Relation Between Reason and Morality

Z. Soner Dinç (Philosophy, Master’s Degree)

Since quite ancient times, the relation claimed or hoped to exist between reason and morality has been an issue contemplated by humans who have attempted to provide various answers for this old question. For hundreds and thousands of years, answers have been sought for many questions like what kind of a structure the so-called ability “reason” has, how it is used, what morality is and how it emerged.

Like many philosophical inquiries carried out over many issues in the history of thought/philosophy, Aristotle is a serious reference on this topic as well; his works are among the major sources to be referred to. ‘Nous’ [Νους] was the term used by the Ancient Greeks for the human ability that we call “reason” today. According to Aristotle, this humanistic trait was a characteristic side for human species. Being able to put their own actions into a reasonable structure, the ability to put them in order, the ability to reason, and the use of reason are the traits that differentiate humans from plants and animals as a species. After these definitions, it appears that it is possible to make a deduction as follows: Reason is a humanistic ability used to classify things that are happening, to put them in order based on a specific chain of rules, to process them, and to make logical deductions. It would be useful not to consider the ability of reason, which have similar equivalents in various Western languages, separately from the scope of “cause”, one of the essential meanings of “reason”. Reason means to know something with its cause, to understand it with its fundamentals. This is not only an etymological coincidence; it is significant as it is a manifestation of a tradition of thought that started in the Ancient Greece. According to the Ancient Greek, knowing everything is equal to knowing and understanding the same with its causes.

Today, we indubitably know that creatures of other species are also involved in various (observation-based) reasonable activities; that, for instance, there are crows that are able to use the stick standing next to the box in order to reach a food, which is unreachable when they only use their beaks, or that are able to reach the food by operating a simple mechanism; and that there are monkeys that break nuts with stones rather than their mouths while eating nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts. Nevertheless, these are the examples that are not (currently) included in the aforementioned systematic process.


Following the creation of a general framework of reason, we may proceed to the field of Morality. Let’s continue with Aristotle again: In his book titled “Nicomachean Ethics”, one of the classical reading texts of the Moral Philosophy courses/researches, Aristotle starts as follows: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” [1094a]. Researches concerning morals, as pointed out by Aristotle, start with the concept of “good” and continue their course through sub-headings like “what is good for individual” and “what is good for society”. We can say that “good” is a combination of the acts considered to make positive contributions to those that exist upon the execution of the good. When we consider a Turkish idiom ““taş üstüne taş koymak”, meaning “putting stone upon stone”, the background it has is one of the equivalents of the “good”. Another factor that is in direct association with the concepts of good and morals in Aristotle’s system is virtue. It is a moral virtue to comply with this rule that emerges as a result of the rules and experiences that may be reached through the acts that create the middle point between two different ends/poles (it does not always entail an arithmetical middle point).

Morals and the good are things that can only be tested within the course of the relationships between people. Speaking of morality or goodness while “doing” in a manner isolated from the boundaries and rules of the communal area without getting involved in a relationship would be a thesis that is simply earsplitting and not so down-to-earth. By its most general meaning, there are no criteria for morals and the good in the lack of an act. Within this context, in his book “Ethics”, Aristotle states that it would not mean anything to say “I’m the best athlete” while being isolated from external world in a cave. If a person claims to be “good” concerning ethics in a sports competition, she/he needs to utter this fact within a testable field as well. Because otherwise, this becomes hypothetical and loses its meaning, while becoming simultaneously unimportant. Every claim in this field is subjected to some kind of test by what is practically done. While reason creates this “test”, the criteria of the test are determined within the process and as a result a moral assessment is achieved.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who lived nearly two thousand years after Aristotle, became a pivotal figure in modern discussions concerning the two topics mentioned above. The questions “what can I know”, “what can I do” and “what can I hope for” compactly put forward his points of movement both in epistemological and ethical fields.

In his famous article published under the title “Was ist Aufklärung? / What is Enlightenment?” in 1784, Kant defines enlightenment on an individual plane as the assertion of existence by being a mature individual, leaving the state of minority. According to Kant, the motto of the Enlightenment [Wahlspruch] is as follows: Sapare aude! It means “Dare to know!” [Verstandes]. Using one’s mind and even going a direction with the intention to use it mean a significant job for the symbolic philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment.

Why is the attempt itself is important? Because the individual has been prevented from being on his/her own and self-sufficient, instead of receiving support for this throughout the history. The individuals are indoctrinated with the belief that they would never stand alone on their feet, let alone walking; and they are convinced of the fact that they are inadequate and incapable. However, humans will be able to become fully self-sufficient after falling on the first couple of attempts, and they will succeed in walking alone without any support. It is enough for the individual to have the ground and opportunity to put forth his/her own capabilities and to believe himself/herself on this issue; in order for them to understand that they have a power, they are initially required to break the counter propaganda produced on their being powerless and incapable creatures. When they enter the area of doing, they will be able to build themselves in time as an autonomous subject that does. Reason will become more functional as long as it is used and will be able to determine its own direction.

In his aforementioned article, Kant makes a distinction that is also considered extremely important for today: This is the distinction of the private and public uses of the reason. For Kant, the private use of the reason is the fulfillment of a service or a duty by a doer subject by himself/herself. The public use of the reason [Öffentlich], however, is the case where a researcher, an academician, or by a more classical term, a scholar transfers what she/he knows to his/her followers. The act of transferring to the people, who are the parts of the public, in front of the public is a good example of the use of the reason publicly. Let’s immediately remember that both morals and reason were tested by presenting themselves to the eyes of the public. It is possible to say that the claim of being “good”, which Aristotle considers “only testable during the act”, appears as a definition of one form of the reason. This, in turn, must be one of the thematic continuities in the history of philosophy, and one of the outputs that can be called a product of reason.
Finally, although it appears that claims such as the reason being destroyed, getting stuck and having no functionality anymore seem to be mainstreamed in the stage entered as the philosophical phase, it can be said that it is not very hard to see that the ability to reason is an extremely precious aspect, that ways out and solutions for the problems, which are thought to be the products of the history of philosophy, are only possible by the ability of reason. Similarly, although there appears to be a state of being trapped or a state of crisis caused by public morality itself, the necessity of the valuable core inside the essence of the concept is apparent as much as the value and necessity of the concept of reason. Unless the critical discussions around the concepts reach an extreme conclusion, causing the concepts to be thrown away, they will be making thorough contributions to the philosophical development. Like in the famous example, the style, which tends to pour out the baby along with the dirty water after a shower, appears to be doomed to miss the essence.

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Translated and edited by Roger CRISP), Cambridge University Press, 2004.
– Aristoteles, Ruh Üzerine (Translated by: Zeki Özcan), Sentez Yayıncılık, 2014
– Kant, Immanuel, Political Writings (Translator: H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge University Press, 1991
– Kant, Immanuel, ‘Was ist Aufklärung? (21.07.2018, 01:39)

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