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Oct 28, 2013
Presented by
Dennis Prager

Is evil rational? If it is, then how can we depend on reason alone to make a better world? Best-selling author Dennis Prager has a challenging answer.

Since the Enlightenment, reason has been falsely understood as the best vehicle to an ethical world.

  • The Enlightenment created an understanding of morality that largely replaced the old worldview, which generally viewed ethics and earthly authority as deriving from divine authority.View Source
  • But, as Dennis Prager points out, reason is used for evil purposes as much as it is for good.View Source
  • Related reading: A Response to Richard Dawkins – Dennis PragerView Source
  • Related reading: From Morality to the End of Reason - Ingmar PerssonView Source

Education is just a tool. It’s not inherently good. After all, Nazism was particularly popular among German intelligentsia.

  • Education divorced of the higher moral good can lead to great evil. There is nothing about a PhD that guarantees that a person will be more ethical or wise than a lesser educated person.View Source
  • Many of Germany’s best and brightest backed the Nazi party.View Source
  • Many western supporters of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China were highly educated.View Source
  • Related reading: The Ten CommandmentsView Source

MYTH: Reason alone can lead us to goodness.

  • Though many intellectuals in the “Age of Reason” have championed reason as the tool that would lead humans to a higher moral state, goodness and rationality do not always go hand in hand.View Source
  • WATCH: Dennis Prager on evil and reason.View Source
  • Related reading: A Response to Richard Dawkins – Dennis PragerView Source
  • Related reading: From Morality to the End of Reason - Ingmar PerssonView Source

Something is “rational” if it advances a certain goal, whether or not that goal is moral or immoral. 

  • Hitler and the Nazi party used reason to justify the persecution and murder of millions of Jews.View Source
  • Some have used reason to defend the practice of killing innocent human beings because they are disabled.View Source
  • Others, however, have used reason to argue against such immoral acts.View Source
  • The story of the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic demonstrates that people will find it “reasonable” to do bad things if they think they can get away with it.View Source
  • WATCH: Dennis Prager on evil and reason.View Source
  • Related reading: A Response to Richard Dawkins – Dennis PragerView Source
  • Related reading: From Morality to the End of Reason - Ingmar PerssonView Source
  • Related reading: The Republic – PlatoView Source

MYTH: Evil is irrational. In fact, evil acts are often quite “reasonable” indeed. That doesn’t make them right.   

  • Dictators are often dismissed as “madmen,” implying that they lack rationality, even though the atrocities they commit are often part of a clear, logical (albeit evil) framework. Stalin and his supporters were dismissed as irrational;View Source
  • Pol Pot was a “genocidal madman”;View Source
  • Iranian rhetoric about Israel is “insane”;View Source
  • Mao was a “lunatic.”View Source
  • WATCH: Dennis Prager on evil and reason.View Source
  • Related reading: A Response to Richard Dawkins – Dennis PragerView Source
  • Related reading: From Morality to the End of Reason - Ingmar PerssonView Source

Committing crimes—even violent ones—can be quite rational, showing that morality and reason are sometimes in conflict.

  • Many criminals are rational in the sense that their criminal behavior is the most attractive of the alternatives available to them.View Source
  • For more on crime and reason, read Gary Becker’s application of economic theory to criminal behavior underscoring the connection between reason and crime.View Source
  • WATCH: Dennis Prager on evil and reason.View Source
  • Related reading: A Response to Richard Dawkins – Dennis PragerView Source
  • Related reading: From Morality to the End of Reason - Ingmar PerssonView Source

Reason can be made to serve both good and evil. In other words, what is “rational” is not always what is moral and good. 

  • Hitler and the Nazi party used reason to justify the persecution and murder of millions of Jews.View Source
  • Some have used reason to defend the practice of killing innocent human beings because they are disabled.View Source
  • Others, however, have used reason to argue against such immoral acts.View Source
  • The story of the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic demonstrates that people will find it “reasonable” to do bad things if they think they can get away with it.View Source
  • WATCH: Dennis Prager on evil and reason.View Source
  • Related reading: A Response to Richard Dawkins – Dennis PragerView Source
  • Related reading: From Morality to the End of Reason - Ingmar PerssonView Source
  • Related reading: The Republic – PlatoView Source

Ever since the 18th century and the dawning of the so-called “Age of Reason,” most of the best-educated people in the world have been absolutely certain that reason alone will lead us to goodness and a good world. We don’t need a God. We don’t need religion.  All we need is reason. Evil, we have been told for almost three centuries, doesn’t make sense. It’s irrational. 

That’s why you’ll often hear murderous dictators referred to as “madmen” and their evil regimes described as products of “madmen;” in other words, the very opposite of rational men. Stalin was irrational.  Pol Pot was a madman.  Mao’s genocidal Cultural Revolution in which he directed the killing of 50 to 75 million Chinese -- in peacetime, no less -- is routinely called “madness.” And the Iranian regime’s calls for the annihilation of Israel are routinely dismissed as, you guessed it, irrational. 

Meanwhile, good and moral things are always associated with being reasonable. But this association of reason with good is wishful thinking.

Of course, reason might argue for doing good. But it might just as well argue for doing bad. Take a non-murderous example. Is it right or wrong for a student to cheat on a test? It’s wrong, of course. But now answer this: Is it rational or irrational to cheat on a test?

The answer is not quite as obvious -- is it? After all, if you can get away with it, and it might mean the difference between getting into a great school or getting a great job, cheating on a test may well be reasonable.

The same logic applies to participating in a shady, but lucrative, business deal or engaging in a marital infidelity. If you know you can get away with it, or simply judge that the benefits of doing something illegal or immoral outweigh the risk of being caught, why not do it? 

Or answer this: Was it rational or irrational for a non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II to risk his or her life to hide a Jew? We all know that this was moral greatness of the highest order. But was it rational?

Not really. You can’t get much more rational than self-preservation. Moreover, in all the studies I have read of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust -- and I have read many -- I have never read of any rescuers who said that they did what they did because it was the reasonable or rational thing to do. Not one.

Reason leads to good only when you want it to. Just as it leads to bad when you want it to.

Reason is just a tool. It is no more intrinsically moral than a knife.  A knife can be used to murder or to torture people. But in the hands of a surgeon, it can be used to save lives.

If you want to preserve liberty, then it is rational to fight and risk your life on its behalf. And if you want to maintain a fascist or a Communist or an Islamist dictatorship, then it’s equally rational to risk your life on its behalf. 

And talking about liberty, it isn’t reason that makes people value liberty. Many rational people value security, or order, or territory, or theocracy, or many other things much more than they value liberty.

Reason can lead people to all kinds of conclusions. For example, asked if he would kill a disabled baby, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Princeton University responded, “Yes, if that was in the best interests of the baby and of the family as a whole.” Can you offer a purely rational reason why the professor is wrong?

The only reason I can offer is a belief that all human beings are created in God’s image and are therefore infinitely precious. But the preciousness of all human life is a belief, not an assertion of reason. The Greeks, the founders of Western reason, thought it quite reasonable to leave sickly babies to die of exposure. The baby would just be a burden on the parents and the state. It was faith-based Jerusalem, the other parent of Western civilization, not reason-based Athens, that taught the world to keep sickly babies alive.

So, the next time you read of some terrible crime or some terrible regime, please don’t dismiss it as irrational or mad. Call it for what it is.

Evil.

I’m Dennis Prager.

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