Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

Many people within developed western nations believe that if reason is applied consistently we will be able to create the most perfect society imaginable. I call this idea providential rationalism. From the standpoint of providential rationalism it is through rational speech that we are able to overcome conflict between seemingly opposed values and it is through the application of reason that we will be able develop technology that will enable us to truly be masters of our destiny. For the purposes of this entry I will examine the former facet of providential rationalism, while not considering the latter in detail. In particular, I will show that this facet of providential rationalism, let us call it dialogical providential rationalism, is implausible unless one assumes some form of providence. Furthermore, I will argue that that the alternative view that reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the overcoming of value conflict is more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Dialogical providential rationalism rightly points out that when conflicts between seemingly opposed values are overcome, this occurs through the medium of rational speech. Through an exchange of arguments , we come to either see that the conflict between values was really illusory, or that one value is more important on reflection and consequently should take precedence when the two conflict. For example, it might seem that the value of the family is threatened by having the state intervene in family life where this is necessary to ensure a decent level of well-being for the child, as the family is necessarily based on paternal authority, rather than state authority. But on reflection this conflict is only illusory as it seems more plausible to think that the people, through the state, entrust parents with authority over their children on the conditions that the parents adequately provide for their children. However, if the parents break the element of the social contract that requires parents to adequately provide for their children, then the state may intervene because the entire point of parental authority is to secure the proper development of children. Consequently, while there seemed to be a conflict between the family and the rights of children, this conflict is not really a conflict at all. I am not expecting everyone to buy into this particular interpretation of the conflict between the family and the rights of children, rather it is just an example to show how seeming value conflict can be overcome.

However, the problem with dialogical providential rationalism is that it suggests that reason is sufficient to overcome all conflict between values. This seems implausible as there are many conflicts that do not seem to be reconcilable no matter how much we argue about these values. It seems plausible to think that if some reasonable person committed to the belief that equal freedom is the fundamental end of the state, and a reasonable person who believes that happiness is the ultimate end of the state would never come to an agreement about the ultimate end of the state. It is possible that they will be able to convince one another, or come up with an imaginative solution to reconcile their conflict, but it does not seem to be true that if they spoke for long enough they would overcome this conflict. What makes conflict between values so difficult to overcome is that the only way the conflict can be overcome is if the subjects to the disagreement are persuaded by some solution to the conflict. If one party provides a solution to the value conflict, but the other is not persuaded by the solution, then the conflict has not been overcome.

In consideration of the preceding, it seems to only make sense to think that if two reasonable agents reason for long enough about a value conflict, they will be able to overcome the conflict, if we assume that nature or God has structured reason and humanity in such a way that all conflicts can be reconciled with the application of enough rational speech. Furthermore, what is the belief that God or nature has made it so that reason can overcome all value conflicts, but a belief in a providential universe? Consequently, it seems that dialogical providential rationalism depends on the assumption of providence. Of course it is true that when we look back at history we see that seemingly opposed conflicts between values have been overcome, but this only suggests that reason has overcome some value conflicts, not that reason can overcome all value conflicts. Thus, this fact does nothing to damage the argument I have put forth. It should be noted that I am not arguing that providence is an implausible belief, but that dialogical providential rationalism assumes that we live in a providential universe.

The alternative that I would put forth to dialogical providential rationalism is that reason aids humans in overcome conflict between values, but that reason is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for the overcoming of such conflict. But if reason is only a necessary condition for the overcoming of conflict between values, then some other element is necessary to overcome conflict between values. The other element is inspiration or imagination. This is made clear because in order to overcome conflict one must be possessed by something like, artistic inspiration, or imagination, in that the agents engaged in dialogue must imaginatively go beyond their current understanding of the values to reconcile the conflict. If the agents just reiterate arguments in favour of one value within the conflict, it is highly unlikely that the conflict will be overcome. But, if they are inspired and imaginatively reconcile the insights behind the conflicting values, then the value conflict may be overcome.

In many ways the overcoming of value conflict is like the creation of music, rather than the building of a house according to a blueprint. In creating music one cannot just decide that at 3:00PM one will write a piece of music, rather inspiration strikes and you are able to create something beautiful and unique. And when inspiration strikes is a matter of fortune rather than human control. Likewise, with value conflict simple rational argument is not sufficient to overcome the conflict, rather the agents must be struck by some kind of inspiration that enables them to see beyond their current understanding of the values to an understanding that is deeply convincing to all subjects of the disagreement, but yet overcomes the conflict. Furthermore, like with musical inspiration the imagination required to overcome value conflict is something that one is struck by, rather than something that one controls. Consequently, reason is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for the reconciliation of value conflict, and over and above reason what enables value conflict to be reconciled is being struck by inspiration. The alternative that I have put forth seems plausible as it recognizes that reason is the only tool that humans are in control of that can assist them in overcoming value conflict, but it also recognizes the limits of reason in facilitating the reconciliation of value conflict. Therefore, the alternative I have put forth seems to be more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Reason is an amazing capacity of human beings, and it has great value. For example, it can help us to better understand others and learn from them. But we need to clearly understand its limits so that we do not turn reason into an idol that can solve all of our problems. Reason may be a less dangerous idol, than others, but when it is transformed into an idol, it still poses great dangers.


5 thoughts on “Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

  1. This is a very interesting and thought-provoking essay. Although your thoughts on imagination are compelling and original, I want to comment just on one point of your argument that:

    1. Value conflicts are either resolvable by reasonable dialogue alone, or they are not.
    2. If value conflicts are resolvable by reasonable dialogue alone then the epistemic guarantee of reason is provided by providence.
    3. If value conflicts are not resolvable by reasonable dialogue alone then value conflicts are likely resolved by reason in conjunction with imagination.

    As I noted above, I won’t tend to premise 3, as I think you make a good argument for said premise. Nevertheless, where I do take issue is premise 2; I don’t see how the consequent follows from the antecedent. Your argument seems to be that if reason can provide the answer to every value conflict then there must be something supernatural about reason. But where is the cut-off where we think reason does not provide enough solutions to have supernatural backing? If reasoning alone solves value conflicts 99% of the time it would seem an insult to say such a faculty is by providence (I dunno though, I’m not religious). Is the difference between a 99% and 100% rate of value conflict resolution really vast enough to make it necessary to bring in theological explanations?

    Why is it so strange that reason should be able to resolve value conflicts when we hold the values that we do, when they are reasonable, because of reason? If I hold a value reasonably (and not arbitrarily due to acceptance of brute fact) then I have been convinced by the value of a certain state of affairs or set of actions because of my reasoning about the reasons in favor of x. If so, then further reasoning, such as through dialogue, may show me to be correct or in error for holding that value, and so on and so forth for all values, such that value conflicts should be seen to be resolvable by reason alone.

    • Thanks for your insightful comments.

      I was not trying to suggest anything necessarily supernatural by the term providence. Rather, one could have a naturalistic conception of providence in which natural laws are such that over time reason will reconcile all value conflict. This is of course a secularization of the concept of providence, but I still think it is intelligible and plausible as it points to the way in which both the religious believer in providence and the nonreligious believer in secularized providence believe that over time things will work out. Although some might object to such a reinterpretation of providence.

      However, you are right that there is an issue with my argument in that it is conceptually possible to believe that reason can reconcile all value conflict without believing in providence. However there would be need to be some other ground for this belief, and I struggle to find this other ground, although the probabilistic argument you put forth is one example of such a plausible ground. I made the mistake of supposing that the fact that many people tend to ground their belief that reason can reconcile all value conflict in a belief in providence, whether naturalistic or supernatural, with the fact that individuals necessarily have to ground a belief that reason can reconcile all value conflict. This is just an elementary logical error on my part.

      I think incommensurability creates the difficulty and so makes it questionable to think that simple rational speech could overcome all value conflicts. For most value conflicts there is enough common ground that participants can appeal to criteria that both accept in order to adjudicate the conflict. However, when values are more deeply opposed such as the conflict between someone defending the christian virtues of hope, charity, chastity and faith against someone defending a utilitarian worldview, there are very few common criteria if any to appeal to in the argument. In this case simply arguing based on the reasons that ground one’s worldview would be insufficient to solve the conflict, as what counts as a reason in favour of the value for one party would not necessarily count as a reason for the other. For example, a utilitarian would think that increasing pleasure would be a reason to support utilitarian policy, but it is not clear if this would be a compelling reason for our christian defender of faith, hope, chastity and charity. In such a situation it is only by coming up with some new way of understanding the values at stake that captures the insight and reasons behind both values that the conflict can be overcome.

      Once again thanks for your insightful comments. I appreciate them, and I hope I have cleared up the arguments I was trying to make.

    • On reflection this blog entry and my previous comment are wrong to suggest that reason is unable to reconcile all value conflict. For even if we are dealing with the most opposed values there is still a chance that someone can be convinced by the reasons presented by the other. Rather, what I was trying to say was that if conflicting values are deeply incommensurable and the parties share very little common ground, it is highly unlikely that reason will be able to reconcile the conflict, for the reasons that I have posted in my previous comment. In such cases it is probably better to approach these conflicts with the recognition that it is highly unlikely that, on its own, reason will allow us to overcome the conflict, and that imagination in conjunction with reason will give us a better shot at reconciling such conflicts.

      Once again thanks again for your interesting and insightful comments. They have certainly helped me to better articulate my position on this subject.

      • Thanks for the kind words; it has been my pleasure to comment on your well-articulated and original ideas on an interesting subject.

        I can certainly agree with this statement: “If conflicting values are deeply incommensurable and the parties share very little common ground, it is highly unlikely that reason will be able to reconcile the conflict”.

  2. Pingback: The Incommensurability of Values (and objectivity, subjectivity, and reason) | ausomeawestin

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