The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
This post by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt is a response to two previous articles in The Stone — one by Gary Gutting, the other by Michael P. Lynch — which argued against certain views on reason found in Haidt’s recent book, “The Righteous Mind.”
Among the most memorable scenes in movie history is Toto’s revelation that the thundering head of the Wizard of Oz is actually animated by a small man behind a curtain, who lamely says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Modern psychology has, to some extent, pulled the curtain back on human reasoning and shown it to be much less impressive than it sometimes pretends to be, and much more driven by the hidden force of intuition.
In separate essays in The Stone last week, Michael P. Lynch and Gary Gutting both argued that reason can do far more than I give it credit for in my recent book, “The Righteous Mind.” Lynch in particular urges us not to give up hope for a democracy based on the exchange of reasons, and he tries to use my own arguments to counter my cynicism: “The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons.” But I never said that reason plays no role in judgment. Rather, I urged that we be realistic about reasoning and recognize that reasons persuade others on moral and political issues only under very special circumstances.
I developed an idea from Howard Margolis, the distinguished social scientist who died in 2009, that two basic kinds of cognitive events are “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why.” (These terms correspond roughly to what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others call “System 1” and “System 2” and that I call the “elephant” and the “rider.”) We effortlessly and intuitively “see that” something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or “reasons why,” which we can give to others. Both processes are crucial for understanding belief and persuasion. Both are needed for the kind of democratic deliberation that Lynch (and I) want to promote.
I’d like to show how these two processes work together by offering here a figure that I cut from my book a few months before turning in the manuscript, thinking it would be too confusing for a broad audience.
In the figure (adapted from Margolis) I’ve drawn a two-dimensional epistemological space showing the four cognitive states you might be in as you hear and discuss a story about X — let’s suppose that X is two adult siblings having consensual safe sex. The horizontal dimension is intuition: you intuitively “see that” X is bad (in which case you start on the left edge of the figure). The vertical dimension is “reasoning-why”: you search for reasons why X is bad (you try to reason your way downward). There are only two safe, comfortable spots on the table: the lower-left corner, where your intuitions say that X is bad and you have reasons to support your condemnation, and the upper-right corner, where your intuitions say that X is good and you have reasons to support that claim. People in those two corners believe that they have knowledge, or justified true belief. So how does a typical moral argument proceed?
Let’s suppose you find yourself in the lower-left corner: you intuitively condemn Julie and Mark (the two siblings), and you think you have good reasons to back up that condemnation. Your opponent is a libertarian who believes that people should be able to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, so she starts off in the upper-right corner. She has an intuitive sense of the importance of personal autonomy, and she has reasons to support her endorsement of Julie’s and Mark’s autonomy. According to Margolis, people don’t change their minds unless they move along the horizontal dimension. Intuition is what most matters for belief. Yet a moral argument generally consists of round after round of reasoning. Each person tries to pull the other along the vertical dimension. Therefore, if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment. You’ve been dragged into the upper-left quadrant, but you still feel, intuitively, that it’s wrong for Julie and Mark to have sex. You start sounding like the participants in my studies, one of whom said, “Gosh, this is hard. I really — um, I mean, there’s just no way I could change my mind, but I just don’t know how to — how to show what I’m feeling.”
This, I suggest, is how moral arguments proceed when people have strong intuitions anchoring their beliefs. And intuitions are rarely stronger than when they are part of our partisan identities. So I’m not saying that reasons “play no role in moral judgment.” In fact, four of the six links in my Social Intuitionist Model are reasoning links. Most of what’s going on during an argument is reasoning. Rather, I’m saying that reason is far less powerful than intuition, so if you’re arguing (or deliberating) with a partner who lives on the other side of the political spectrum from you, and you approach issues such as abortion, gay marriage or income inequality with powerfully different intuitive reactions, you are unlikely to effect any persuasion no matter how good your arguments and no matter how much time you give your opponent to reflect upon your logic.
If Lynch’s “hope for reason” is that we can someday create a political culture in which partisans will change their minds as a result of democratic discussions that focus on the vertical dimension only, then I do not share his hope. But as an intuitionist, I see hope in an approach to deliberative democracy that uses social psychology to calm the passions and fears that make horizontal movement so difficult.
One of the issues I am most passionate about is political civility. I co-run a site at www.CivilPolitics.org where we define civility as “the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.” We explain our goals like this: “We believe this ability [civility] is best fostered by indirect methods (changing contexts, payoffs and institutions) rather than by direct methods (such as pleading with people to be more civil, or asking people to sign civility pledges).” In other words, we hope to open up space for civil disagreement by creating contexts in which elephants (automatic processes and intuitions) are calmer, rather than by asking riders (controlled processes, including reasoning) to try harder.
We are particularly interested in organizations that try to create a sense of community and camaraderie as a precondition for political discussions. For example, a group called To the Village Square holds bipartisan events for citizens and community leaders in Tallahassee, Fla. They usually eat together before talking about politics — an effort to push a primitive cooperation button by breaking bread together. They talk a lot about their common identity as Tallahasseans. These are all efforts to manipulate participants — to change the warp of the epistemological table so that the horizontal dimension isn’t so steeply tilted, which opens up the possibility that good arguments offered by friends will move people, at least a trace, along the vertical dimension.
This is the approach that I took when writing “The Righteous Mind.” Lynch and Gutting both assert that if my argument about the limits of reason were correct, then I contradicted myself by writing a book offering reasons why my argument was correct. But I never said that reasons were irrelevant. I said that they were no match for intuition, and that they were usually a servant of one’s own intuitions. Therefore, if you want to persuade someone, talk to the elephant first. Trigger the right intuitions first. And that’s exactly what I did in the book. I didn’t rush in with summaries of the scientific literature. Rather, as I explained to readers (on p. 50):
I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology.
Gutting grants that my strategy is effective: “Haidt is convincing largely because his experiments resonate so well with what we find in our pre-scientific experience.” Would Lynch and Gutting say that I was being manipulative by trying to create such intuitive resonance? Was this the moral equivalent of dropping a drug in the water supply to cause people to agree with me?
I don’t think I was being any more manipulative than To the Village Square, or than Martin Luther King Jr., who used metaphors and oratorical skills to make his moral arguments intuitively resonant. As I see it, I was addressing myself to the horizontal dimension of the epistemological space first, trying to pull skeptical readers over to the right, or at least to the midline of the map (in Chapters 1 and 2 of the book) before offering them reams of evidence and arguments (in Chapters 3 and 4) to try to pull them up into the upper right corner. Reasons matter, reasons produce movement on the epistemological map, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.
This is why there has been such rapid movement on gay marriage and gay rights. It’s not because good arguments have suddenly appeared, which nobody thought of in the 1990s. The polling data show a clear demographic transition. Older people, who grew up in an environment where homosexuality was hidden and shameful, often still feel a visceral disgust at the thought of it. But younger people, who grew up knowing gay people and seeing gay couples on television, have no such disgust. For them, the arguments are much more persuasive.
Read previous contributions to this series.
To move on to another point, Gutting argues that I oversimplified the rationalism of the great moral philosophers, and surely I have. I am particularly pleased to learn that Plato was more keenly aware than I had realized of the importance of social context for the cultivation of good reasoning. But when Gutting suggests that I don’t take such philosophers seriously “because they don’t proceed like empirical scientists, testing their ideas through experiments,” I must disagree.
Throughout my career I have sought insights into morality from many disciplines. I found the experimental work in moral psychology to be mostly sterile and uninspiring. My early heroes were philosophers (like David Hume, Allan Gibbard and Owen Flanagan), sociologists (like Emile Durkheim), historians (like Keith Thomas) and anthropologists (like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske). My heroes were the ones who had what I thought was the right view of human nature, emphasizing emotions, intuitions and the power of social and cultural forces. (Gutting is right that I should have cited Nietzsche, MacIntyre and Nussbaum.) To the extent that I seem disrespectful toward rationalist philosophers, it is because I found it frustrating to read the false psychological assumptions woven into many of their arguments.
But I hope I did not come across as disdainful of philosophy in general. I love Aristotle’s emphasis on habit — and I had a long section on virtue ethics in Chapter 6 that got cut at the last minute, but which I have just now posted online here. And in my last book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I quoted and praised philosophers in most of the 10 chapters, from Epictetus and Boethius through Montaigne and Nietzsche. Philosophers were the best psychologists for more than 2,000 years, and many of their insights have been validated by experimental psychology.
I should also say that philosophers have the best norms for good thinking that I have ever encountered. When my work is critiqued by a philosopher I can be certain that he or she has read me carefully, including the footnotes, and will not turn me into a straw man. More than any other subculture I know, the philosophical community embodies the kinds of normative pressures for reason-giving and responsiveness to reasons that Allan Gibbard describes in “Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.” I wish such norms could be sprinkled into the water supply of Washington. Alas, as Plato tells us, paraphrased by Gutting, truth arises “only from the right sort of discussion among inquirers accountable to one another.” Politics is a very different game from philosophy, and partisans are accountable to their teammates and their funders, not to one another. If we’re ever going to tone down the demonizing and open up space for compromise and collaboration in our political lives, I’d start by hiring Glaucon as a management consultant, and I’d work with him to redesign the social world of Washington and the institutions within which politicians work. I’d want to make good thinking and openness to compromise redound to a politicians credit, and make hyperpartisan posturing and inflexibility become sources of shame.
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. He is the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” and of “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.”