There are lots of people today who believe reason is all we need to be moral. But is it really possible to make a moral world with reason alone? Does rationality take the place of faith, belief structure?
What happens if we take reason seriously? What outcome should we expect if we let reason freely shape our conduct? Will reason shape our conduct correctly? Certainly, reason is a tool. It is a very useful tool. Once we know what end we wish to achieve, at that point, reason becomes indispensable.
But reason does not tell us what our goals should be. Think about it. If you believe you should live a life of kindness to others, reason can help you do that. But does reason alone tell you whether your goal should be to be kind or self-centered? Doesn’t reason argue just as easily for immoral actions as it does for moral actions?
Come let us reason together
Let’s try an example: Assume you are a student. You want an academic career. It is entirely reasonable to cheat in tests to get an edge in achieving your goal. Doing so would be morally wrong. It is reasonable because cheating will raise your grades. Better grades can help you get into a more prestigious university. Or, look at it from the other side. If you believe everyone else cheats, not cheating places you at a disadvantage.
Not convinced, here’s a different example, this one from history. In pre WWII Germany the average German remained silent when their Jewish neighbors were deported. Was the average German acting according to reason? Absolutely, reason suggested they were not endangering their life or those of their families with their inaction. The only people in Germany who acted morally did so by acting against reason. Think about that.
Reason fails the morality test
These days, is it rational to have children? Whether people decide to have children is far more a values question than a rational question. In industrialized societies, secular people have far fewer children than religious people with the same economic means. If you believe God wants you to have children you are likely to have children. If you care more about personal freedom, the ability to eat out, opportunities for travel and time for reading and reflection you will have no children or at the least fewer children.
Reason without moral values can lead to evil. You see reason is like a map. The map itself does not show you where you should go. What it does show is how you can get to where you want to go. Whether you use reason to get to a moral place is determined by your values. Whether you even know what a moral place is is determined by your values.
Reason is a glory of the human mind. But, well-reasoned actions have often led to evil results. If you put reason first you need morals and values or you are at great risk of doing evil. If you have good values and morals you need reason to efficiently achieve good results.
Nothing guarantees goodness. Well used reason with sound morals and values is, at a minimum, more likely to do no harm. Can we lead a good life and make a better world without reason? Probably not. It is just too easy to do the wrong thing if we do not have a set of morals and values to live by.