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Fr. 503

April 4, 2014

In a post published four years ago, one blogger makes note of the top ten philosophical issues for the 21st century, as elaborated in the 200th episode of “Philosopher Talk”. Of particular interest to those areas most often broached here are issues 3, 4, 9 and 10. To each of these issues will be dedicated a short reflection in hopes of teasing out precisely what is at stake therein.

After having treated 9 and 10 in previous weeks, we shall continue today with 4, stated as follows:

“4. New models of collective decision making and collective rationality.

Solving the problems of the 21st Century will require coordinated rational action on a massive scale. But we really have no models of collective rationality, no idea of the institutional, social, political and economic structures that will allow us to meet these challenges. Can philosophers help build them in time to guide us in meeting the challenges of this century?”


It is important to begin by analyzing the basic claims being put forward here.

1. Global causes require global solutions.
1a. The greater the scope of a problem, the greater the scope of its solution.
1b. The scope of problems in the 21st century is global.
1c. Therefore, the scope of the their solution is likewise global.
(1d. IMPLICIT: The best means of tackling global problems is through coordinated rational action and decision-making.)

2. Models for collective rationality are not in place.
2a. Collective rationality on a global scale requires global models and structures.
2b. There are no such models or structures ready at hand.
2c. The institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality will need to be developed.

3. Philosophers as rational advisers.
3a. The institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality are still to be developed.
3b. Philosophers are considered eminent agents of rational decision-making and collective models for reasoning.
3c. Philosophers will thus have a hand in developing the institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality to be developed.


Having outlined the claims, we can now consider the broader implications of the problem as worded.

In fact, the areas to be explored further concern almost uniformly the implicit from which the entire problem proceeds: the means for solving global problems are rational in nature. Given the limited space devoted to the problem, it is unsurprising that such an answer should appear in shorthand, as it were, and without further development. The obvious question that arises is why these means must be rational in nature and precisely what is meant by “reason” in this case.

As to the first half of this question, the answer seems rather straightforward. As solutions to global problems involve many different actors, these actors must have terms common to all parties and in light of which they may proceed when evaluating different solutions. Without a common discursive language of evaluation, it would be nigh impossible to proceed towards some viable solution to be worked towards by all parties. In this same line of thought, it is difficult to see which other human faculty would occupy this same role in the elaboration of solutions. Intuition, understanding, creativity, etc.: these seem indispensable to the proper exercise of reason but do not seem in a position to stand in its place in the solution process.

Yet the straightforward resolution of the first half of this problem belies the difficulties with which the second half is fraught: what is meant by reason here? If certain dictionaries give the definition as “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic”, this leaves underdetermined the precise nature and content of reason. Is this reason the same the world over? Or are different cultures bound to manifest this human faculty under different forms? More extremely, might they arrive at very different judgments in starting out from the same premises? Without treading into the waters of relativism or positing that no one way is better than another, it is still legitimate to wonder whether the mechanisms by which the decision-making process are to take place are themselves universal.

Specifically, we might question whether this view of reason is fundamentally Western and, more strongly, whether it would be right to impose the use of such Western categories onto societies and cultures of the Third World, a core tenet of postcolonial studies. Can such universalistic categories as rationality, objectivity, liberalism and democracy be justifiably applied to the world, its cultures and societies as a whole? Such is the implicit assumption on which this problem and its elaboration hinge. For this, a closer examination of the true import and viability of such critiques of universalistic rationality is in order. In the words of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, with which rationality are we here concerned?

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