Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 10, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 1

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 10, 2015

Last Thursday Phil Palin argued optimistically that the resolution of the DHS budget problem was a “triumph of reason.”  As usual, he gave several elegant, and if one did not look too carefully, compelling justifications for his conclusion.

I think Phil was fundamentally wrong.  In my opinion what we saw in the budget dance was the triumph of power. The forces that wanted to reverse Obama’s immigration policy were too weak to overcome the Congressional forces that wanted to move on to something else.

I saw no evidence to suggest Reason (yes, I know it’s capitalized) had anything to do with it.

Unless you want to say that Power creates its own reason, its own truth.

I don’t think that’s where Palin was going.

The problem I have with Reason is its unquestioned normative dominance.

I know I’m being unreasonable when I complain about Palin’s triumph of reason simply by asserting another reason.

I know, however, if I acknowledge I’m being unreasonable, I can be forgiven – because I’m being reasonable again.

That’s the game.

“We are still living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest,” wrote Andre Breton in 1924.  But he was being surrealistically silly, and therefore easy to ignore.

I don’t think reason has much to do with homeland security – at least not the interesting bits of homeland security.

Yes, it plays a role in many aspects of the scientific and administrative parts of security.

But when it comes to policy, politics, or strategy, not so much.

I run the risk here of trying to use reason to construct an argument about the limits of reason in homeland security. That path leads to a Kafkaesque madness that I’ll pretend — for now —is not attractive.

I’ll defer for the time being to the general argument about the “rationalist delusion” developed by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. (The excerpts come from pages 103-108.)

A delusion is “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”

Reason gets to decide what’s a delusion and what isn’t.  How cool is that?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Haidt writes

“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods…, or [for the new atheists] that brings us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods…. [It is] a claim that the rational caste (philosophers and scientists [and people who write on blogs]) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.”

Where did we in the west learn about the pre-eminent value of being reasonable? Look to the philosophers, scientists and educators for that.

Thanks, Socrates.

But Reason gave us the internet and the iWatch and pharmaceuticals and abundant food and airplanes and so on — say the philosophers and scientists and educators. So reason’s got to be a good thing.

These Reason Advocates “believe reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”

So reason not only makes the trains run on time (if that still happens), it’s also the cause of good behavior.

Haidt reports, tangentially, on one experiment designed to test the assumption that moral philosophers – people who spend a lot of time reasoning about doing the right thing – might behave better than other people.

Turned out they do not.

One conclusion from the study Haidt describes: “[Academic] books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.”

The argument is a longer one than I am summarizing here. But Haidt’s conclusion is succinct:

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.”

In at least the social and political domains, we tend not to use reason to search for the truth. Instead, says the evidence Haidt offers, our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… ‘skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views’.”

Reasoning, says Haidt, is “more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason for reaching the conclusion.

“Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.”

Test the claim for yourself.  In the following story by Peter Baker, which comes first your conclusion or your reasoning?

The fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy.

In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”…

The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.

“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “It’s an unusual coalition.”

As someone whose religion was — and may still be — Reason, I was not easily convinced by the arguments summarized by Haidt (and other behavioral economists and psychologists). Eventually, however, his reasons and evidence have become increasingly persuasive to me. (Yes, I see Kafka’s irony again.)   I believe Haidt is correct asserting the worship of Reason blinds as much as it enlightens.

What to do about this, especially in homeland security?

Haidt – and others – have ideas about how to manage the delusion enabled by Reason.

I’ll save that for another post.



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Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 10, 2015 @ 5:19 am

Chris: Many thanks. Your counter-argument deserves more than a superficial response. I’ll aim to have something substantive in my Thursday post. But to start: I agree that “reason” typically begins in belief. When contrasting beliefs encounter each other, there is the potential for collision or coalescence (heat or light?). It sounds as if Haidt et al — or perhaps the last two decades of experience — have caused you to become profoundly skeptical of meaningful coalescence. I perceive coalescence is increasingly rare, but still possible and, perhaps, preparing for a sort of renaissance.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 10, 2015 @ 8:57 am


Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 10, 2015 @ 11:20 am

While no philosopher or sophist, I do find myself in congruence with Chris. Why the definition of reason portents to be objective the mere fact that it takes place in ones’ head would make the exercise quite subjective. Understanding that context is a product of one’s many idiosyncrasies, culture, class, education, ethnicity, faith, etc. is it reasonable to use reason? There’s that Kafkaesque thing.

Reason, reasoning, and reasonable are all defer to logic in some sense. But researching lesser included definitions defeats that logic. If reasonable is being in accordance with reason and not extreme or excessive how are we to assess with logic what is extreme and/or excessive? It’s a subjective context is it not? Further defined reasonable, that being in accordance with reason defers to moderation and fair, both of which are highly subjective. Further in the weeds with regard to reason is the exercise or possessing sound judgment. Judgment in and of itself is interpretative.

Therefore, is reason therefore a cognitive dissonance?

Now insert Chris’s statement, paraphrased by yours truly; power creates its own reason, its own truth. I cannot argue the illegitimacy of that statement. The fear of losing power and influence is the intoxicant that drives those who have it to keep it and those who do not have it to seek it. Truth in any political context has virtually no objectivity at all and is brandished by the panjandrums who stroll, lurk, and pontificate on behalf of the brand.

Some would present the idea that there has been a diminution of ethical behavior and there are no leaders any more. What might support this argument would be a recent study that Army officers institutionally resort to “evasion and deception” and that they basically “lie”.


A strong indictment to be sure. I think one could make the case that the same group think or behavior permeates elected officials and their bodies as well. However, I have also spoken with other thought leaders who defer to complexity and its unpredictability as a driver for the lack of leadership and reasoned decision making. I would propose it is neither the former nor the latter, but the combination of them.

With regard to the role of reason and Homeland Security; homeland security is an eminently elastic, malleable, and distortable concept, hence the ability of Congress to knowingly exploit the fact that most would have worked anyway, at least a third of the work they do could easily be dismissed, and it (HS) is not as significant as national security or defense.

There was in my estimation little “reason” because if logic was relevant, the rhetoric and threat diatribes that permeated the news reels and talk shows would have not been necessary. It would have been obvious to all that the state of affairs globally would have dictated that any gamesmanship with DHS funding was irrational and unreasonable, yet it took place.

So is it a reasonable assumption (using in this context is an oxymoron is it not?) that we are unable to define, articulate, defend, and protect our nation? Is it reasonable to assume that our projection of force, diplomacy, economic aid, and influence is in fact failing? If the aforementioned is failing and we continue to do exercise same, is that not a definition of insanity?

So that’s where the current political landscape brings me; those who think they are reasonable are in fact insane.

I do not think reason led to a funding compromise. I think the initial thought was inherently and fatally flawed. When one draws such a pronounced proverbial line in the sand, there are only one of two outcomes; stick to your guns or acquiesce.
The majority acquiesced because those within that majority split.

So again, while it may be word game; unreasonable demands were reached with reasonable thoughts that were deemed unreasonable and corrected reasonably.
If reason blinds as much as it enlightens how do account willful ignorance, willful blindness and of course the infamous unknown unknowns? And is enlightenment epiphanic or recognition?

The entire exercise is a syntax issue and demonstrates that words do matter. In a turbulent, unpredictable, and complex world perhaps we should spend less time with a fixed mindset and fixed definitions and move toward a more growth mindset where emergence, adaptation, and other metaphors to observe and respond.

Just one dime store philosophers point of view.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 10, 2015 @ 11:24 am

Chris: A question or at least a request: What is your personal take on the core characteristics of reason? From your quotes and other reading I can discern Haidt’s take, but I’m not sure about yours. As you know, I am predisposed to thinking in terms of purposes. But I’ll take whatever is most meaningful to you: process, outcomes… you tell me. Thanks.

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March 10, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

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Homeland Security Watch » Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 1…

Comment by Christopher Tingus

March 10, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

Reason – surely we must all agree it is only through much consideration that we reason how the US President will now circumvent Congress and our Senate in every way to use his pen and assure his pals in Tehran and the illustrious Rev Wright that these “Brutes of Tehran” have WMD in hand and it is reason when we see a Secretary of State use her personal email for her convenience while working for the People and w/o even an utter of ethical reasoning, states:

Hillary Clinton deleted 32,000 ‘private’ emails, refuses to turn over server

Oh, how far we have been breached and looted and how much the ignorance of the populace lulled by their heads and fingers talking and texting nothing while the Iranians and other such terrible folks make mockery of American values, our Constitution and our Judeo-Christian values and it is by reason that We here on “Main Street USA” now fully understand that Homeland Security and our open borders and these illegals breaching our borders and welcomed w/open arms and even transported and housed by this same charade – the “Chicago-Hollywood-Washington” charade and YOU who have obligation as citizens to stand forthright for our laws and governing and our once Democratic government have allowed all these tyrants to play you as a fool and discredit our Constitution and ‘ol Glory so many ways….

God Bless Americana for you were and are no longer and this all reasoned out by watching our brave warriors slaughtered at the “Benghazi Massacre” and no accountability, just blatant lie shoulder to shoulder and YOU who have allowed these criminals to reason from your acceptance that they are in fact above the law!

How dare you?

As I have stated long ago, the road ahead has been clearly marked by your failure to shout against such tyranny, your obligation and as this eight year WH resident supports the Muslim Brotherhood, apologizes to the Muslim world, enables folks to breach even the White House time after time and use race to divide where today few truly see color….well, the Chicago city street slicker uses reason and you enable him to reason that you the fool they perceive and Ms. Hillary says she refuses to turn over the server of the people – she too reasons much of her decisions from your outright ignorance and your lack of appreciation of your freedom and our beloved Republic and ‘ol Glory where so many have given Life or limb(s) to allow such fools to walk with the convicts allowed to be released by DHS among us and enables undocumented and uncertified immigrants to walk among us as the same lawless types as our politicians, yet dictates what your kids must eat and be vaccinated with —

Tehran keeps spinning and this WH and DHS keeps on spinning with it and for certain, War loom ahead an your once democratic Americana, given away while YOU sit and play your loyalty cards to your respective political parties who are as paralyzed and inept as YOU….

Reason – what a bunch of illiterates and empty texts to one another lulled into a false sense of security by such outright hoodlums!

How dare YOU?

Again and again, I shall remind YOU, the few who really can reason and are enlightened:

“If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be under guise of fighting an enemy. But, in reality it will be an Enemy from within”

James Madison (1785)

If this eight year resident of the WH and Chicago city street slicker and nothing more circumvents Congress and the US Senate and signs any Agreement w/these terrorists in Tehran, the I (we) shout, “Arrest him/her for they have taken oath and hold them for suspicion in breach of faith, TREASON!”

No one – no one is above the law!

There is much REASON to do so…enough is enough!

Christopher Tingus — “Main Street USA”

Comment by Christopher Tingus

March 10, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

JFK – Government – Reason – Homeland Security – America!

The speech that President John F. Kennedy gave at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 27, 1961. “The President and the Press” before the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings.

We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.

Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”

“For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.

Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.”

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March 11, 2015 @ 11:21 pm

[…] has recently been a topic of discussion here at HLSWatch.  I lack the philosophical chops to get involved, so instead will go in an […]

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