Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: The Subjectivity of Reasonableness

This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Communityin Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here


It’s quite possible that the line I quote most often from Pádraig is this: “Most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time.” I first read it on page 93 of Pádraig’s gorgeous book In the Shelter. When he wrote it there, he repeated it, so I will too.

Most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time.

It’s such a helpful sentence to me. For one, because Pádraig rarely speaks in absolutes. He’s wise enough to know the world doesn’t really work that way. He makes a declarative statement, one I believe is true, and he builds caveats into this single sentence from the start.

It’s not that everyone all the time is being reasonable. That’s obviously not true. It’s that most people are probably doing what they consider reasonable. And even that needs nuancing: “most of the time.” Sometimes, people act in ways that even they can acknowledge are unreasonable. Most of the time, however, it’s likely helpful to assume people behave in ways that make sense to them.

Why is this worth writing about?

For starters, because it’s an often under-considered truth. But it’s true nonetheless. We know it from our own experience of ourselves. It’s rare we wake up and think, “Today I’ll behave unreasonably.” No matter the action, most of the time what we say and do either makes sense to us at the time, or we find ways to rationalize them after.

The second reason is that this truth is not only under-considered, but it’s frequently rejected. We are living in particularly polarized times. We’re constantly dismissing one another as ridiculous, irrational, even dangerous. We make little effort to comprehend the point of view, much less the experience, of those we see as political or theological opposites. Rejecting this truth lets us sidestep empathy.

It’s important to say, however, that simply because a political position or policy, for instance, seems reasonable to someone doesn’t mean they should receive a green-light to move forward. Empathy doesn’t mean granting impunity. Policies that inflict harm are still policies that inflict harm, whether they seem reasonable to those who defend them or not. Slavery, Jim Crow, genocide—these all seemed reasonable at the time.

I’m thinking today about the separation of families at the border. There are people who believe this is reasonable. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Personally, I think the practice is indefensible. Even evil.

Based on my Twitter feed, many people agree. I think we wade into treacherous waters, though, when we conclude that the only way to support policies we see as evil is to be evil oneself.

This is at best unproductive and at worst dangerous. How do you deal with evil accept to eradicate it—whether policy or person?

If we accept, however, that people believe they’re acting reasonably, whatever they support, we must ask ourselves, with openness, “How could this be perceived as reasonable? What paradigm, hermeneutic, framework, needs, and values would I need to have in order to think this makes sense?”

When we begin asking such questions, questions that approach empathy, we come closer to discovering the root of a problem we can actually begin to address.

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