The Age of Reason

As infants are transformed into children, they learn to distinguish between, on the one hand, goods and, on the other, objects of desire. “Don’t eat, take, do that!” says the parent. “But I want it!” replies the child. “It will be bad for you,” says the parent. Or perhaps what the parent says is “Don’t eat, take, do that now. It will be better to leave it until later,” to which the reply is “But I want it now!” Why should children do what their parents take to be good for them rather than what they want? Why should a child defer the satisfaction of its wants because its parent takes it to be better to do so? Initially, it can only be because the child desires the parent’s approval and fears its disapproval, a disapproval sometimes expressed in punishment. But later the good-enough parent provides reasons for dis- criminating between objects of desire and hopes that the child will come to recognize these reasons as good reasons. How might a child do so?

One of the salient differences between young human beings and the young of other species is that the former, unlike the latter, are at a certain point treated as accountable for their actions. “What was/is the good of doing that?” they are asked, not only by parents and by other adults but also by their contemporaries, and this in a number of contexts. For as they are initiated into a variety of practices at home, at school, in the workplace, they learn to recognize goods internal to each practice, goods that they and other participants can achieve only through the exercise of virtues and skills. If and when they fail in respect of these, they will commonly be put to the question. So they find themselves having to give reasons for their actions to others and on occasion having to advance arguments in support of those reasons. They become rational agents when they first pose such questions to themselves about their own failures and act upon the answers. If they are so to act, they must of course be motivated by the prospect of achieving those goods that have provided them with what they take to be good reasons for acting. Their desires must to some large degree direct them as their reasoning directs them. Insofar as this is so, they will have begun to become accountable rational agents, accountable both to themselves and to others.

Aladair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, pp. 37-38.

One thought on “The Age of Reason

  1. A bit tangential, but why have we Latins come to associate receiving Holy Communion for the first time with the Age of Reason/Discretion, if formerly we had not done so (and other non-Latin Catholic traditions keep the ancestral praxis)?

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