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.

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Extrinsic Motivation: Recognition and Monetary Value

I want to consider to what degree rewarding people with money or honours for doing some admirable act is problematic. Rewarding someone with money or honours is a form of extrinsic motivation. To be clear, acting from an extrinsic motivation means being motivated to perform an action by virtue of gaining some reward or avoiding some punishment external to the action performed. This can be contrasted with intrinsic motivation in which one is motivated to perform the act by the nature of the act itself, rather than some reward or punishment.

One reason why extrinsic motivations are problematic has been made clear by Michael Sandel, among others. This stream of criticism argues that when extrinsic motivation takes on a monetary form it will tend to crowd out intrinsic motivations. Consequently, if we pay children to read, the intrinsic motivations to read will be crowded out by the extrinsic motivation for money, such that children will only read if they are paid. Thus the way that extrinsic motivation crowds out intrinsic motivation is problematic as the effect of this “crowding out” is that people seems to be blind to the intrinsic value of an activity and reduce it to a means of making money.

If this criticism applies to monetary extrinsic motivations, there is no reason why it would not apply to non-monetary extrinsic motivations. For example, if we decided to give children awards and social prestige for reading, this too would tend to crowd out intrinsic motivation as children begin to only read if they receive recognition and prestige for doing so. Thus, if we are troubled by the negative effects of monetary extrinsic motivations, we also have reason to be troubled by the use of non-monetary extrinsic motivations.

The preceding raises many questions about a variety of social practises, but one that I would like to highlight is the use of grades. Grades are both a measure to see how well someone has understood the material for a course, and an extrinsic motivator. Many people take great pride in getting good grades, and strive to get their A, because of the positive recognition that getting the A confers. As a result the formal practise of grading may tend to crowd out the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake, as people only learn when they get the positive reinforcement and recognition that is associated with getting a grade. If this is the case then the practises of most educational institutions are pushing aside the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake.

However, the non-monetary extrinsic motivation that grades present is less problematic than a form of monetary extrinsic motivation as monetary extrinsic motivations have no connection to the meaning of education, whereas grades have a substantial connection to the meaning of education. Getting an “A” in a course can signify one, some or all of the following: diligence, intelligence, being knowledgeable, attentiveness and industriousness. All of these values are related to education. We educate ourselves to become more intelligent and knowledgeable, and we must recognize that being truly committed to educating ourselves requires that we are diligent, attentive and industrious, as there is always more we can learn. Therefore, those who are motivated by the extrinsic motivation of grades want to be seen as being intelligent, knowledgeable, industrious, attentive and diligent. Now while their desire is still only to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable etc. The fact that they want to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable shows that they esteem these values, and if they esteem these values they are more likely to esteem the value of education on its own account, because if someone esteems the value of being knowledgeable they are likely to see the quest for knowledge as something that is valuable on its own account. Thus, while this extrinsic motivation may crowd out intrinsic motivation it can also reinforce intrinsic motivation because the meaning of the extrinsic motivation is related to the intrinsic value of education. Consequently, we can see someone quite effortlessly going from being motivated to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable and diligent, to being motivated to possess these qualities as they are a constitutive element of what it means to be an educated person.

On the other hand, a person who was motivated to do well in school in order to get money does not necessarily esteem any value that is associated or connected with education. Consequently, in this particular case, while grades and monetary rewards can both crowd out intrinsic motivations, money is a much more problematic extrinsic motivation as it has a much stronger tendency to crowd out intrinsic motivation as there is no connection between having lots of money and valuing education. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but valuing one will not tend to ensure that one values the other.

The preceding tells us that non-monetary extrinsic motivation can help support, and will not necessarily, crowd out intrinsic motivation. However, this is only so when the meaning of the non-monetary extrinsic motivation is connected with the meaning of the goods intrinsic to the practise. If we gave someone a non-monetary award for doing well in a skiing competition and this award suggested that they were generous and kind, this would certainly crowd out intrinsic motivation as the award has no connection to the particular excellences of skiing. But, if the award signified that they were a fair competitor and that their landings were very clean this could tend to reinforce intrinsic motivations associated with skiing. Thus, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has a meaning that is connected with the excellences intrinsic to a particular practise it will not necessarily crowd out the intrinsic motivations of that practises. Contrastingly, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has no relation to the meaning of the practise then it will crowd out intrinsic motivation.

In light of the fact that post-industrial liberal democracies rely on monetary and non-monetary extrinsic motivation we must necessarily be careful to ensure that these do not crowd out intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, if we have to use extrinsic motivation we should rely more heavily on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that relate to the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment, and avoid spreading monetary extrinsic motivation into all spheres, or relying on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that do not connect with the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment. If intrinsic motivation is crowded out our practises become less enlivening and rich and as a consequence our own excellences will be degraded.

Do businesspeople make good political representatives?

In the context of liberal democratic politics, a candidate running for election often suggests that they are qualified to be a political representative because of their experience as a businessperson. This idea is problematic as the qualities required to be effective in business are distinct from those required to be an effective representative. Similarly, the fact that many people think that the qualities that ensure success in business will ensure that one is an effective political representative is problematic, as it embodies a failure to understand the differences between the purposes and practise of politics and the purposes and practises of business.

The qualities of an effective businessperson and an effective representative differ greatly. The businessperson must work with others, but their goal is singular, given and not amenable to differences of interpretation. That goal is to make the greatest profit that they possibly can for the company that they own, or work for. The goal is singular as there is only one goal. The goal is given as the goal of business is not something that is up for debate; it is inherent to the practise of business itself that its fundamental goal is profit.  The goal is not amenable to differences of interpretation as profit has a single meaning, and it would be bizarre if someone said they disagreed with another person’s interpretation of profit. Consequently, the businessperson is someone who must work to figure out the best means to maximize a goal that is singular, given and not amenable to interpretation.

Contrastingly, the activity of the representative consists in participating in self-government and what the goals of self-government are is up for debate, and the goals of self-government tend to open to differences of interpretation. That the goals of self-government are up for debate becomes clear in that, within a democratic context, different groups contest what goals the government should be promoting. Some tend to favour the promotion of economic growth, while others wish to promote social equity, and other wish to promote individual self-development. There is no obvious, unquestionable goal, or set of goals, that can be taken as the only thing that government should pursue.  Likewise, even the nature of the goals of government themselves are up for debate. Parties of the right and parties of the left in post-industrial countries tend to both see themselves as supporting the goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But those on the right see equality of opportunity as involving ensuring that there are no legal blockages that prevent people from accessing an opportunity, whereas those on the left tend to see equality of opportunity as requiring a more substantive redistribution of wealth to ensure that the life chances of the less well-off are equivalent to the life chances of the affluent.  In this sense being a political representative requires not only speaking with others about the means to a given end, but also conversing about which particular interpretation of a particular end it makes sense for government to pursue.

It should be noted that while it is plausible to think that self-government has a single goal; it is also plausible to think that self-government has several goals. For example, we might be concerned with fostering social solidarity and community, as well as supporting economic growth. But for the purposes of this blog, I will be agnostic as to whether self-government has one goal or many.

Taking the preceding into account it seems deeply implausible to think that someone who is an effective businessperson will also necessarily be an effective political representative. The goals of business and the goals of self-government differ in quality, and thus in order to be an effective representative one must be able to work with others to make salient points in favour of ends that serve one’s consituent’s interest, and be able to work with one’s equals to come up with a fair compromises to deal with pressing problems. Unfortunately, businesspeople often have neither of these abilities as working in business often does not require one to work with one’s equals as the chain of command in business tends to negate the possibility of having to work with someone who is not one’s inferior or superior. Likewise, businesspeople are not used to articulating why a particular end should be pursued, as this requires a deeply refined understanding of goods (values) and the ability to persuade others of what ends should be pursued, and working in business does not develop these traits. A business person might be able to tell us how to most efficiently bill people for use of public transit, but they have no privilege in claiming that they have a better understanding of the degree to which public transit should be endorsed and supported, than those who are not businesspeople.

What does it say about liberal democracies that if a candidate claims to be a businessperson they are automatically viewed as more qualified to be a political representative by many? It says that the many in this case have failed to understand the difference between politics and business, and are reducing politics to economics, or that the many think that businesspeople will be more effective at getting the government to do what they want. In the former case we have a problem because if politics is reduced to economics in the popular consciousness than we fail to understand that political decisions can undermine certain goods, or give certain goods a preeminence they have never seen before, and if we lose our understanding of this than we cannot adequately take account of all that is at stake in political decision making. If we do not take account of all that is at stake in political decisions than we cannot effectively reflect upon and take responsibility for the decisions that are being made.  In the latter case, we still have a problem because if we merely see our representatives as those that can get the government to do what we want, than we have reduced politics to a war by other means, in which case the common interest could never be adequately served.