The Smoker, by Joos van Craesbeeck. Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Query:

Some time ago, I debated my brother on the issue of reason.  He argued that reason is not important.  All that matters is that I do the things that I like and that I get good results, no matter the method.  How do I even engage with people who deny the point of reason?

Related to that, for most of my young adulthood, I was tempted by my family to drive without a license.  I found that immoral because it was disobeying a legitimate law, but my family kept arguing that many people drive without a license and do just fine.  I couldn't really defend myself against this.  In fact, they think that if a multitude of people do well without obeying the law, then it is okay, and they will defend this fallacy stating that what matters most is that it is effective.

How do I defend myself from these sorts of statements?

Reply:

Your brother obviously wants to have a good life.  That’s not bad, it’s good.  The problem, to paraphrase the philosopher Mortimer Adler, is that he thinks having a good life is the same as having a good time.  If it is put to them this way, most people can see that it isn't.  We can do all the things we like and still be unhappy.  For example, the drunkard is doing the thing that he likes – getting drunk – but he is ruining his life, not enhancing it. The unfaithful husband is doing the thing that he likes – sleeping with other women – but he is very likely to ruin not only his life but also his wife’s and children’s, and he isn’t doing those other women any favors either.

One way to get started on this sort of conversation is to ask which things it is good to like doing.  Which ones add up to a good life, and which ones don’t?  Your brother may say that reason is not important, but in saying that, he is already reasoning.  He is giving you a reason to believe that there is no need to give reasons.  The problem is that he is not reasoning very far.

By the way, if he did reason far enough, he would discover not only that there is a difference between having a good life and having a good time, but also that having a good life includes finding out what is really true — what everything is really all about.

Now about driving without a license.  Just as with your brother’s statement about doing what he likes, so with your family’s statements about driving, the issue isn’t reasoning, but reasoning badly.  You recognize this yourself when you call your family’s argument a fallacy, because a fallacy is an error in reasoning.

However, I don’t think you will get very far just by saying to your family, “You have to get a license, because it’s the law.”  It might work better to turn conversation to the purpose of law, which is to promote the common good.  Now it may sometimes be right to disobey a law which seriously injures the common good, but plainly the law requiring driver licenses doesn’t injure it – it promotes, it, by keeping people who don’t know how to drive or read road signs off the street, so that they are less likely to hurt other people.

There is no need to deny your family’s point that many people who drive without a license do just fine.  That’s quite true, but it’s not the point.  The point is that a great many people don’t do just fine, and the requirement for a license helps weed them out.

I am sure that the members of your family know all this.  They are making excuses for not doing what they know they ought to do, because they don’t want to go to the trouble of doing it.  Perhaps each one tells himself, “Well, I’m a safe driver.  don’t need to be kept off the road.”  And perhaps he is a safe driver, but that is not the question.  Point out:  Not everyone who thinks he is a safe driver is really a safe driver, yet most bad drivers thinkthey are safe drivers.  Now ask:  Are we all better off letting each person decide for himself whether he is safe driver, or are we all better off requiring each person to prove it?  Obviously, the latter.

Now about how to defend yourself from the sorts of things your family members say.  You don’t have to.  Don’t.

In obvious matters like driving without a license, when you say we should do the right thing, why do you come under attack?  Because it embarrasses people who want to do the wrong thing.  They already know you are right.  And when you approach the discussion as a debate — as you did with your brother — it makes them dig in, because it seems like a contest.  So rather than defending yourself or debating, calmly explain why you believe what you believe.

But choose your time.  The time to speak is when the other person might actually listen.  He is more likely to listen when just the two of you are talking — brother to brother, perhaps.  By contrast, when a lot of people are in the conversation, anyone who does listen loses face in front of the others.  So that is a time to be pleasant and say, “I won’t argue with you, but I know this is right.”  Sometimes, the most persuasive speech is silence. 

J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished  with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist. Further reading: What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, by J. Budziszewski.

J. Budziszewski

Professor Budziszewski specializes in political philosophy, ethical philosophy, and the interaction of religion with philosophy. Among his research interests are classical natural law, virtue ethics, moral...