Reason is the slave of the passions.
So said David Hume, whom I’ve always considered to be one of the sanest of the grand old philosophers.
Put more simply, Hume was telling us a cautionary tale about human behaviour. We all have our own fervently held view of the world, and our behaviours and opinions only ever escape through that prism. Down one further order of simplicity, Hume was letting us in on the open secret that reasonable people can sometimes appear to act very unreasonably.
It’s arguable whether we need one of the great Empiricists to convince us of such a truism, when we can witness 50 shades of human oddity before leaving the house in the morning. But it is a phrase that I return to often when I witness some of the more strange behaviour in my own field of interest.
Child development is an area rigged to evoke the strongest of passions. Even with the supposed modern decline in moral standards, it is a rare set of parents who aren’t thrilled at the news of a pregnancy and bend their whole life around raising that child. To add to the passion, there is no manual to direct the rocky road of raising kids, and therefore everyone’s opinions come with a distinct flavour of unchallengeable authority.
Childhood has become the battleground of the passionate. This, I think, is something to celebrate rather than lose sleep over. The importance of the early childhood years cannot be overstated and it is our responsibility to do all we can to help children live a long, happy and healthy life.
But passion becomes dangerous when reason is thrown completely out the window, and the distinct lack of reason in much of the debates surrounding childhood shows just how forceful the passion is.
Caesarean sections, medication during labour, breast-feeding, social media: all are now subjects that can garner the fiercest of responses from even the mildest of people. When did these become topics that we fear to mention at a polite dinner party?
Of course, science has been incredibly helpful in mediating some of these arguments. But one of the major lessons that science has taught me is that there are few ‘black and whites’.
Is breast feeding the best option for infants? Yes, undoubtedly, where it is possible. But there are occasions where this isn’t possible. Why in the world would you criticise women who can’t breastfeed through no fault of their own?
Do social media have the potential to harm children? Yes, undoubtedly there is this potential. But Facebook and Twitter can also provide enormous amounts of joy. Why lambaste other parents for allowing their children to access these tools?
These aren’t the arguments of a ‘straw man’, these views are everywhere.
Again, I emphasise the importance of enthusiasm and passion when we discuss the ways that we can raise happy and healthy children. Life wouldn’t be much fun if we had to suppress those topics that were most dear to us, and very few positive advances in this world would have occurred without the passionate few.
But the heat in these arguments has risen far too high. A discussion where two people are merely waiting to hurl abuse at the other side is about as constructive as seeking the meaning of life from an episode of The Bachelor. It is difficult to see how we can advance conversations about these important topics under such circumstances.
Passion has not just enslaved reason, it is holding it hostage to the detriment of societal progress.
Andrew’s new book can be purchased here.
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