Many ethical systems aren’t so much rational as they are “post-rational.” As Santayana explained:
Aversion to rational ideals does not ... come ... from moral incoherence or religious prejudice. It does not come from lack of speculative power. On the contrary, it may come from undue haste in speculation, from a too ready apprehension of the visible march of things. The obvious irrationality of nature as a whole, too painfully brought home to a musing mind, may make it forget or abdicate its own rationality. In a decadent age, the philosopher who surveys the world and sees that the end of it is even as the beginning, may not feel that the intervening episode, in which he and all he values after all figure, is worth consideration; and he may cry, in his contemplative spleen, that all is vanity…
Pessimism, and all the moralities founded on despair, are not pre-rational but post-rational. They are the work of men who more or less explicitly have conceived the Life of Reason, tried it at least imaginatively, and found it wanting. These systems are a refuge from an intolerable situation: they are experiments in redemption. As a matter of fact, animal instincts and natural standards of excellence are never eluded in them, for no moral experience has other terms; but the part of the natural ideal which remains active appears in opposition to all the rest and, by an intelligible illusion, seems to be no part of that natural ideal because, compared with the commoner passions on which it reacts, it represents some simpler or more attenuated hope—the appeal to some very humble or very much chastened satisfaction, or to an utter change in the conditions of life.
Post-rational morality is, then, the morality of a chastened experience, of disillusion and societal decadence. Santayana identifies not merely religious moralities as post-rational, but even such secular moralities as stoicism and Epicureanism. These are all moralities of despair. They are devised by philosophers who have found the eudaimonism of rational ethics unworkable. Happiness is ephemeral, vain, and impossible, these philosophers decided. Retrenchment in some other moral standard, such as the absence of pain (Epicureanism), indifference to fate (stoicism), comfort in the benevolence of the supernatural (Christianity), the embrace an "unworldly" “spiritual life” (Plotinus, Spinoza, Santayana), or the achievement of “nirvana” through ascetic or spiritual discipline (Schopenhauer, Buddhism) becomes the central focus of the moral philosopher.
When Santayana, in the first decade of the twentieth century, introduced his theory of post-rational morality, he was clearly on the side of rational ethics. But later in life, he slightly modified his view, supplementing his rational ethics with post-rational values. In 1940, he was criticized for this change by some American pragmatists, who, sympathizing with Santayana’s earlier views, regarded the Spanish-American philosopher’s increasing obsession with the “spiritual life” as a betrayal of The Life of Reason. In his “Apologia Pro Mente Sua,” Santayana responded by pointing out that rational ethics is itself based on pre-rational impulses. After all, there can no such thing as a rational end—as Hume demonstrated. “ Reason alone can be rational, but it does not follow that reason alone is good,” Santayana explained. “The criterion of worth remains always the voice of nature, truly consulted, in the person who speaks.”
Since the voice of nature speaks uniquely to each individual, secluded in the egotism of his personal perspective, what is to prevent morality from sinking into narrowness and provincialism? Santayana proposes, as a counter-measure to moral perspectivism, an “ulterior shift” to post-rational morality. Rational morality seeks to establish harmony within the human psyche and the human world. But an individual chastened by the ultimate vanity of human goals might wish to extend this harmony, “not merely within the human psyche or within the human world, but between this world and the psyche on the one hand and the universe, the truth, or God on the other.” This involves a passage “from morality to religion,” admitted Santayana; “but not so as to destroy morality, because religion itself only adds a fresh passion (reason raised to a higher power and taking a broader view) to the passions that reason undertakes to harmonize.” By “higher power” Santayana does not mean some type of religious entity, like a God or a spirititual power. The phrase is used here to suggest an expansion of reason from a mere method of determining the means to achieving ends to a species of wisdom that seeks to see truth under the aspect of eternity, as Aristotle and Spinoza, in their more grandiose moments, sought to see truth. In other words, we are talking about viewing truth for its own sake, rather than as means for attaining some naturalistic end. The chastened spirit, recognizing the ultimate vanity of rational ethics, seeks consolation in purely intellectual pursuits. “I see the perfect continuity of post-rational with rational and pre-rational morality,” explained Santayana. “We begin with the instinct of animals, sometimes ferocious, sometimes placid, sometimes industrious, always self-justified and self-repeating [i.e., we begin with pre-rational morality]; we proceed to a certain teachableness by experience to a certain tradition and progress in the arts [i.e., we proceed to rational ethics]; we proceed further to general reflection, to tragic discoveries, to transformed interests [i.e., we culminate in post-rational morality].” “To draw the sum total of our account, and ask what do we gain, what do we lose, is possible at any moment of reflection, whatever the wealth or paucity of our experience,” Santayana noted. “But it is the impulse to reflect, not the impulse to acquire or to venture, that is here at work; and reason, instead of looking for the means to achieving given ends, has become an autonomous interest capable of criticising those ends. To itself therefore it seems reason liberated rather than reason abandoned.” In other words, the shift to a post-rational attitude, although ultimately founded on pre-rational sentiment, is nevertheless in accordance with reason, and is therefore entirely consistent with rational ethics, even when it criticizes these ethics or finds them vain or comfortless.
“I should therefore ask [my critics] to admit post-rational sentiment into their life of reason as an element,” concluded Santayana, “and to coordinate it with all the other profound and perennial elements in human nature. If they refuse to do so, it seems to me that rational life in them would itself sink to the pre-rational level. They would be fighting for a closed circle of accidental interests, established by them as absolute and alone legitimate, and fighting in the pre-rational jungle, like cats and dogs, or like prophets crying anathema to all other prophets.” [The Philosophy of George Santayana,, 560-565)
There is every reason to believe that Rand would have despised the notion of a post-rational morality based on “tragic discoveries” and “transformed interests.” Rand’s view, as stated by intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff, is that, while “accidents and failures are possible, they are not ... the essence of human life. On the contrary, the achievement of values is the norm”—provided that the individual follows the Objectivist morality. There are a number of serious problems here. In the first place, Rand’s notion of the benevolent universe principle is fraught with mischievous implications. Achievement of values and the personal happiness that goes with it are, Rand declares, the norm for those who follow her morality. So what does this mean for the person who does not achieve their values, but who instead endures misery and hardship? What does Rand have to say to this individual? Only one of two things: (1) that this individual is an unlucky exception to the general rule; or (2) that this individual has not followed the Objectivist morality and therefore deserves his misfortune. I would suggest that neither of these answers is adequate to console the individual in the face of suffering and tragedy. Indeed, Rand's two responses verge toward mockery and denigration
There are also serious questions whether “achievement of values” really is the norm. In real life, people experience both achievement and disappointment, suffering and happiness. A philosophy with any depth or wisdom at its core will take account of both the good and the bad in human life. It won’t simply sweep the bad under some jejune “benevolent universe” premise. Nor will it moralize the issue by implying that unhappy people are immoral and deserve their unhappiness. Psychology has discovered that, at least for some people, the level of happiness they are capable of reaching is probably genetically determined. For this reason, a rational ethics, with its stress on eudaimonic values, cannot serve everyone’s needs. People cannot be happy all the time. One way or another, whether they like it or not, they will suffer. Achieving moral perfection, even on Objectivist terms, will not cure the ills of the human condition. A philosophy that merely tells people to be happy, or insists they would be happy if only they followed this or that code of ethics, is a philosophy addressed to only one aspect of existence. It’s a philosophy for those unserious, superficial thinkers afraid of tackling the really difficult issues confronting the human species.
Philosophy is chiefly concerned with tackling problems—the more difficult, the better. Happiness, benevolence, joy are not problems. Most people agree in finding them desirable. Suffering, pain, disappointment, tragedy constitute very serious problems. They do so even when they don’t represent the norm. The fact that they occur at all gives them a special importance that no serious thinker can ignore.
Post-rational moralities such as stoicism, epicureanism, Buhddism and Christianity have each, in their own way, tried to grapple with these darker issues. For this reason, if for no other, such systems have a leg up on Objectivism when it comes to dealing with the tragic side of existence; which is to say, there is much that can be learned from them. We can learn not merely from their successes, but from their failures as well. To approach these moral systems with contempt, merely because they are not fully “rational” (i.e., because they don’t agree with Objectivism), constitutes yet another lapse into superficiality and fatuousness.
Rand’s failure to appreciate and learn from other points of view is symptomatic of her general failure to take a broader point of view. Her ethical philosophy is indeed guilty of “fighting for a closed circle of accidental interests, established ... as absolute and alone legitimate.” Most of the virtues she extols are virtues that apply, if they apply at all, only to a small number of people—nor could they ever be extended to mankind in general without doing a great deal of mischief. Her moralizing contempt for people who disagree with her only serves to isolate herself more firmly within the pre-rational jungle. It also prevents her and her orthodox followers from ever incorporating post-rational sentiment into their philosophy. Yet without this post-rational incorporation, Objectivism can never be considered a complete philosophy addressed to the chief problems of human existence.