Monday, March 26, 2012

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...


Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Two comments.

First, I think the word you're looking for to describe this hypothesis is *meretricious*.

Second, I don't have a problem with the conservative who 'votes against their own economic self-interest'. Heck, Warren Buffett does the same thing and we liberals don't criticize him.

No, the problem I have is with the conservative who votes against their economic self-interest *thinking that they are actually voting in their own self-interest*. That, my friend, is a product of dreadful ignorance, an ignorance that has been ruthlessly developed and marketed by the right wing over the past 30 or so years. And as Barack Obama said, it's as if they're actually proud of their ignorance.h

And you're right about economic self-interest possibly not being the most important thing in some people's lives. If I thought abortion was murder, there is a good chance I'd vote for the pro-life candidate too.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Actually, reading the book does help!

One thing you would learn is that the idea that reason evolved to persuade others doesn't originate with Haidt. This idea has received attention recently as a result of work by others trying to figure out, among other things, why reasoning appears to occur after a decision is reached instead of before, why it so often doesn't work, why higher IQ often makes the problem worse instead of better, and so on.

You would also learn that Haidt doesn't presuppose that there was no such thing as reason, and then it evolved to persuade others--that's a straw man of your own creation. (I'll let you decide if your logical leap there fits Haidt's theory.) He acknowledges that reason is also for exactly the kind of thing you bring up, which significantly doesn't necessarily rely much on high language skills. He doesn't sort all this out as well as he might, but he appears to have in mind what some think of as higher reason, particularly the language-centered lawyerly skills of reasoning that can be used to justify. Those in particular he thinks were shaped by evolution mainly to justify ourselves, which isn't such an unreasonable view in light of the array of evidence he considers in the book.

Haidt allows that (this kind of) reason works well in some situations, particularly where our own interests, including our values, aren't at stake, and especially where we have others around to correct our lapses, as in science.

Concerning Lewis Carroll's comment, there are very smart economists whose acceptance of conservative economics, including the view that it helps the average person, can't be blamed on ignorance.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Yes, Sanpete, there is another factor on which to blame some economists' acceptance of conservative economics: venality. Or what Brad DeLong likes to call 'Playing for team Republican'. He has called them out on it so many times you could write a book about it.

And when honest conservatives like Bruce Bartlett call them out on it, they get excommunicated.

The modern-day 'conservative' economist plays the part of a Lysenko-like apparatchik, providing the 'intellectual legitimacy' for the continued sale of snake oil.

But it does bear out one of their signature beliefs: the import of narrow self-interest in explaining decision-making. They certainly know how one secures a well-paying sinecure in a Republican administration or right-wing "Think Tank".

10:47 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

But Sanpete, surely you see that none of that constitutes a sound response to the criticisms, right?

First, I didn't say that the hypothesis *did* originate with Haidt. I know it's been floating around for a bit. More importantly, Haidt et. al. now have to have a bifurcated account of reason, such that it operates one way when "high language skills" are involved, and another way when other stuff is involved.

Finally, none of this answers the really important objection: evolution typically doesn't equip us in the way that Haidt et. al. are supposing. Presumably the ability to generate reasons and the capacity to be responsive to reasons evolved simultaneously (as part of a generalized capacity to figure things out...though we can leave that off to the side for now.) An ability to persuade won't evolve unless there is already a capacity to be moved by reasons. If there is already a capacity to be moved the (the relevant types of) reasons, then the capacity is independent of persuasion.

The ordinary theory--that reason evolved as a set of generalized capacities that are are sometimes hijacked by non-rational attempts as persuasion--faces none of the problems of the proposed hypothesis.

The proposed hypothesis, however, faces the problem of giving an ad hoc bifurcated account, and of having to explain why an organism would ever evolve the capacity to be guided by "high-order" linguistic reasons, if the only thing such a capacity does is give an advantage to other organisms that are trying to manipulate it.

Look, all sorts of crackpot hypotheses are worthy of testing. Test away on this one if you like...but it's not going to turn out to be true.

I'm a little cranky about this because it's just the latest in a long series of debunking accounts of reason to come out of psych. It gets old. Still, that's just a report of why it annoys me.

OTOH, one might try to make persuasion analogous to, say, physical beauty, and argue that physical beauty and a capacity to be moved by it co-evolved in some way...

9:03 AM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Lewis Carroll, one of Haidt's main points is that "morality binds and blinds." That is, strong values tend to bind us together into teams and blind us to the defects of our team and its views. That's not only true of the other team.

Brad DeLong is a good example. He relishes pointing out what he sees as the dishonesty and immunity to facts of the other side, while he he refuses to recognize his own similar lapses. (At his blog he sometimes won't even permit such lapses to be pointed out, however respectfully and however directly on topic. He deletes posts. I know this from repeated personal experience.) Smart as he is, his analysis is generally partisan and blind to points that don't confirm his bias.

Your criticism of conservatives shows some blindness to directly relevant and obvious points. Many conservative economists aren't in think tanks or getting payed extra for their conservative views. They teach at universities and live on their salaries. It isn't ignorance or venality that leads to their beliefs. They're no more team-bound than DeLong and many other liberal economists.

Another of Haidt's main points is that our differences in values are sincerely held, not dishonest.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Winston, however reason first arose, it's not a problem to suppose it may have evolved considerably since. If it was most useful for persuasion, then it's quite reasonable to theorize that's what most shaped it. If the adaptation of self-justification is a "short circuit" and/or further development of a previous trait, that's not a problem for Haidt's view at all.

It isn't ad hoc to propose that something with bifurcated functions has a bifurcated explanation. That the competing functions of reason have distinct explanations would be perfectly natural. A short circuit would likely be selected against unless it was adaptive. This particular short circuit gives every sign of being selected for.

To be clear, Haidt doesn't believe the only function of justificatory reason is to persuade and manipulate. As I pointed out, he believes it functions for truth finding in some contexts. But the degree to which it doesn't function that way is impressive. Even in this discussion there is plenty to support Haidt's view about its main function.

Since you haven't seen most of the evidence and don't know what the arguments are, your confident conclusions and accusations of crackpottery are premature, not merely cranky.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


I'm not sure you are seriously engaging with the argument here. For example, the first point in your last comment seems like mere evasion of the substance of the point. Regardless of whether we're talking about how our capacity for relatively complex reasoning arose, or whether we're talking about subsequent modifications of the ability, in neither case does it make sense to suggest that its primary purpose is rationalization or persuasion.

Rationalization and persuasion only make sense against a background of normal attempts to e.g. get at the truth, achieve goals, explain our actions, etc. It is implausible in the extreme that we would evolve a capacity primarily to give bogus explanations of our own behavior and to allow other people to manipulate us. It makes perfect sense that we might evolve reason for the normal reasons, and that that capacity might often be misused.

People easily become annoyed with such just-so stories from psychology and the social sciences because there is a history there of producing inane debunking accounts of reason. Freud comes to mind...

And, incidentally: no, not every short-circuit is selected against. To assert that it is is to fall into Panglossianism. Evolution does not optimize, it satisfices.

It's not that I want to slam the door on Haidt. It's rather that the story doesn't make sense, and that it sounds too much like just another naive, flashy, flash-in-the-pan debunking account of reason. I've heard it all before, I can predict how this will end. I have a pretty good idea how this hypothesis will be regarded 20 years hence. Life is short, and one can't carefully explore every dead-end that becomes fashionable.

Incidentally, there's a lesson there that folks on Haidt's side of the fence might want to come to grips with. When people are resistant to attempts at persuasion, and resistant to chancing what they already think, it's not because the function of reason is to "rationalize" what we already think--that makes no sense at all. Rather, people often resist new evidence that runs up against beliefs which have been supported over a long period of time by lots of experience. The refusal to change such a belief quickly and without long thought is not obviously irrational. In fact, that's how science operates, too. Well-established theories are not thrown away as soon as a bit of evidence goes against them.

The phenomena cited by Saletan and by you can all easily be accommodated with much more modest hypotheses. Reason is a generalized capacity to figure things out. Sometimes people have entrenched beliefs that are irrationally immune from evidence. Sometimes they rationally resist capricious belief-modification. Sometimes people feel like they ought to give reasons when they don't have any. And sometimes people are just bullshitters. None of these phenomena require us to suppose that the purpose of human reason is to bullshit.

Myself, I've seen hypotheses like this come and go, and carefully explored some of them. They always turn out to be dead ends. By induction, I conclude that this one will be as well.

Needless to say, I could be wrong...

If I were stranded on a desert island with Haidt's book, no doubt I'd be happy to dive into it. But as things stand, when one makes decisions about what to spend one's time on, triage is always necessary...

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Actually Sanpete, DeLong may delete comments and run his blog with a heavy hand, but it doesn't mean he's wrong on the merits. And he has repeatedly demonstrated how intellectually dishonest right wing economists are by showing them contradicting themselves repeatedly.

There is a long list of conservative economic mythology that has been proven conclusively wrong during its ascendancy over the past 30 years, including the efficient market hypothesis, tax cuts increasing revenue and promote economic growth, government spending crowding out private investment via higher interest rates even during a crisis, the superiority of privatization to government provision of public goods, and on and on. But conservative economists prattle on and on with this 'Zombie Economics' as John Quiggin calls it.

If economics is going to have pretensions of being a science, then it must account for the empirical data over the past 30 or so years which show that neoliberal or supply-side economics does NOT increase overall societal welfare by any objective measure. This is borne out both by time series comparisons within the US and international comparisons of things like inequality and social mobility. Any economist who wants to defend conservative economic principles based on their belief, as you say, that it "helps the average person" needs to address how their treasured policies have empirically failed.

And just because an economist works at a university and lives on their salary doesn't mean that they aren't a part of the conservative propaganda machine. Check out where the funding for the 'Mercatus Institute' at George Mason University gets most of its funding.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Winston, I'm not sure I understand the point you think I evaded, which I don't see in a similar form in your earlier posts. I'm thinking you mean something like this: the ability to use reason to persuade depends on reason being in general a means of getting at truth, otherwise it wouldn't persuade. One might make a rough analogy to lying, which requires a general background of honesty to work. Further, it implies a capacity to be manipulated that has no fitness advantage. My confidence that I'm following your point about this is low, so please correct me if I'm not.

First, Haidt's view doesn't imply our explanations or their purposes are "bogus" or "bullshit," as you put it. Justification is typically a good-faith effort to support what we're already inclined to regard as the truth. In general it isn't anything akin to lying. For example, in this discussion we're both expressing our real views and exercising our rational capacities in good faith. But we do so in an effort to preserve and promote our own views.

So justification does take place against a background of truth as we see it, and is generally an effort at truth-affirming, but normally not new-truth seeking except as it would support our beliefs or values. Those we try to persuade can rely on our good faith to that extent.

I don't see any problem with that similar to what I've supposed you were getting at, but please do point out the issue you have in mind again if I missed it.

A capacity to be persuaded is an entirely natural consequence of the capacity to be moved by our own reasons, as you point out. It would be adaptive even beyond its value for truth finding because it facilitates what Haidt calls groupishness, a huge fitness advantage. (Its flexible requirement for rigor is probably a feature, not a bug, in facilitating groupishness. More rigor would result in more doubt and less cohesion about things involving values, where truth only loosely intervenes.)

Haidt's view is influenced by Hume's view that reason is a slave to the passions, a view that has always made good sense to me.

Keep in mind too that among the evidence Haidt considers is that it appears from brain scanning and so on that decisions occur before the reasoning about them.

I agree that sticking with old ideas isn't generally irrational. It may help get more rational results (even in politics where it usually falls to conservatives to play that role). That doesn't mean self-justification isn't typically the mechanism driving our justificatory reasoning. I couldn't detect in what you said why that wouldn't make any sense.

I don't assert that every short circuit is selected against, of course.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Lewis Carroll, I didn't say DeLong was generally wrong. My point is that as a human being he's not as different from those he criticizes as he or you imagine. Like them, he makes howling errors at times, and refuses to accept facts, sometimes facts that would show he's wrong about what he thought was dishonesty. He and you would immediately interpret his behavior as dishonesty on the other side, but for your side it's mere heavy-handedness or whatever.

You accept DeLong's demonstrations as definitive because you're heavily biased in their favor and not inclined to look for disconfirmatory evidence. Economics is complex enough in practice that it's virtually always possible to find or at least theorize other factors that explain away what doesn't fit one's views, if they have any plausible theoretical foundation, as both sides in this case do. And you're still resisting the point that there are very smart conservative economists who don't have financial incentives to have the beliefs they do. (There are conservative economists in most large econ departments and many small ones.) You're blinded by your team-based morality, as Haidt would put it.

This doesn't imply there's no right or wrong, but it complicates the process of sorting out things like economics and politics, and can easily confound the process if you don't take it into account.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Here’s almost certainly how it happened: we slowly got more and more rational, and started developing a capacity to understand/explain things in fairly explicit ways. One of the things that we would have sought to understand and explain is people. It is unsurprising that we would sometimes seek to explain—and justify—our own actions. And also unsurprisingly, sometimes our justifications would be bogus. We often have to hypothesize about why we believe and do things—it is not always clear even to us. And, of course, sometimes we bullshit, and sometimes we lie. And sometimes we just get it wrong. None of this means that reason arose in order to bullshit, or lie or get things wrong... Sometimes we make stuff up about why we believe things; but more languagey reasoning skills did not evolve in order to make stuff up.

It is unsurprising that sometimes we don’t reason before we settle on an answer. No one thinks otherwise. Sometimes we have to slog through evidence and struggle to find a conclusion; sometimes we’ve done the thinking in the past, and long ago settled on a conclusion. One goal of reason is to figure things out so that in the future our reactions are habitual, and we don’t have to figure them out again. Sometimes we don’t have a reason, but feel as if we should, so grasp for something. None of this is a challenge at all to more standard views of reason. It is no surprise at all that we often know what we think before the parts of our brains associated with reasoning start doing their thing.

Could the "purpose" of reason be to “rationalize” (i..e. provide bogus, self-serving explanations for) beliefs we already hold? Seems very unlikely. A group of humans with no antecedent practice of genuinely seeking to explain and justify beliefs and actions would have no place for persuasion or post-hoc rationalizations of belief. If you and I don’t already seek genuine explanations and justifications of actions, then I don’t *expect* you to justify your actions, and your failure to do so won’t strike me as a defect. Your ability to come up with clever (and bogus) stories to support your beliefs will be useless, because I don’t care whether you have such stories or lack them. In fact, without the relevant background of genuine explanations and justifications, your production of bogus reasons and justifications--or any at all--would just strike me as downright bizarre…supposing I could even understand what you were trying to do.

The evolution of such capacities doesn't even make any sense, nor confer any plausible advantage. Complex, evolutionarily expensive capacities are unlikely to evolve for the purpose of generating false explanations.

Without an antecedent capacity and inclination to seek and provide genuine justifications, an ability to produce bogus ones will not confer any advantage. The error here is to confuse the following two things:

(a) The function of x is F…but x malfunctions G-wise an amazing percentage of the time

(b) The function of x is G

Don’t get me wrong—it’s cool to try out outlandish, unlikely-to-be-true hypotheses. But that’s definitely what we’ve got in the case at hand.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...


I'm guessing you don't read DeLong's blog very often, or else you'd be familiar with his "DeLong Smackdown Watch" in which he posts an entry solely to show that he was wrong about something. This occurs at least once a week.

And I don't immediately interpret any errors on the other side as dishonesty; only those where it is pointed out that the economist in question refuses to acknowledge plain facts in front of them or makes an argument which contradicts their prior position (or often what they published in their own textbook - I'm lookng at you, Greg Mankiw) which is well-documented; this is indicative of bad faith.

Neither does DeLong automatically question the other side - he regularly touts the brilliance and value of the late Milton Friedman. Because although he had a lot of ideas with which DeLong (and I) disagree with, he was intellectually honest.

Oddly enough, the one who probably bears the most responsibility for the economic clusterf*ck in which we find ourselves, Alan Greenspan, admitted after 2008 that his whole 'intellectual edifice' turned out to be wrong. That I admire, and I give him credit for doing so. No such questioning from the likes of Fama, Taylor, Cochrane, Meltzer, Mishkin, Hubbard or Mankiw. All continue to carry water for the Republicans, whose answer to the near collapse of the financial system and our economy is "more, faster". These folks are way too intelligent to chalk it up to just an "honest error" or a "difference of opinion". It's so bad that it makes Krugman despair of the "failure of his profession".

2:25 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Winston, Haidt's view is *not* that "reason arose in order to bullshit, or lie or get things wrong." That's what I was just explaining. His view is that reason evolved (again, not arose) to serve self-justification in particular, which, as I just said, is in general done in good faith to confirm what we really believe. It *is* usually "genuinely seeking to explain and justify beliefs and actions," as you put it.

His view fits the data well. It isn't that we sometimes decide first and reason later, that's the rule. Our reasoning isn't only sometimes designed to support our previous views and values, that's the rule. These aren't occasional departures from the norm, they are the norm. That challenges the standard view.

That the reasoning has sometimes already been done in the past doesn't alter the general point. In general the past reasoning will have had the same quality of seeking to support previous views and values. (Again, that may be rational in its outcome on the whole, but that doesn't change what it is.)

This view isn't outlandish. Maybe that's why you're having trouble following it--you've assumed it is.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Lewis Carroll, you're right, I haven't read DeLong's blog for years. The feature you mention wasn't there, or at least wasn't so commonly used, when I did. Good for him!

I don't say you interpret all errors on the other side as dishonesty, but that you would interpret errors like those of DeLong that I was referring to that way, which you in essence just confirmed.

I'm glad to know you consider Milton Friedman intellectually honest. The highly partisan Krugman wrote an extended obituary of Friedman in which he (in what seemed to some poor form now that Friedman was dead and unable to reply) accused him of intellectual dishonesty, on very poor evidence, the chief piece of which turned out to say the opposite of what Krugman thought it did. That's how team morality tends to work--we easily get crossed up by seeing what we want or expect to see that supports our view, whether it's there or not. We're much, much quicker to see the other side as dishonest than our own side.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Thanks for these thoughtful replies! I very much appreciate them.

This kind of view really irritates me, so I'm more antagonistic than I would normally be... Please to excuse my bad manners..

This is sounding less and less like the view that Saletan describes...dunno whose description is closer to the mark...

That having been said, the view that reason is "for" post-hoc rationalizatoin of positions that are themselves immovable by reason *is*, in fact, the view that reason is for bullshitting...or damn close to it...

Let's have two terms here:


Reason sometimes operates in a forward-looking way, and sometimes in a backward-looking way. It operates in a FLW when we begin unsure about something, and use reason to figure out what we should think. Reason operates in a backward-looking way when it tries to provide a defense of what we already believe. (That is, in slightly old-fashioned lingo, to provide a "rational reconstruction").

Reason obviously often operates in both ways. Me, I more often engage it in its forward-looking mode, though I certainly know people who operate differently. Does reason *usually* operate in a backward-looking mode? Almost certainly not, though many psychologists seem committed to that view. Does reason usually operate in a backward-looking mode in certain domains? Maybe...for many people, anyway.

But think again of Saletan's sample questions: "why not have sex with a chicken?" and "why is incest wrong?" These are questions which, for most people, are virtually designed to get them to start rationalizing--i.e. using reason in a kind of backward-looking mode. They probably have no reasons beyond *ick*, but they feel as if they should--for good reasons--so they try to produce some on the spot, and with little thought.

It's basically a set-up.

It's also basically bullshitting. Frantically trying to find arguments to support a view that you already and immovably hold--and hold not for the stated reasons--is usually bullshitting. Tough questions arise here, but that'll do for now.

But Saletan represents Haidt et. al. as going beyond the above. The view I've been complaining about here is the view that the *purpose* of reason is to operate in backward-looking mode.

There is simply no plausible evolutionary advantage to be gained by evolving a capacity for backward-looking reason without FLR. An organism would be *much* better off simply evolving not to ask for such "justifications"--more accurately, rationalizations. Once a capacity for FLR is there, however, then it's easy to see why BLR would arise (not: evolve.)

There are obvious advantages associated with evolving reason for forward-looking purposes. As I understand the view in question, it is, however, that reason evolved for backward-looking purposes.

You *must* see that that's a *prima facie* implausible view!

(Which is, of course, all that could be established by jawing about it...)

You assert that the view isn't outlandish--but it is *extremely* outlandish! It's *astonishing* if true. In fact, one problem with psychology when it tries to address such matters is that it is blind to the outrageousness of its hypotheses...IMO. And largely because of a blindness to the justification/rationalization distinction.

To be honest about this, I'd really just say: I know the type of view this is. They never turn out to be true. This one will not turn out to be true. I don't have the time to dive into each one in detail, so I'll just let this fade into history...

But, for all it's implausibility, it's damn fascinating, and you're about to provoke me into...and I can't believe I'm even considering this...*reading the book*...

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...


The belief that both sides are equally guilty is like comfort food for the 'Very Serious People' who fetishize things like 'bipartisanship', and they have completely destroyed modern journalism. This is well-documented by Jay Rosen at CJR.

The fact that all of the Freshwater theories have failed miserably and yet their proponents' opinions are put on par with liberals/Keynesians reminds me of how Neoconservatives continue to be invited back to discussions of foreign policy and war despite being responsible for the destruction of lives, treasure and national reputation.

And if you don't believe that their Neoliberal theories have been completely discredited, read John Quiggin's and Yves Smith's books.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Hey guys, I haven't had time to give proper replies but I expect I will this weekend. Plenty to think about!

9:24 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Winston, the idea we're talking about is part of a significant theme of the book, that reason isn't what morality is mainly based on, but it's not the most important part of the book. I think this may be an important book for raising timely arguments about political and religious differences in a scientific context, even if it's pretty speculative and preliminary in a lot of the science. I found it highly frustrating in some ways (if you check out the reviews at Amazon you can see some of my reservations), even though I highly recommend it. I think Haidt may sometimes overstate a point, for ease or power of communication, perhaps.

Haidt doesn't think the dead chicken sex example is typical in its extremity. It's designed to demonstrate post hoc justification in a way that's hard to interpret as something else. Justification can involve making stuff up, or not. It can be rationalization or not.

Using this discussion as an illustration, it's what you term backward-looking in that we're both working to justify the views we started with. We're sticking to what we really believe, and not making stuff up. We learn stuff and may improve our view even if we don't change our minds about the main point (a useful element of forward looking). If we were talking about something with practical implications, we might learn how to fit new facts and ideas into our old views in a way that would have useful practical consequences.

According to Haidt, if personal interests or values were involved, then immovability by reason alone would be likely. Movement is still possible in such cases, but it requires more than reason, since more than reason is constraining the view.

I haven't seen the evolutionary arguments of those who are publishing about this, but I can see in a broad way why it's reasonable to suppose reason was shaped by evolution to be dominated by what you call a backward-looking process. Persuasion in a cooperative, competitive social environment has a big impact on fitness. More particularly, persuasion that promotes our own interests and values increases our fitness. (Individual fitness is strongly tied to individual interests, and group fitness is strongly tied to group values.) Our intuitions tend to be well aligned with our interests and values, so reason that can promote what's consistent with our intuitions tends to promote our fitness.

You're concerned about how this might lead away from trust and truth and thus not work. But as I've been pointing out, trust need not be called into question; reason based on and seeking to promote our initial understanding can be and typically is honest.

The issue with truth works both ways. For example, even if our intuition that we're entitled to some good is logically or factually weak or mistaken, reason in support of it can help us get that advantage anyway, especially if it's a close call. Pushing for our initial position can also be a rational overall strategy truthwise, as you pointed out before.

If there are costs to fitness from rationality shaped to persuade of our intuitions, the question is whether the cost is enough to overcome the substantial advantages.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Lewis Carroll, I haven't said anything about both sides being equally guilty, and I'm pretty sure what I have said hasn't destroyed modern journalism. Both sides are more than guilty enough, but each wants to focus on the guilt of the other. The kind of bias I've been talking about actually is a serious problem with the media, especially intentionally biased outlets that cater to each ideology, which help create worlds based on ideology more than reality.

Your idea to not talk to people whose ideas have been responsible for the destruction of lives, treasure and national reputation would seem to rule out talking with anyone with a mainstream political ideology, US or European.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

I wasn't referring to you specifically Sanpete.

What I was referencing was the widespread journalistic practice of reporting on things, in this case economics, using 'opinions differ' technique, with no effort whatsoever to help the uneducated observer discern the better argument. Incidentally, in what I view as a positive development, NPR has recently committed itself to eschewing this type of model:

And you're right that the *mainstream* has now accepted these false 'truths' into its bloodstream, meaning in essence that the right-wing's forty year campaign to move the Overton Window to the right has succeeded. All the worse for us.

If you read Smith's and Quiggin's books (among many others, such as those by Benjamin Friedman, Amartya Sen, Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Frank), you would see that there is abundant evidence that the Neoliberal program and so-called "Washington Consensus" has failed miserably wherever applied. For this we have three main sources of evidence: intertemporal comparisons within the US after the 70s versus the post-war period prior, interstate comparisons within the US which have instituted more/less mixed economies and progressive labor practices, and the superior social welfare of the populations of the Northern European democracies which have largely shunned the Neoliberal program and maintained more mixed economies.

The problem is that no amount of empirical evidence appears sufficient to awaken certain economists from their ideological slumber. And given our typical lazy journalism, that translates into completely discredited ideas being given equal time in the media with no effort whatsoever to help the typical consumer of such media come to an educated conclusion about what types of policies best promote societal well-being.

And so we are back to my original complaint about Republican voters voting in what they THINK is their own best narrow economic interest, but in reality being duped by snake oil salesmen.

A good example of propaganda triumphing over substance is the polling on 'Obamacare'. The preponderance of public opinion of 'Obamacare' has clearly been negative; however, when people are polled about each actual component of the policy, their opinions are overwhelmingly positive.

And it should be noted that the economic aspect of the debate has been filled with visceral appeals to 'Socialism' and 'European-style, government-controlled healthcare', which are treated as 'just another opinion'. Never mind that the PPACA is nothing like socialized medicine, and is actually more like the regulated-utility model (which ironically is less 'socialistic' than our most popular plans like Medicare and the VA, and is used in European nations like Switzerland and Germany).

3:32 PM  
Blogger Sanpete said...

Lewis Carroll, I agree being duped by propaganda is a serious problem, but it isn't one limited to conservatives, of course.

AlterNet, for example, is actually the kind of thing I was referring to as a serious problem. It's an intentionally biased source designed to promote a particular point of view. That's is a useful thing for building and preserving group unity and faith, and I think that's important, but AlterNet doesn't see itself that way. It presents itself as fact-driven, and most of its readers see it that way. AlterNet and other intentionally biased sources are trying to fit the world into a predetermined view, which tends to lead to more stretching and factual and logical errors than what NPR is trying to do.

For example, the intentionally progressive-biased media like Alternet, Kos, Democracy Now, HuffPo, Greenwald, and so on are attracted by stories like the Scott Horton piece that alleged (or insinuated) a vast cover-up of torture-murders at Guantanamo Bay, so attracted that sound thinking and journalistic practice sometimes get pushed aside. NPR and the mainstream media rightly refused to touch that story, because it was so poorly grounded, but the outlets dedicated to promoting a progressive view mostly gave it credibility it didn't deserve.

Less grand but in the aggregate more serious lapses happen every day. The facts are sifted and colored and sometimes unintentionally made up to fit the view being promoted. Whether the likes of HuffPo are as bad as the likes of Fox isn't as important as the fact that both are bad for similar reasons.

People who accept the intentionally biased sources on the Right or Left as better sources than the mainstream media tend to get a more polarized and distorted view. As a rule, the same is true of those who rely on highly partisan economists. You really shouldn't expect to get a fair view that way, and especially not a fair view of the other side.

NPR is trying to be something of crucial importance to a civil society with diverse perspectives, an unbiased source of facts people of different views can rely on. They don't entirely succeed, but the effort does help. They *should* be afraid of every hint of bias, to use the language of the article. (One thing they need most that they don't seem to be aware of is more ideological diversity among their employees.)

I don't think the change at NPR is a big deal, but maybe it will help some. NPR reporters have pointed out facts contrary to what sources say all along; it remains to be seen if they'll do it more than before. I agree they should. They won't use the word "balance" anymore for the same reason many liberals won't use the word "liberal," but balance is still a crucial element of fairness. The real issue, as the article makes clear, isn't that balance is bad but that it needs to include relevant factual information.

3:35 PM  

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