An Exercise for Sharpening One’s Thinking

From Herbert Simon, 1983, Reason in Human Affairs: “A useful, if outrageous, exercise for sharpening one’s thinking about the limited usefulness of reasoning, taken in isolation, is to attempt to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf analytically — as though preparing for a debate, The exercise is likely to be painful, but is revealing about how facts, values, and emotions interact in our thinking about human affairs. I pick this particular example because the reader’s critical faculties are unlikely, in this case, to be dulled by agreement with the views expressed.

“Most of us would take exception to many of Hitler’s ‘facts,’ especially his analysis of the causes of Europe’s economic difficulties, and most of all his allegations that Jews and Marxists (whom he also mistakenly found indistinguishable) were at the root of them. However, if we were to suspend disbelief for a moment and accept his ‘facts’ as true, much of the Nazi program would be quite consistent with goals of security for the German nation or even of welfare for the German people. Up to this point, the unacceptability of that program to us is not a matter of evil goals — no one would object to concern for the welfare of the German people — or of faulty reasoning from those goals, but rests on the unacceptability of the factual postulates that connect the goals to the program. From this viewpoint, we might decide that the remedy for Nazism was to combat its program by reason resting on better factual premises.

“But somehow that calm response does not seem to match the outrage that Mein Kampf produces in us. There must be something more to our rejection of its argument, and obviously there is, Its stated goals are, to put it mildly, incomplete. Statements of human goals usually distinguish between a ‘we’ for whom the goals are shaped and a ‘they’ whose welfare is not ‘our’ primary concern. Hitler’s ‘we’ was the German people — the definition of ‘we’ being again based on some dubious ‘facts’ about a genetic difference between Aryan and non-Aryan peoples. Leaving aside this fantasy of Nordic purity, most of us would still define ‘we’ differently from Hitler. Our ‘we’ might be Americans instead of Germans, or, if we had reached a twenty-first-century state of enlightenment, our ‘we’ might even be the human species. In either case, we would be involved in a genuine value conflict with Mein Kampf, a conflict not resolvable in any obvious way by improvements in either facts or reasoning. Our postulation of a ‘we’ — of the boundary of our concern for others — is a basic assumption about what is good and what is evil.

“Probably the greatest sense of outrage that Mein Kampf generates stems from the sharpness of the boundary Hitler draws between ‘we’ and ‘they.’ Not only does he give priority to ‘we,’ but he argues that any treatment of ‘they,’ however violent, is justifiable if it advances the goals of ‘we.’ Even if Hitler’s general goals and ‘facts’ were accepted, most of us would still object to the measures he proposes to inflict on ‘they’ in order to nurture the welfare of ‘we.’ If, in our system of values, we do not regard ‘they’ as being without rights, reason will disclose to us a conflict of values — a conflict between our value of helping ‘we’ and our general goal of not inflicting harm on ‘they.’ And so it is not its reasoning for which we must fault Mein Kampf, but its alleged facts and its outrageous values.

“There is another lesson to be learned from Mein Kampf. We cannot read many lines of it before detecting that Hitler’s reasoning is not cold reasoning but hot reasoning. We have long since learned that when a position is declaimed with passion and invective, there is special need to examine carefully both its premises and its inferences. We have learned this, but we do not always practice it, Regrettably, it is precisely when the passion and invective resonate with our own inner feelings that we forget the warning and become uncritical readers or listeners. Hitler was an effective rhetorician for Germans precisely because his passion and invectives resonated with beliefs and values already present in many German hearts. The heat of his rhetoric rendered his readers incapable of applying the rules of reason and evidence to his arguments. Nor was it only Germans who resonated to the facts and values he proclaimed, The latent anti-Semitism and overt anti-Communism of many Western statesmen made a number of his arguments plausible to them.

“And so we learned, by bitter experience and against our first quick judgments, that we could not dismiss Hitler as a madman, for there was method in his madness, His prose met standards of reason neither higher nor lower than we are accustomed to encountering in writing designed to persuade. Reason was not, could not have been, our principal shield against Nazism. Our principal shield was contrary factual beliefs and values.”