Clem Sunter

Slaves of our passion

2010-06-09 12:04

David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, made the following statement over a quarter of a millennium ago: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In other words, common sense comes a very poor second in the daily conduct of our lives.

Consider the following examples. People will go on smoking even though a multitude of scientific studies has shown it has a good chance of shortening their lives. People with heart conditions will go on eating fatty foods even though they know this could further clog up their arteries. Strangers will still have sex without condoms even though they know they run the risk of contracting HIV/Aids.

You only have to look at this website for the truth of Hume’s statement. The emotional conflict that still exists between the different groups in this country scars the logic of the comments made on virtually any topic you care to choose. Recently, we have seen some crossovers because of the good quality of writing of some of my fellow columnists - but it is still rare. Our immediate response is normally only to see the bad in the other side, never the good. Passion filters all our perceptions.

However, we are as nothing compared to the Middle East. The latest incidents over the Gaza blockade have unleashed predictable rhetoric from both sides. The Israelis say they don’t want more rockets raining down on their civilians, whereas the Palestinians liken the Israelis to the worst occupying force in the world. Religious differences certainly inflame passions which rule out any constructive engagement or progress based on reasonableness. Even being even-handed in a situation like this brings the accusation of moral equivalence.

On gradual threats like global warming or sudden shocks like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the same old story. Have you ever heard a reasonable debate between climate change activists and the oil lobby on the one issue; and have Americans started questioning their cheap-energy lifestyle in reaction to the risks which have come to the fore in drilling offshore? The answer to both questions is no. Find a scapegoat instead.

In the arena of romance and love, we all know the heart rules the head. How often do we remark as indifferent observers that Jack and Jill are not really suited to one another? How many couples battle their way through life - holding diametrically opposed opinions about most things - and still love each other?

Consequently, I believe Hume is right although I would quibble over the word “ought”. I do feel reason should sometimes prevail despite knowing it never will. Nevertheless, as a foxy futurist, I have to accept the world as it is and then derive what possibly will arise out of the cauldron of passion that is an inescapable part of the human condition. In that sense, scenarios at their best aspire to be like memorable works of science fiction, combining our rational and irrational natures into a gripping story.

Even this article was written with passion and hopefully a smidgen of common sense.

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