Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Desire to Justify

British historian Paul Johnson has written a book entitled Intellectuals, in which he chronicles the life and thought of such (arguably) great minds as Rousseau, Marx, Russell and Sartre. His conclusion was that most of their arguments and philosophies were based, not on noble rational convictions but on the choices they had made in their own lives. (Ex: Rousseau had five children out of wedlock and abandoned them all. He then maintained that children do not need parents to give them guidance or discipline, and that the state should bear the responsibility for raising them - all this supposedly out of his reasoning, intellect and common sense.)

While I certainly wouldn't want to be accused of committing the genetic fallacy, it is hard to escape the view that conclusions like this are not based on true reason but rather on the desire to justify and rationalize the moral choices already made. In my case, I think this statement would be free of that particular fallacy because it isn't my basis for rejecting their ethical theories. But it is an interesting aside.


mattghg said...

Very interesting, and worthy of further examination.

If this phenomenon is widespread, I think a possible reason is an innate desire for us to believe ourselves to be more rational than we actually are. Sartre himself talks about the near-impossibility of accurately ascribing motivations to our own actions.

Aaron Snell said...


I agree that a little epistemic humility is a good thing when examining our own motivations, but I would reject the nihilistic existentialism that lead Sartre to say what he did on the subject.

It's a tricky subject, though, to pin this on another - and on the other hand, hard not to come to this conclusion in the case of de Sade, Rousseau, etc. As Bill Vallicella said, the suspicion that these theories are merely ideology in support of their own depraved behavior is "well-nigh irresistable."