Excerpt From An Inquiry Concerning ‘Reason’

For some enlightenment philosophers (namely, Hume, Locke, and Smith) conformity to ‘Reason” included prioritizing the discovery and observance of widely shared implicit behavioral rules. The justification for giving such rules primacy over those which could be derived from alternative sources – e.g. the creative intellect2 – though not often stated (conceivably owing to its then-axiomatic status3) runs something akin to : their observance causes individuals to profit from what they do not know. Here, we are met only with an abstruse assertion, unless it is understood beforehand that these rules were conceptualized as, roughly speaking, encapsulations of accumulated experience about “what not to do” which had been gradually distilled by our forebears across millenniums. It was the realization of certain disadvantageous behavioral patterns over time – but not the realization of why4 they were disadvantageous – that facilitated the emergence of “what not to do’s.” Thus, in conformity to ‘Reason’, individuals often profitably act in accordance with rules (“what not to do’s) which they do not know the exact reasons for observing. (Sen. 8 Rev. #5)

(1.) Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Penguin Classics – pp. 376

“It is by reason that we discover those general rules of justice by which we ought to regulate our actions.”


Essays on The Law of Nature (1676), Locke

“By reason… I do not think is meant here that faculty of the understanding which forms trains of thought and deduces proofs, but certain definite principles of action from which spring all virtues and whatever is necessary for the proper molding of morals… reason does not so much establish and pronounce this law of nature as search for it and discover it… neither is reason so much the maker of that law as its interpreter.”

(2.) Voltaire, “Dictionnaire philosophique”  (“Laws”), 1764. and, Alexander Herzen, From The Other Shore – London 1956, pp. 28, 141

“If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones.” 


“You want a book of rules, while I think that when one reaches a certain age one ought to be ashamed of having to use one [because] the truly free man creates (?) his own morality…”

(3.) Thomas Jefferson : Writings : Autobiography / Notes on the State of Virginia / Public and Private Papers / Addresses / Letters (Library of America) pp. 742

As Thomas Jefferson remarked in a private letter,

“Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life.” 

In other words, man’s life-span only affords him sufficient time for a limited number of experiences from which he can derive information about himself and his surroundings. 

(4.) There is a species of rationalism whose epistemology demands that all acceptable propositions (including moral ones) must be demonstrably validatable by means of logical deduction from explicitly stated assumptions. This has lead many authors to make conclusions similar to those listed below :

Condorcet (a) and William Godwin (b),

(a) ”everything that beats the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect.”

(b) ” nothing must be sustained, because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regarded it as sacred, or because it has been unusual to bring its validity into question.”


    1. Hello Keziah,

      Since the literature that I own of Chesterton’s is merely a book containing selections of his writings (presumably assembled posthumously) I have only read fragments of The Orthodoxy.

      What did you find most interesting about this particular work?


      1. Not only was he humorous and witty, but a boss with paradoxes!

        For example :

        “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”


  1. Good observations about reason — notice, however, how — contra the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment and the natural law tradition — today’s “behavioral economists” (starting with the work of Tversky & Kahneman) like to denigrate reason by emphasizing our “cognitive quirks” (e.g. confirmation bias, hyperbolic discounting, over-estimation of small probabilities, etc., etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enrique here is where behavioral economists go wrong, not every aspect of our cognition can be concisely explained in a scientific manner. To assume that reason is only the byproduct of the quirks of our cognition is faulty at best. The process of reasoning is centered around how we process and apply information.

      Not every attempt to process and apply information is the sloppy coincidence of a lazy heuristic. This process does have a firm structure, hence why we can either attack an individual’s premise or their reasoning in a debate. Solid facts are only useful if they are applied correctly.

      I understand that you are merely presenting the points of theorists such as Daniel Kahneman. Damn, I would be tempted (or foolish enough) to debate him on that point. If reasoning was as haphazard as he and similar economists/psychologists describe, then reason would be nothing more than a reflex. In my uneducated opinion that seems rather preposterous. Then again, I might be biased by the fact that I want to believe that humans think on a deeper level than merely acting on the flaws of perception and looking for shortcuts.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Thank you sir!

      I have not read much literature by contemporary behavioral economists, so I’m not able to reply with anything intelligible on that point.

      However, I would say that the prevailing philosophical movements nowadays are epistemologically subjective and ethically collectivist/egalitarian. Whereas enlightenment thought was characterized by empiricism and individualism. For people like Locke, human beings are capable of reason and live in an objectively knowable world.

      We’ve definitely come a long way from these conclusions.

      Liked by 2 people

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