Opinion: how much rational control does either side have over its decision-making in an emotive and divisive issue like Brexit?

By Manus Charleton, Sligo Institute of Technology

"Take back control" was the catch-cry of the leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. But to what extent did either side have rational control over its decision-making - or any of us for our preferences? According to some philosophers, the answer is not a whole lot. We are influenced more by our desires and emotions, with reason offering a small window through which to bring to bear some rational consideration. Voters were faced with an ethical as much as political decision: what is good for, or in the best interests of, the British people?

18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions". In forming ethical judgments, reason takes second place to how we feel about an issue. Judgment comes essentially from our feelings, not from some feature intrinsic to the issue itself. Reason (or intelligence) enables us to inform ourselves about the issue, and also about the best means of responding to how we feel. In these ways, reasoning can alter our feeling. Even so, the core element that gives rise to our response will still remain one of gut feeling rather than reason. 

In the century before Hume, Spinoza also drew attention to the power of the emotions. To be "assailed by emotions" is central to human experience. "God or Nature" has ordained that we are caught within the forces of primary emotions. These are desire, pleasure and pain. They act on us, and out of the mix of their influences comes our response. Our response will be whichever outcome gives us the most emotional pleasure, or the least pain, in the circumstances.

"Brexit and populism are particularly emotive and divisive issues"

But we are not just acted upon and we have rational capacity. We can, and should, develop an emotionally-driven active power of mind through which we reflect rationally on the factors causing the emotions. But no matter how much thought or knowledge we bring to bear, we don’t have intelligent control over all the factors that arouse the emotions. The factors "far surpass human power or virtue".

In the late 19th century, Nietzsche promoted the view that it is delusional to think we are guided by rational thought. We act in the grip of irrational forces. In his passage where the madman declares the death of God to people in the marketplace, they mock him. They are already non-believers and appear confident that their rational understanding is superior to a childish religious belief.

The madman tries to impress on them how momentous the death will prove, but he realises they are not ready to understand what he can foresee: a recognisable, common foundation for personal and public morality died also with God on whom it depended. With the passing of a long period of sincere belief in God, and the moral authority it provided, the madman was alarmed that we would be left with the alternative of a relativist free-for-all of individual, national and cultural desires and assertions. In Nietzsche’s terms, with a will to power. And we are now seeing the madman’s alarm at a will to power realised through divisions over Brexit and the rise in populist support for hard-right governments and illiberal democracies. 

"We act in the grip of irrational forces"

The assumption that we have a core of reason as the most influential element in making choices goes back to Aristotle. He defined a human being as both a rational and social animal. We are capable of managing, if not controlling, inclinations and desires for our own good and the good of others.

This understanding spread into Christian teaching and continues to have significant cultural influence. Contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains that Aristotle’s understanding of how reason and emotion relate is more nuanced than traditionally represented. Instead of reason being able to dictate the right way to respond to emotion, reason and emotion operate inextricably and provide for "the primacy of intuitive perception" in what we see as good.

Intuitive perceptions link the self to others at an immediate human level. They contrast with rigid adherence to some ideal, which can generate "an extraordinary blindness" through neglecting other people’s "separateness and their qualitative uniqueness". 

An intuitive understanding of ethical sensibility can help maintain ordinary human values, such as respect and decency

Ethics of intuitive perception won’t solve the difficulty of establishing a consensus for an overall ethical authority. But from recognising that rational control is unattainable, and emotional assertion insufficient, an intuitive understanding of ethical sensibility can help maintain ordinary human values, such as respect and decency.

Brexit and populism are particularly emotive and divisive issues. They show a need to understand and respond on the basis of reason and emotion coming together in a balance of influence as an alternative to relativist assertions of a will to power. 

Manus Charleton lectures in Ethics, Politics and Morality & Social Policy at Sligo Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ