because of some hard-to-remove impediments to our critical thinking? The question is well illustrated by Glover’s remarks on a less harsh figure than Stalin or Pol Pot, namely Nikolai Bukharin, who, Glover notes, was not at all inclined to “turn into wood.” Glover writes that Bukharin “had to live with the tension between his human instincts and the hard beliefs he defended.” Bukharin was repelled by the actions of the regime, but the surrounding political climate, combined with his own formulaic thinking, prevented him from reasoning clearly enough about them. This, Glover writes, left him dithering between his “human instincts” and his “hard beliefs,” with no “clear victory for either side.” Glover is attracted by the idea—plausible enough in this case—that Bukharin would have done better to be guided by his instincts. Whether or not we see this as the basis of a general rule, Glover here poses an interesting argument about the need to take account of the situation in which reasoning takes place—and that argument deserves attention (no matter what we make of the alleged criminal tendencies of the Enlightenment).


The possibility of reasoning is a strong source of hope and confidence in a world darkened by horrible deeds. It is easy to understand why this is so. Even when we find something immediately upsetting, or annoying, we are free to question that response and ask whether it is an appropriate reaction and whether we should really be guided by it. We can reason about the right way of perceiving and treating other people, other cultures, other claims, and examine different grounds for respect and tolerance. We can also reason about our own mistakes and try to learn not to repeat them. For example, the Japanese novelist and visionary social theorist Kenzaburo Oë argues powerfully that the Japanese nation, aided by an understanding of its own “history of territorial invasion,” has reason enough to remain committed to “the idea of democracy and the determination never to wage a war again.”6

Intellectual inquiry, moreover, is needed to identify actions and policies that are not evidently injurious but which have that effect. For example, famines can remain unchecked on the mistaken presumption that they cannot be averted through immediate public policy. Starvation in famines results primarily from a severe reduction in the food-buying ability of a section of the population that has become destitute through unemployment, diminished markets, disruption of agricultural activities, or other economic calamities. The economic victims are forced into starvation whether or not there is also a diminution of the total supply of food. The unequal deprivation of such people can be immediately countered by providing employment at relatively low wages through emergency public programs, which can help them to share the national food supply with others in the community.

Famine, like the Devil, takes the hindmost (rarely more than 5 percent of the population is affected—almost never more than 10 percent), and reducing the relative deprivation of destitute people by augmenting their incomes can rapidly and dramatically reduce their absolute deprivation in the amount of food obtained by them. By encouraging critical public discussion of these issues, democracy and a free press can be extremely important in preventing famine. Otherwise, unreasoned pessimism, masquerading as composure based on realism and common sense, can serve to “justify” disastrous inaction and an abdication of public responsibility.7

Similarly, environmental deterioration frequently arises not from any desire to damage the world but from thoughtlessness and lack of reasoned action—separate or joint—and this can end up producing dreadful results.8 To prevent catastrophes caused by human negligence or obtuseness or callous obduracy, we need practical reason as well as sympathy and commitment.

Attacks on ethics based on reason have come recently from several different directions. Apart from the claim that “the Enlightenment view of human psychology” neglects many human responses (as Glover argues), we also hear the claim that to rely primarily on reasoning in the ethics of human behavior involves a neglect of culture-specific influences on values and conduct. People’s thoughts and identities are fairly comprehensively determined, according to this claim, by the tradition and culture in which they are reared rather than by analytical reasoning, which is sometimes seen as a “Western” practice. We must examine whether the reach of reasoning is really compromised either by (1) the undoubtedly powerful effects of human psychology, or (2) the pervasive influence of cultural diversity. Our hopes for the future and the ways and means of living in a decent world may greatly depend on how we assess these criticisms.

Jonathan Glover’s arguments for the need for a “new human psychology” take account of the ways that politics and psychology affect each other. People can indeed be expected to resist political barbarism if they instinctively react against atrocities. We have to be able to react spontaneously and resist inhumanity whenever it occurs. If this is to happen, the individual and social opportunities for developing and exercising moral imagination have to be expanded. We do have moral resources, including, as Glover writes, “our sense of our own moral identity.” But to “function as a restraint against atrocity, the sense of moral identity most of all needs to be rooted in the human responses.” Two responses, Glover argues, are particularly important: “the tendency to respond to people with certain kinds of respect” and “sympathy: caring about the miseries and the happiness of others.” Hope for the future lies in cultivating such responses, and this line of reasoning leads Glover to conclude: “It is to psychology that we should now turn.”

  1. 1

    Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999; forthcoming from Yale University Press, Fall 2000), p. 7. Glover, a leading light in Oxford philosophy for many decades, is also the author of Responsibility (Humanities Press, 1970) and Causing Death and Saving Lives (Penguin, 1977), among other works of note. He is now the Director of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London.

  2. 2

    Translation in Vincent Smith, Akbar: the Great Mogul (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1917), p. 257.

  3. 3

    See Irfan Habib, editor, Akbar and His India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997) for a set of fine essays investigating the beliefs and policies of Akbar as well as the intellectual influences that led him to his heterodox position.

  4. 4

    The last century, however, was subjected to a searching scrutiny by Eric Hobsbawm, a few years before the century and the millennium came to an end, in The Age of Extremes:A History of the World, 1916-1991 (Vintage, 1994). See also Garry Wills, “A Reader’s Guide to the Century,” The New York Review, July 15, 1999.

  5. 5

    See, for example, John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake:Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (Routledge, 1995). See also the perceptive review of this work by Charles Griswold, Political Theory, Vol. 27 (1999), pp. 274-281.

  6. 6

    Kenzaburo Oë, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself (Kodansha, 1995), pp. 118-119.

  7. 7

    I have tried to discuss the causes of famines and the policy requirements for famine prevention in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford University Press, 1981) and, jointly with Jean Drèze, in Hunger and Public Action (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1989). Famine prevention requires diverse policies, among which income creation is immediately and crucially important (for example, through emergency employment in public works programs); but, especially for the long term, they also include expansion of production in general and food production in particular.

  8. 8

    An important collection of perspectives on this is presented in Rajaram Krishnan, Jonathan M. Harris, and Neva R. Goodwin, editors, ASurvey of Ecological Economics (Island Press, 1995). A far-reaching critique of the relationship between institutions and reasoned behavior can be found in Andreas Papandreou, Externality and Institutions (Oxford University Press, 1994).

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