Many leftwing activists today claim that reason itself is merely a tool that the patriarchy uses to oppress minorities. If this were the case, we might wonder: upon what basis do leftists justify their own political program?
Of course, when we watch a video clip of a protester rebutting a logical challenge to his or her cause by attacking reason, we are witnessing the heat of battle. In the heat of impassioned political battles, it is often the case that political activists fight by hurling slogans at their foes. (Democratic politics is not a game of chess; it is hand to hand combat.) Even if a particular political slogan sounds ridiculous to anyone who is not already attracted to whichever side is hurling it, it might still represent a complex idea that those who hurl it have heard rehearsed and that, even if they cannot reproduce its steps flawlessly, they understand. The Left’s claim that reason is a tool of the patriarchy is just such a slogan. Despite its apparently self-defeating logic, it condenses one of the pillars of postmodernism.
Postmodernists claim that human beings are social constructs. They claim that, in order to make humanity happy, we need to construct society so that it will construct human beings in a more preferable way. For them, then, reason is useful as a tool for constructing social, economic and political structures that support their sense of egalitarianism. This reflects, however, their belief that reason is valid within a certain domain. The question, then, becomes: what, for them, determines the borders of this domain?
If, for argument’s sake, we were to accept the claim that society constructs human beings, we might notice that this claim implies the need to decide how society ought to construct human beings. Many belief systems have addressed such an ought throughout human history—i.e., Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. For our purposes, it is important to notice that reason which intends to discover the ought is different from reason that intends to enact it.
In the case of reason that enacts an ought, the ought is already conceived of at the beginning. In this setting the job of reason is simply to follow the guiding line of its ought. In the case of reason that discovers an ought, however, it is not even clear how to begin.
In order to determine an ought, a person must have an idea of the good. For example, if someone were to say, “I ought to keep myself in good shape,” that ought would depend upon this person’s conviction that strength was better than weakness, health better than unhealthiness. The conviction, however, that strength and health are good and that weakness and unhealthiness are bad depends upon some prior notion: that self-reliance, that being able to aid people in distress or that the prolongation of life itself, for example, is good. At this juncture, most people would say, “Isn’t it obvious that these things are good?” Perhaps it is, but the important point here is that in this application, “obvious” means the same thing as self-evident.
When we attempt to use reason to uncover the ultimate good that determines all our oughts, we invariably lead ourselves back to a supposition or, if you like, a presupposition that is not itself deducible from within the rational system we use to discover it. Just as Euclidean geometry, for example, begins by asserting postulates—i.e., that parallel lines will never meet, that a point is that which has no part, etc.—all moral systems begin with axioms.
For the Left this means that knowledge of the good is impossible. Reason does not, in other words, discover what is good; it can only follow a supposition, a feeling about what one believes the good to be. According to this way of thinking, then, reason can only enact an ought, which is, in turn, only a subjectively-held ought, and this opinion ends up being decisive.
If all society is organized rationally according to an ought but if all oughts are subjective, this means that reason is ultimately a tool of unreason. The Left’s subjective preference for egalitarianism guides its use of reason to pursue an egalitarian future. The Right’s equally subjective preference for a particular hierarchy—in concrete terms, the patriarchy—guides its use of reason to defeat the Left’s pursuit of an egalitarian future. So goes the theory, at any rate, and cognizance of it can teach us at least a couple valuable lessons.
First, according to the Left’s own conception of the matter, reason is valid when it is acting within a belief system, so if we intend to challenge people enamored with the Left on a logical level, we need to think carefully about self-contradictions that are self-contradictory within their own ideology. Second, since, however, the Left ultimately sees reason as the tool of unreason, we must think much more carefully about the wisdom of challenging leftists on a logical level.
Although we mentioned it above in the context of the heat of political battle, it is not merely in the heat of political battle that people act according to slogans. A slogan is merely a crass manifestation of what we usually call judgments, and most of us make most of our decisions most of the time on the basis of judgments that we already hold. With most of our judgments, we have read a book, listened to a lecture, taken a class, watched a movie or in some other way experienced the thinking through of a certain matter and arrived at a conclusion. Once our conclusions are in place, however, we tend not to think through matters from start to finish every time we face them. Instead, we tend to apply the conclusions we already hold, our already existing judgments, in order to resolve matters as they arise. In this way our judgments tend to take on lives of their own.
Even though, then, what lies behind the Left’s claim that reason is a tool of the patriarchy is a complex argument that depends upon different domains of reason, etc., once a rehearsal of the reasoning behind that claim condenses into a judgment for the person who accepts it, he or she will tend not to analyze the domain of a logical statement but will, instead, begin to sort statements according to whether they support or contradict his or her belief system, his or her ideology. Statements of ideological allies, statements that support his or her understanding become defined as within the valid domain of reason. Statements that come from political foes, statements that point out the irrationality of his or her ideology become weapons of the patriarchy.
In the end although the slogan is supposed to condense a more sophisticated idea, an idea that might still leave room for debate, it degrades into the sum total of its words. And this means that the political activists who take it up degrade from free citizens engaging in a civil discussion into a mob that merely demands and demands that its demands be fulfilled…without any sense of the burden of justifying them. In the end that there is a more sophisticated idea behind it does not matter: the claim that reason is merely a tool of the patriarchy is giving birth to an urban mob in America.