the imaginative conservative logo


Of the perennial debates in political theory, perhaps none is more enduring or contentious than that regarding the extent of power that human beings possess over their political and social order. This question is as old as political philosophy itself, with Plato taking up the question of the best society in his Republic. Since then, the debate has raged: How much can humans know about the society that is “best?” Can we know what true, unmitigated justice looks like? Can we know unequivocally what a perfect society would look like? And—another question still—even if we can know these things, can we build a society that would embody them?

Deeply rooted in how one responds to these questions are assumptions about philosophical anthropology, about epistemology, about ethics, and about the efficacy of human action. As Isaiah Berlin has put it in his Two Concepts of Liberty, our answers to these questions are “bound up with our conception of man, and of the basic demands of his nature…. Our solution of such problems is based on our vision, by which we are consciously or unconsciously guided.”[i] Broadly speaking, there are two camps—or two visions—from which most people will answer these questions. One camp sees human reason as powerful, and human nature as malleable (that is, non-existent).[ii] The other sees human reason as weak, and human nature as real and more or less fixed. More granularly, the former camp tends to view human nature as basically good, and perfectible. The latter tends to view human nature as basically corrupted and divided against itself, always capable of both good and evil. Hence, the former tends to hold great hope for the possible prospect of employing human reason to build a perfect society, in which humans have been altered to the point that they no longer have evil (defined as anti-social) tendencies. The latter, on the other hand, is skeptical about the power of human reason to ascertain all the relevant considerations to build social and political structures from scratch, and, even if it could, human nature is such that it does not admit to perfection: Social problems will always be with us.

the Founders the constitution and public adminIn his book The Founders, The Constitution, and Public Administration: A Conflict in World Views, Michael W. Spicer addresses this division.[iii] The former camp he refers to as “rationalist,” and the latter he dubs “anti-rationalist.” While not without problems, this analytic rubric is helpful in defining broadly the two camps I have been describing. Mr. Spicer classifies as “rationalists” those who “emphasize a priori reasoning” as well as “positivists, utilitarians, pragmatists, and even idealists” (Spicer, 15). While these schools of thought vary widely on particulars, they hold in common a “faith in the power, or at least the potential power, of reason to order human affairs” (Spicer, 16). Representatives of the rationalist world view, according to Mr. Spicer, include such diverse thinkers as “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Antoine-Nicholas de Condorcet, G.W. Hegel, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey” (Spicer, 15). Mr. Spicer notes that “rationalists distrust ideas derived from customs and traditions,” and customs and traditions “are seen as impediments to obtaining true knowledge and must be swept aside” (Spicer, 14). This is because these customs and traditions are developed over long periods of time, unguided by reason, or at least not wholly guided by reason.[iv] They contain prejudices which, unpurged, dispose humans to act in ways that are not in accordance with reason, or at least “reason” defined in a particular—and particularly narrow—way. In fact, it is these irrational practices that corrupt what would otherwise be unspoiled human beings, according to the rationalist account. Hence, in order to perfect human nature, these irrational practices must be rooted out to make way for new, rational man. Once this work is done, humans can apply their reason to build a perfect society that, in turn, will produce perfect, uncorrupted human beings. This idea is reflected in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense when he asserts that no “generation has a property in the generations which are to follow… Those who have quitted the world, and those not yet arrived in it, are as remote from each other as the utmost stretch of moral imagination can conceive…. What possible obligation can consist between them?” In other words, customs and traditions handed down are not binding on present generations, and are likely to be detrimental if allowed to influence the present.

The anti-rationalist point of view, as mentioned above, holds a certain skepticism about the power of reason. Thinkers Mr. Spicer associates with this point of view include John Locke, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke (Spicer, 21). These anti-rationalist thinkers “present a much more skeptical and constrained view of men and women and their ability to control their environment” (Spicer, 24). They “see the world, particularly the world of human affairs, as simply too complex and hence too unpredictable for any one mind, however wise, to comprehend and control” (Spicer, 20). The anti-rationalist view holds that, because humans are intrinsically and incorrigibly prone to failings, only so much improvement can be effected on human beings. On this understanding, human nature is radically imperfect—and imperfectible—and to the extent that it is predictable, it can be counted on to act in self-serving and irrational ways. Hence, institutions, customs, and traditions become important because they constrain what would otherwise be the baser tendencies of our nature. To the limited extent to which political regimes can be constructed, they must anticipate and account for this tendency, by building in mechanisms to check abuses of power. Government, on this account, is minimalist, serving to restrain, not reform, human nature.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke, mentioned by Mr. Spicer as an example of this sort of anti-rationalist thinker, defends these inherited customs and traditions against the rationalist assaults of the French Jacobins, as well as his sometime interlocutor Thomas Paine, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Burke, philosophy is best used in this sort of defense, rather than in the debunking of prejudices and customs. In Reflections he states that “many of [England’s] men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast [it] away… and leave nothing but the naked reason.” In other words, while unaided reason is unable to ascertain the requirements for building a legitimate political order and a functioning society, the prejudices and customs developed over time contain a certain reason—and, what’s more, a “latent wisdom”—of their own, and which can be ascertained when examined with a sympathetic eye.

Adam Smith, also mentioned by Mr. Spicer as representative of this school of thought, largely agrees with Burke’s assessment of the importance of habit and custom, and expands this idea into the economic realm something akin to what Edmund Burke does in the political realm. He notes that “the difference between… a philosopher and a porter… seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.” In other words, the reason of the philosopher is not something handed down through and accessible by brute nature, at least not directly. Rather, habits, customs—along with education, of course—make it possible for men to form their reason (the only way it can be properly accessed), and hence must be treated with respect, lest “reason” cease to function in men at all. In the same way, Smith holds that economic systems are best left undisturbed by attempts to rationalize them by any single mind, or small group of minds. Rather, Smith holds that order will emerge though no one directs it. He says that “by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of greatest value, [humans intend] their own gain… [but they end up being] led by an invisible hand to promote and end which was no part of their intention.”[v] Hence, for Smith, economic order, like political order for Burke, contains “latent wisdom,” and hidden reason. Undirected, it nevertheless orders itself through the great mass of humans interacting over time.

These competing tendencies, then, constitute a significant portion of the debates that consume American political discourse, and much of political discourse in the West generally. Again, these distinctions are not perfect: There are many permutations and divisions within each, and few individuals perfectly represent either school; most thinkers combine elements of each. Still, at the heart of the matter concerning human nature and epistemology rests this divide. And, while both views have modern representatives, it is the former view—the rationalist view—that holds sway in the modern world. This is largely due to its deference to and compatibility with modern science, and particularly modern scientism; that is, the view that only science and scientific rationality produces knowledge. This is compatible with the rationalist world view insofar as it looks to reason—a particular conception of reason—to provide answers for every question posed by humans. This, of course, lends itself to, by extrapolation, the idea that human societies may be perfected—and with them, human beings—by the proper application of scientific reason.

James C. Scott discusses this danger in an essay entitled “State Simplifications: Nature, Space and People.” “Aspirations for the ‘rational’ organization of society and nature, Mr. Scott asserts, “have nearly always outstripped the actual capacity for planning and control”.[vi] Scott calls the ideology that asserts that nature and society can be controlled through the application of scientific techniques “high modernism,” and, in conjunction with a belief in the unrestrained use of power and a “prostrate civil society which lacks the capacity to resist,” that use of power, leads to the building of “(dis)utopias.” The examples he lists are numerous, but the constant thread he points to is the “progressive” tendency to “want to bring about huge, often utopian, changes in people’s habits, work, living patterns, moral conduct, and world view. They want these changes urgently enough that they are willing to bring them about by the only institutional mechanism powerful enough to enforce them: namely, the state.” High modernism, then, is a “strong version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress associated with the process of industrialization in Western Europe and North America.”  Clearly this point of view—high modernism—correlates with the “rationalist” view explicated by Mr. Spicer.

The contrasting view, conservatism, given its more restrained vision, is, according to Scott “rarely prone to such calamities of hubris…. [It] do[es] not require huge utopian changes which necessitate turning society upside down to create new collectivities, new cities, new family and group loyalties, and new people.” This view, akin to Mr. Spicer’s “anti-rationalism,” serves as a foil to the “high modernist” view, insofar as it offers a critique of the over-confidence in science and technological progress to solve all possible problems, including political and social problems. These views enjoyed some popularity in the mid-to-late eighteenth century (the representatives that Mr. Spicer points to are nearly all from that period), though they were largely eclipsed in the early nineteenth century through the early twentieth century due to a renewed faith in the possibilities of scientific progress.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

While rationalist views were ascendant for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, events such as World Wars I and II served to re-introduce doubt about the real possibilities of infinite progress toward perfection. After World War II, certain strands of thought began to develop which were critical of this rationalist world view. One took the form of a revitalized conservatism, in the mold of Edmund Burke in thinkers like Russell Kirk and those represented in the American post-war conservative intellectual movement[vii]; the other took the form of a “post-modern” critique, which sought to relativize and historicize these notions of “progress” and call into question this strong faith in reason espoused by the rationalist vision. While these two critiques had significant differences in terms of foundations, their common enemy led to some overlap, as is evidenced, for example, by Mr. Scott’s favorably citing the work of post-modernist philosopher Michel Foucault for analyzing “the scientific rationale for… micro-interventions in personal life” of the sort required by these rationalistic visions of social and political order.

The rationalistic vision gained a significant amount of traction by purporting to advance the application of “scientific” knowledge to social and political problems. Part of this entails the assumption of a so-called “fact-value distinction”—that is, the idea that science can be understood as bracketing value judgements, and dealing only in “facts.” Any social science worth the name, it was thought, would refuse to pontificate on moral questions, sticking only to the facts.

There is, of course, some merit to the idea that scientific inquiry should limit the influence of normative judgement on its findings. As Alan Wolfe, writing several years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the revival of moral inquiry in the social science, has noted, “Something was gained when students of the human condition were able to separate their values from their scholarship: trust.”[viii] That is, when ideological value judgments too strongly influence the work of scholars, there can develop a certain skepticism regarding the reliability of that scholar’s work. “We must have confidence that those who conduct a study or assemble data are doing so honestly,” Mr. Wolfe suggested, “and grinding axes is not the best guarantee of honesty.” A certain analytic detachment supplies the foundation for what some call a “hermeneutic of trust,” or a method of reading and engaging that assumes good faith on the part of interlocutors. Without this, a “hermeneutic of suspicion” reigns—and in such a condition, discourse becomes all but impossible. A precondition of discourse is that we be able to engage each other in ways that take each seriously.

Hence, while James C. Scott is correct to point out that Michel Foucault’s analyses of power and “scientific rationale” are helpful in deflating scientific hubris, explaining all social relations and all knowledge in terms of power structures destroys the possibility of trust, and with it, the possibility of genuine discourse. As Wolfe states

The triumph of post structuralism and relativism in the humanities indicates just what disasters can occur if we leave the distinction between facts and values too far behind. The Foucauldian notion that all knowledge is an expression of power leaves us in a world of anarchic relativism and suspicion. If we move too far in that direction, social science could become an impossibility… In a society in which we expect businessmen, political parties, and single-issue groups to be self-interested, we need a social science based on trust.

However, Wolfe’s overall point in the essay is that, to a certain extent, morality cannot be fully bracketed from the study of the human condition; in a certain sense, humans are radically and fundamentally moral beings in the very way in which we experience the world. Indeed, even the ideal of objectivity has a moral component in the sense that that is an ideal. As Wolf puts it “we can think of objectivity as something like a virtue: an ideal that we ask people to strive for. But the minute we consider it in that light, we realize that the quest for objectivity is itself a moral quest.” Hence, it would appear that morality goes all the way down. If this is true, then bracketing morality completely is impossible, and any attempt to do so can only result in self-delusion. This does not, however, mean that a measure of objectivity is impossible, as post-modern relativists such as Foucault assume. Rather, “one can be objective when one has confidence in one’s own moral commitments—for then one understands how others have confidence in their own commitments.” If Wolfe is correct, then, objectivity does not consist in ridding oneself of all moral commitments whatsoever. Rather, it consists in being very clear with oneself and others about one’s moral commitments, the better to engage in dialogue with empathy and trust. Ultimately, any study of humanity that fails to take into account large swaths of human experience cannot be considered sufficient to explain—much less understand—the human condition, and human beings as they are: “meaning-producing, symbol-interpreting, morality-making creatures.”

In the final analysis, then, it seems that the choice between an understanding of human beings as fundamentally rational or one and understanding of them as fundamentally irrational may be a false one, if construed too narrowly. Human beings are both rational and irrational, and, as such, possess some power over their world, though it is ultimately quite limited. There are pre-rational intuitions of the world that color our concepts, and, given that we are always historically and geographically situated, we cannot help but see things through the lenses provided by those contingencies. However, we do possess the faculty of reason, which allows us some critical distance from our contingencies, however limited. A both/and approach that understands humans as both contingent and rational, capable of both objectivity and morality, and so forth, is needed for good social science, as well as good humanities (which are more closely related than many scientistic constructs of social science care to admit). Human beings are infinitely and irreducibly complex beings, and any attempt to reduce that complexity fails to capture the fullness of the human condition; indeed, it is quite literally dehumanizing.

Family at the CrossThe elements that comprise civil society, that is, those mediating institutions that stand between the cold rationality of law and the isolated individual, then, are crucial for humanizing political communities. It is in these institutions—families, churches, civic groups—that our moral imaginations are formed. It is in the give-and-take of market exchange that we come to learn the value of work, and the meaning of providing for the needs of others in ways that are mutually beneficial. Any attempt to root out these institutions in order to “rationalize” a political order can only end in disaster, because it strikes at the very root of what it means to be human. A humane political order takes persons, in all their complexity, into account, and aims at flourishing for the whole human person; anything less is unworthy of humans.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[i] Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, quoted in The Democracy Reader, ed. by Diane Ravitch and Abigail M. Thernstrom (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 91.

[ii] Technically a “nature” is something that is knowable and is unchanging, so to assert that human nature is malleable is technically either a contradiction, or to assert that it simply has no “nature.”

[iii] Michael Spicer, The Founders, the Constitution, and Public Administration: A Conflict in World Views  (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995).

[iv] While both rationalists and anti-rationalists understand human beings as rational in some sense, rationalists in the sense that Spicer uses the term tend to view reason as the only legitimate origin of knowledge. Hence, practices and social orders that are not ordered wholly by reason are inherently problematic.

[v] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, quoted in Adam Smith: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. by James R. Otteson (Charlottesville: Imprint Academic, 2004), 145.

[vi] James C. Scott, “State Simplifications: Nature, Space and People,” Journal of Political Philosophy, Volume 3, Issue 3, pages 191–233, September 1995.

[vii] See, for example, George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).

[viii] Alan Wolfe, “The Revival of Moral Inquiry in the Social Sciences,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 1999.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Published: Feb 2, 2016
Shaun Rieley
Shaun Rieley holds an M.A. from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He is an Outreach and Research Analyst at Concerned Veterans for America. Mr. Rieley served as an infantryman in the Maryland Army National Guard for nine years, which included tours of duty in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political theory at the Catholic University of America, and is the Program Officer for Trustee and Legislative Affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. I believe it is more than a rationalist verses a non-rationalist. It is religious versus secular, world view based on a judeo-christian underpinning verses a worldview based on atheistic, eventually undergirded by Darwinian thought. The view that man is incapable of perfection and/or civil society is a Christian concept based on man’s fall and inherent sinful nature. On the other hand if man is only material and has no built in moral code than only reason and relativism is left.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: