Instinct & Reason


It is often said that religion, Christianity in particular, has taken a repressive attitude toward sex which is undoubtedly true. Early on in its history, it is often pointed out, Christianity allied itself with the remnants of ancient Platonic idealism, which in tandem with a biblical patriarchism, produced an enthusiasm for monastic life and celibacy and a negative attitude towards marriage and/or everything having to do with the body.

However, as true as the above may be in some respects, it overlooks, I think, the much more important role played by the evolutionary emergence of rationality. What marks the human species as distinct from all other forms of life is not that we walk upright on two legs (although that, in freeing our front legs to become arms and our front feet to become hands may have had something to do with it) but that we can reason. We are, as Aristotle observed, "rational animals". Well, at least we are most of the time.

The problem is that our instinctual drives have not disappeared entirely. In fact, to some degree, once reason began to assert itself during the course of evolution, it seems that the instincts strangely became unhinged, with the result that where the rhythms of nature tend to control instinct in many species of animals (we need only think how most wild animals confine their reproductive activities to distinct seasons) with humans (as often with domesticated animals) sexual instincts tend to assert themselves whenever opportunity presents itself, even if to the detriment of the whole species.

So it seems that what the major religions with their moral codes have really been attempting to do has been by one way or another is to promote rational behavior. This can be seen especially in Christian history where the first alliance of theology with philosophy came about not so much with neo-Platonic idealism but with the sober ethics of Stoic philosophy. While both schools of thought argued for higher ethical conduct, Stoicism based its arguments not on an appeal to an ideal world beyond, but instead on experience gained from living in this one. Hence Christianity's (and Catholicism's in particular) long alliance with the tradition of "natural law" reasoning.

The problem is, however, that to be effective, such an approach has to be grounded in a realistic understanding of nature. And as much we would like to believe we are capable of always acting rationally, any attempt to understand human nature and behavior that ignores our evolutionary inheritance is bound to be defective. We need only observe the ineffectiveness of campaigns to control the spread of AIDS when the appeal is made to abstinence from sex before marriage and fidelity in marriage alone which are fine, highly rational ideals, but fail utterly to cope with the danger when irrational drives take over.

If there is a lesson in all this, it is that ethics which is morality based on reason is ineffective if it ignores the vital role played by instinctual and the irrational. We may be indeed, as Aristotle said, "rational animals", but we are no longer being realistic if we forget that for all our rationality we are fundamentally still animals.


R W Kropf 1/14/06 Instinct.doc 06-01-14.html