They say by age seven a child should be exhibiting rational behavior and should have an understanding of right and wrong. But is it reasonable to expect a 7-year-old to rationalize correctly in every instance? Of course not. Our conscience, that little voice of reason we carry around in our head, is no further along in its development than is its dwelling place. Not until age 25 or so is this parental department of internal affairs, our conscience, expected to reach peak performance. Rationalizing correctly that a square peg does not shape up with a round hole is a good start in reasoning but it’s only a beginning — no hot air balloon ever attained ascension with its first puff of smoke. Still, somewhere between the introduction of smoke and getting the balloon off the ground, we begin the process of shaping our judgement, our arguments, our general outlook on life.

Implying that a square peg fits into a square hole is no less fundamental than an individual’s wanting to be better off than worse off. Let’s call it square-peg-square-hole reasoning. Who wouldn’t rather be better off than worse off? The symmetry of the two conditions — worse and better — couldn’t be more apparent and yet we’ve managed to blur the line between the two, muddy the logic of pegs and holes. Every day we find ourselves in a political dogfight for the right-of-way to “better off.” But the paths we champion lead in opposite directions. Only by flawed reasoning could we have reached such an impractical impasse. And it’s this glitch in reasoning that leads me to believe that rational behavior is a trifle more involved than pegs and holes.

One would think that embracing reason makes you a reasonable person, and that rejecting reason makes you an unreasonable person. But is it reasonable to assume that my approach to “better off” should be the same as yours? Is it reasonable to reason differently? Do we harbor different opinions of right and wrong? Is our standard, our model, our understanding, for what’s conceptually good or bad the same?

By all accounts, we’ve learned to reason differently, the proof found right here under America’s hard-won mantle of liberty. Right here in “the land of the free,” our reasoning has been exploited to the point of brainwashing. Under our very noses, the normal process of orderly, rational thinking has been laundered by persuasive salesmanship. We’ve been caught up in a media spin-cycle for so long that we’ve become two distinctly different sociopolitical philosophies. Our understanding of “better off” and “worse off” has been tampered with; the truth of our well-being, eclipsed by demagogues who would exploit popular prejudices, make false claims and promises for their own advancement. It’s as if President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “house divided” speech had never been given, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” never uttered. In the light of such division of spirit, it’s hard to believe that all reasoning stems from the same square-peg-square-hole logic of our infancy, or that the proposition that people would rather be better off than worse off is a reasonable assumption.

Because life is taught differently in different social and geographical settings, we deal differently with those salient pin pricks of conscience that guide our thinking, our reasoning. One hundred years before Lincoln, President Washington warned of the division of spirit. He gave a stern warning to those entrusted with the administration of government. He warned us, the people — the bearers of liberty — to be leery of those who would weaken our national union and the bond between free people. He warned us to be vigilant, warned us of those who would steal our liberty, sell us out, warned that “the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.”

Apart from God and his blessing of the soul, liberty, freedom from control, is our greatest treasure, without which, I have no doubt that we’d be worse off than better off.

Donald E. Melville, author and regular contributor to Messenger Post, resides in Honeoye. He welcomes your comments at donaldemelville@gmail.com.