A Pitch for Practical Reason

Ensuring that good is done and evil is avoided

Let’s list a few words: smart, clever, bright, ingenious. They’re all familiar. No one needs to make a pitch for aspiring to being smart, clever, bright, or ingenious. With “practical reason” we’re in a different territory. The term isn’t so familiar. It’s easy to confuse with “practicality.” And we can’t aspire to exercise practical reason, since we already do so, pretty much from morning to night. (How well we exercise it is another matter.) Still, the case for practical reason, a “pitch” if you will, needs to be made.

I’ll largely do so by explaining what practical reason is. The best way, I think, is to compare and contrast it with “theoretical reason.” First, the comparison. Both theoretical and practical reason take the form of an argument, even if it’s implicit argument. That is, both move from premises to conclusions. Please note: in both cases, unless the premises are true they can’t support the conclusion.

Second, the contrast. Theoretical reason ends with a conclusion about the way something is—whether that something is the location of a cat, the history of Texas, or the structure of a black hole. The conclusion is, moreover, either true or false, even if we don’t yet know which. And what makes the conclusion true? It is true if the intellect, in reaching it, grasps how things really are. Google, if you please, “adequatio rei et intellectus.” Practical reason, however, reaches a conclusion about how something ought to be, and the conclusion leads to action. Examples include “The cat’s in the tree, that’s not safe, so I ought to call the Fire Department—and I am.” Another example? “The history of Texas evidences overly rugged individualism, but that’s a threat to community spirit, and so, as a Texan, I ought to promote fellow feeling—and I am.”

Now comes a worry. What makes the conclusion of an exercise of practical reason true? It’s not someone’s wanting it to be true. It’s not because of how things happen to be. Why not? Practical reason is future-directed. For Thomas Aquinas, the first principle of practical reason is that good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided. There are, as well, secondary principles of practical reason. We ought to pursue, in accord with reason, the basic goods of human flourishing. These include life, sexual fulfillment, knowledge, beauty, and social harmony. It’s just here that prudence, a “hinge” virtue that’s at once intellectual and moral, comes into play. Prudence is right reason in acting. To be prudent we need to draw on everything relevant to making the choices we do. To be prudent we need to honor our natural orientation to the good and to human flourishing. The truth, then, in practical reason and its conclusions is a dynamic, goal-oriented participation in our relation to God and Creation.

Of course, for the secularist such thinking is, at best, something to file away. So it is that we are awash in pragmatism. As William James would have it, the true is the expedient in the way of belief. When we find ourselves at odds with the pragmatic way the world is, and the point of conflict is the nature of truth, we see that we live on the edge of a precipice.

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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