We often idolize rationality as the solution to all of the world’s problems. Awareness. Education. These are always touted as the foundations of success for any plan that hopes to create real change.
Especially in our current era of Enlightenment, we have come to view rationality as our savior. We believe that if the whole world was more knowledgeable and followed logic, peace would be inevitable. In that sense, rationality is our guiding principle of how we view the world, and something that we have come to view as the cornerstone and necessity of any theory or practice.
To me, and to many of us, it just makes sense. The more we know, the more logical we are, the less likely we are to commit illogical crimes of passion or make emotionally-driven mistakes.
And yet I still remember visiting Auschwitz, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp.
The more I learn about the Nazis, the more I realize how systematic, methodical, and scientific they were in their mass killings – creating new breakthroughs in oven technology and weapons to become more and more efficient in the ways that they tortured those they considered to be subpar human beings.
It horrifies me to think of them in this way, but in many ways, the Nazis epitomized rationality and capitalism. They were ruthless, efficient, highly methodical killers, running their entire operations like machines. Camps would immediately remove those who were not deemed useful or capable of working, and those who could work were utilized like robots until they were almost dead, at which point they would be forced even to dig their own graves. They utilized every part of the victim, taking not just people’s clothes and belongings, but everything down to their hair and teeth. It was no crime of passion, it was methodological, thoroughly planned, intentional murder.
And it wasn’t some sort of lack of education, like someone just hadn’t told young German kids that killing is bad and they shouldn’t discriminate against others. There were entire societies of doctors, engineers, and well-educated professionals that not only allowed for this to happen, they wholeheartedly planned and plotted these mass murders.
As philosophers at that time felt, this exposed a horrifying reality of the pitfalls of rationality. Here were the ideas of the enlightenment being used as a mask to justify our own aggressive tendencies. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment (pg. 23; read pg. 139 for more on Anti-Semitism), Horkheimer and Adorno write how “reason itself has become merely an aid to the all-encompassing economic apparatus.” They witnessed rational means used excessively to pursue irrational ends, to essentially achieve our own inner desires for greed and power.
This experience occurred almost two years ago, when I went to Europe for the first time, but I still recall it often because I see this obsession with rationality embedded in the way that many of us see the world today. I fear that the more and more we swear by it, the more we allow ourselves to be swayed by well-constructed arguments that could be truly inhumane or lack virtue. I fear that at some point, if we take it too far, we too will simply reach a point where we are using rationality as a mask for our own aggression, fears, and desires.
At the end of the day, rationality is a strategy of argument, a tool for thought, that is not “right” in itself. It is an instrument to execute a goal effectively, not a goal in itself. The goal, the aim that it helps execute, is defined by the values that underpin it – it must rely on a value system.
For the Nazis, it was the set of values that involved taking out those who they saw as inadequate and allowing “the most fit” to survive. There was no consideration for the old or the experienced; the only people who mattered were those who could work and produce. What strikes me is that there was no heart.
At the end of the day, rationality is bound by the values and insecurities of the one who uses it. Rationality is only as good as the person who wields it. If what lies underneath a person is excessive ego, pride, greed, desire, and anger, then rationality will simply become a sleek way of justifying heinous crimes. On the other hand, if it is a tool used by someone who is seeking to live with value, to connect within and live heartfully, just imagine what it could do.
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