Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind
Nonsense About Reason and Morality
Egad. An incredible amount of nonsense about reason and morality comes out of psychology and the social sciences.
Consider the following, Saletan's summary of this trainwreck of a position:
To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.
The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.
To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.
Look. Reason did not evolve in order to persuade. I'll bet Haidt or anyone else a large amount of money on that point right now. That view makes no sense whatsoever. This absurd view presupposes that we began with no ability to reason, but then reason evolved...what? Specifically in order to be hijacked by bad arguments? Jesus. And I thought philosophers were bad...
Reason evolved in order to help us survive by understanding and predicting the world. It's a very expensive ability, evolutionarily speaking, forcing us to have large brains, ergo big heads, ergo painful and dangerous childbirth and long childhoods. Evolution does not optimize, but it is not usually inefficient enough to spend that much on something utterly useless--in fact, counterproductive. Non-rational persuasion involves hijacking/short-circuiting the relevant mechanisms--and the mechanisms did not evolve in order to be hijacked. That you can be sure of.
The examples that Haidt cites are particularly ill-suited to establishing his hypothesis. Why not have sex with a dead chicken? Here's the answer:
When you ask people to give reasons for things that they have no reasons for, they are going to rationalize. Or, to use a more precise and apt locution: make shit up. This shows us nothing about the interesting cases, the cases in which reason works as it's supposed to. My leg is caught under a tree, and I hear growling nearby. I've never heard anything exactly like it before, but it reminds me of things I do know about, and not in a good way. I know that in the past I've been able to use levers to lift heavy objects. There's no lever nearby, but there are some branches left on the tree. None of them individually is thick enough, but together they might do the trick. So if I can just figure out how to cut them off...and so on... That
's a much more paradigmatic use of reason. And that's a use that evolution might actually, as it were, invest in. Reason does
work like a judge or a teacher in the most important, most common cases. Only people who spend too much of their time thinking about interactions with other people think otherwise. Spend some time on a farm or in a laboratory, and you'll see the light.
And what about incest? Seriously? The most notoriously non-rational and difficult-to-justify taboo (yes, taboo
) we've got? Hell, there probably is
no justification for the incest taboo. If it makes sense, it's damn hard to explain why, having something to do with familial social roles and the difference between siblings and lovers. (We're not talking, of course, about non-consensual sex between an adult and a child--we know why that's wrong. But consensual sex between, say, 30-year-old siblings raised apart? Damn hard to justify that proscription...)
But, uh, why not defecate in a urinal? Uh...because someone else will have to clean that sh*t (as it were) up? How complicated is that?
Yes, people can compete for social status, though they don't always. Yes, one can use reason to do so. Yes, one way of doing that is to try to persuade people. But impartial uses of reason are antecedent to such uses. First, you have to impartially and rationally figure out how to manipulate others. Then you have to mendaciously and irrationally manipulate them. The first phase is the most important and fundamental phase, and that's what attempts to understand and control others and attempts to understand and control the natural world have in common.
It takes about ten seconds of reflection to see this stuff. And it's depressing to see such a weak hypothesis get any attention at all. It's flashy, it's interesting...and in the way of most flashy and interesting hypotheses, it's false. Reminds my of that Cosmides and Tooby nonsense from a couple of years back...but worse.
OTOH, I do think that Haidt is probably right that the left is too prone to think that voters are always irrational when they vote for conservative policies. I can't tell you how many times I've heard liberals express outrage because conservatives "vote against their own self-interest," economically speaking. But, again, ten seconds does the trick: economic self-interest isn't the most important thing in most people's lives. If I think that abortion is murder, you're not going to be able to buy my vote by promising me lower taxes. Murder is more important than money, even if the murder is someone else's and the money is mine... We needn't say that these are moral "intuitions," but they are
deep-seated moral views, and not all of them on the right are loony.
Finally, as Saletan points out, Haidt's thesis is self-refuting, in that he himself is engaged in trying (however erroneously) to reason from evidence to conclusions in a dispassionate way. That's what reason is for, incidentally, and that's how it works at its best, even if it is frequently hijacked for irrational and nefarious purposes.
O.k., once again, I haven't read the book...but, once again, I don't have to. Life is short, Saletan is a good informant, and there are better books to spend my time on.
Jeez...IRL I'm not so cranky and dismissive... But jeez. The internet, it just tries my patience...