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What would Jesus do?
> What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act.
The problem with reason is that it doesn’t work, or perhaps that in some sense it does too well and yet this has no bearing on the actuality at hand. We can reason ourselves this way and that, point to evidence amassed on each side; still we are no better off.
Suppose I am weighing some decision—any matter of either/or—and I consider the relative merits of each path, perhaps I even collate a table; yet how am I to determine the weighting of these items? I have never myself thus far, but perhaps it is possible—yes, perhaps I could come up with some sort of quantitative measure. This is to rely on the particular quality of quantity which Burke notes:
If we differ in opinion about two quantities, we can have recourse to a common measure, which may decide the question with the utmost exactness; and this I take it is what gives mathematical knowledge a greater certainty than any other. But in things whose excess is not judged by greater or smaller, as smoothness and roughness, hardness and softness, darkness and light, the shades of colours, all these are very easily distinguished when the difference is in any way considerable, but not when it is minute, for want of some common measures which perhaps may never be discovered.
This method is used, for instance, in healthcare rationing; it is the measuring of disability-adjusted life years and quality-adjusted life years. Thus the either/or of policy options can be reduced to a quantitative framework and thereby be more rationally determined. The essence of rationality here seems to entails that we can point to a reason: this is better because more good or less bad—thus the relations in terms of ‘more’ and ‘less’ can be determined with apparent certainty. This is objective insofar as we can actually point to it, as against the vague gesturing of mere subjectivity.
Of course, this process is aided where it exists within a bureaucratic framework; it is this that ensures a relative consensus in terms of the proper ground wherein the either/or ought be considered. There may still be disagreements, though any that seek to contradict the numerical value may well need to acquire some numbers of their own to which they may point. Thus the evidence does not so much support the point but can come even to constitute it. Here we seek always the objectivity of our reasons, that these are shared and amenable to immediate perception.
Yet this evidence is not immediate, of course, not really; it is not empiricism to which we point but rather the product of an ostensibly empirical process. The value of any such evidence rests upon the authority which it compels by virtue of this in light of the circumstances—and as modulated by individual and cultural factors. Some people may disregard certain types of evidence entirely, or they may distrust certain sources; or perhaps their culture has no particular regard at all for empirical authority.
There will also be those for whom a proposed authority is rejected not so much for its form as the circumstance in which it is encountered. Some may disregard offhand an authority if it contradicts their perspective. Those that do so are always dependent upon some latent power, whereby the onus may be forced upon the other to either accede or try and present something else which might be taken as authoritative. This depends on power insofar as, for instance, an someone being arrested cannot readily dismiss the authority of a warrant and simply walk away.
Of course, this is necessary; it is the peculiar nature of existence that it compels us to exist. Thus even the most radical sceptic tends still to get out of bed in the morning, hence acting as if despite their claim to total doubt. We may reject the existence of death, for instance, yet ultimately always it is its own proof and appears immediately only after the time for argument:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth—i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
The missing piece here is that a sort of truth may be imposed on us, for there is authority and then there is power; it is the tendency of most to submit to authority as right, when really it is power which compels them. This is wise enough, for what else are we to do—better we justify our submission than wrestle inwardly with this. I am doing this because it is right, we tell ourselves, and most of the time it works.
Yet sometimes a thing will force its way up within us, will refuse to be suppressed; it may at first be but a slight chafing with the structure imposed, or it may come even to be felt as overwhelming. This is the echo of something akin to conscience, sometimes ever recurring without our wishing; even against our wishes. We may rationalise this away, if our reason is adequate to its intensity, or may otherwise militate against it; as where the horrors of Vietnam so infiltrated the dreams of one journalist, yet he extinguished his dreams with copious marijuana each night before bed.
Thus far I have spoken kindly of these impulses, and I am sympathetic, but their opposite must also be considered. There are those possessed also by violent or even murderous compulsions which may persist with a similar character and intensity—what are we to say to these? There are the simpler instances, as perhaps when one compulsively steals, and there are the more or less plainly awful cases where rage bubbles into bloody murder. These obviously cannot be accepted across the board, hence some standard must be upheld.
What we have discussed so far is reaching towards a point akin to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical, which we may conceive as entailing also a suspension of the rational; it is that something higher intervenes and compels us to go against the prevailing notions of legal, ethical, or rational conduct. This is seemingly circumscribed in Kierkegaard’s case, however, by the scriptural basis of this leap; or specifically, by the person of Christ and our task of approximating His perfection. The bounds and ideal here are thus set alike by the simple maxim: what would Jesus do?1
“Calculation in favour of God. Nothing exists without purpose. Therefore my existence has a purpose. What purpose? I do not know. Therefore, it is not I who have appointed that purpose. It is someone wiser than I. It is therefore necessary to pray to this someone to enlighten me. That is the wisest course.”