Every man likes to think that his creed, religious, political, or social, is founded upon reason; but let the reader consider the beliefs of his acquaintances and he will soon realise that they depend far more upon early training, social position, and the general influence of surroundings than upon any reasoning process. After this exercise let him turn his critical powers upon his own beliefs and examine closely how far they are dependent upon reason or upon influences which he has not recognised before.
Who can say that, in the days when Home-Rulers and anti-Home-Rulers abounded, the average voter was swayed by a reasoned knowledge of the subject? Yet he was quite sure that his side was right and the other wrong, and found it hard to understand how any sane man could own the opinions the other fellows held. Let us picture two neighbours of opposite political beliefs:–if they are both keen gardeners they may exchange views about methods and manures, and in case of difference of opinion one will possibly convince the other by argument. On other matters, too, they will mutually be open to conviction. If one favours Ilfracombe for a holiday and the other swears by Torquay, the latter may decide to try Ilfracombe for a change. But let them discuss Home Rule till the crack of doom and neither will convince the other by any process of reasoning; yet each will believe firmly that his opinions are the results of reason, finding an infinity of argument to support them.
Or let anyone start a discussion on a so-called moral question, such as polygamy. He will arouse the warmest expressions of opinion that polygamy is sinful, absurd, and unworkable, and may point in vain to such countries as China, where it apparently works with no more trouble than occurs with our system. Reasons will be showered on him, but scarcely anyone will admit that he objects to polygamy because he has been taught to regard monogamy as the only proper state of marriage.
A man, honestly believing that he is always actuated by certain moral principles, may do things which others regard as opposed to those principles, and if approached on the subject will be greatly annoyed and produce a chain of argument to justify his actions.
Scarcely any of us are free from these failings; certain beliefs we keep stored away, allowing nothing to interfere with them. They are placed in logic-tight compartments and carefully guarded by a pseudo-reasoning which satisfies our desire for logical explanation.
To this pseudo-reasoning is given the name of ‘rationalisation’, and, lest anyone may be offended by finding the same term applied to the process by which lunatics defend their delusions, I will add that there is no dividing line between health and disease, and the modes of thought of the insane are not so very different from those of the ordinary man.
To return now to the subject of ‘logic-tight compartments’. Each contains a collection of ideas which are treated by the owner in a special way, cherished and guarded carefully from those forces which may cause modification. At the same time he will probably refuse to admit that they influence his consideration of certain questions related to them. The more logic-tight the compartment is, the more warmly does its owner defend it; but where plain reasoning is concerned few men can be roused to enthusiasm. Even though there may be people who regard the reasonings of Euclid as purely appeals to the emotions, what mathematician could grow excited about a man who denied the truth of the Fifth Proposition? But to run counter to a man’s political or social beliefs is a sure way to raise the controversial temperature.
As will be easily seen, rationalisation is of everyday occurrence with all of us, and the man who rationalises always believes he is reasoning.
Consider now the business rogue who makes a success of his roguery and then launches out as a philanthropist, still continuing his roguery as a permanent side-line. Such cases are not unknown, and the man seems able to carry on without any sense of conflict between his two activities. Or consider those not uncommon instances where a man prominent in religious work is detected in some financial crime; it is usual to regard him as a hypocrite who has used religion as a cloak, but it is equally probable that he was honestly religious, that his earliest steps into crime were reconciled to his principles by rationalisations, and, as he advanced, a logic-tight compartment was built up to prevent conflict between his wrong-doing and his self-respect.
In these examples we have a part of the stream which comes into contact with the main stream of consciousness only by means of a process of rationalisation which allows the two to exist without great mental conflict, but this will never be admitted by the owner, though other people may be acutely conscious of it.