Morality and the ’worship’ of reason

By Ken Perrott 16/04/2012 8


I have so far read about one-third of  Jonathan Haidt‘s new book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I still highly recommend it – but I think some of his claims need strong criticism.

The first part of his book provides a really useful and fascinating (for the lay person anyway) summary  of what he calls his “first principle of moral psychology” – intuitions come first, reasoning second.  We rely on institutions for our moral reactions in most situations, but then, if asked, we will use reason to rationalise those actions. Sometimes we can’t actually provide very good justifications.

I think this aspect of human psychology in important – and relevant to lots of areas apart from human morality. But the fact that we do this should not be used to denigrate reason.

Intelligence is like sex

Human intelligence and reason may well have evolved naturally to handle situations our ancestors faced. And there was never an evolutionary requirement for an organism to know the “truth” about reality, purely to handle the situations it faced. However, like sex which humans use for other purposes than simple procreation, intelligence and our ability to reason enables us to investigate and come to understandings about reality – a reality which our ancestors never had to deal with let alone comprehend.

I think this is important to how we should consider reason. True, the individual more often uses reason like a lawyer, rather than a scientist. To justify one’s actions or support one’s predetermined beliefs, rather than get at the truth. But we can also use it to get at the truth – and I think that is valuable. So I agree – using reason like a lawyer may not be exactly noble (even though we all do it) but I certainly don’t put the discovery of truth into that class.

Delusional reasoning

After describing this modern synthesis on moral psychology Haidt asserts – “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” I will leave aside his emotional use of the word “worship” for the moment and just point out that Haidt has put himself in a bind – how is he going to determine truth without reason?

This impossible situation seems to scream out from his next sentence – “We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” How does he imagine taking this “cold hard look” without using reason?

Of course his problem is that he is using “reason” almost in a pejorative sense – “motivated reasoning” – the reason of a lawyer, not a scientist.

Elsewhere Haidt does clarify “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. . . .Rather, what I am saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” We are all partisan and prone to confirmation bias but we overcome this, especially in scientific endeavours, by reasoning socially – in groups where “some individuals can use their reasoning powers to discomfirm the claims of others.”

Now , that’s better. Reasoning is a good thing, even though it is often motivated.  But why denigrate those who support reason by calling that “worship”? He goes further – “As an intuitionist. I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of on of the most long-lived delusions in western history: the rationalist delusion.”

The caricature of “new atheism”

Perhaps his motive is revealed by that word “delusion.”  He adds that some people see reason as bringing “us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).” Perhaps he is really having a bash at these so-called ‘new atheists” who he has a hang-up about. (I referred to his preoccupation in that area in my recent post Conservatives, liberals and purity.) Haidt even refers to Richard Dawkins’ “childrearing advice” (“utopian program for raising more rational children”) in The God Delusion.

Haidt’s presentation of “new atheism” is a sad caricature. It is silly to characterise as a “utopian progam” the raising of one’s children to ask the question “How do you know that?”, to look for the evidence supporting ideas and claims, and to try to apply reasoning to questions they face.  After all, I can imagine discussing with my grandchildren the ideas of moral psychology Haidt describes in his book. Explaining  how humans very often reason like a lawyer rather than a scientist. And the importance of having input from a range of perspectives.  Is Haidt going to describe that as a “utopian program,” a “rationalist delusion” and the “worship” of reason? Come off it Jonathan.

Ethics education?

However, even worse than this Dawkins’ bashing” is Haidt’s apparent rejection of ethics education. He says:

“if our goal is to produce good behaviour, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom.”

I think that is not only naive – it is just plain wrong. And it is denigrating what could be an effective contribution to the ethical education of children. Especially as he offers no real alternative.

And this is, I think, one of the weaknesses in Haidt’s analysis – a mechanical tendency to see intuition and reason as opposite and ignoring their interaction. Sure our moral actions are intuitive, not immediately based on reason. However, out intutions are not static – they can actually be altered by reason. This happens in learning, when a new action or idea needs to be consciously rehearsed at the start but in time becomes incorporated into our unconscious and becomes automatic. It becomes intuitive. Haidt concedes this may sometimes occur when an individual with a different idea comments on one’s actions. But he ignores the very important role of society, at a number of levels, in helping form and change our moral intuitions.

Personally, I think ethics classes where children get to discuss and suggest solutions to common moral issues could play a valuable role in the moral upbringing of our children. Sure, no student walks out of a class and immediately applies all they have learned in a lesson (in mathematics as well as ethics). But surely Haidt can see that education, especially that supplemented by the inevitable relevant real day-to-day activities does lead to intuitional changes.

While reading this book I can’t help thinking from time to time that the book itself is an example of motivated reasoning, of Haidt’s own partisanship and prejudices. Perhaps that’s how it should be and how the reader should see any book.  And Haidt even admits the possibility of his own bias:

“I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof. Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me. Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out”

Now that would be putting the best of Haidt’s scientific ideas into practice.

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8 Responses to “Morality and the ’worship’ of reason”

  • You’ve misquoted. It should be “… then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism.”

    I think you’re a bit hard on Haidt. My only crticism of him is his use of the word “intuition”, where he usually means “emotion” (not that I’ve read his latest book). Intuition is a muddied term somewhere between emotion and reason.

    I’d stick with Hume’s “reason is … the slave of the passions” and that’s easy for folks to understand. Talking about intuitive knowledge just confuses folks. It’s better to keep a clear distinction between beliefs/knowledge and values: reason and emotion. Emotion is always the motivating force, reason being employed (always) to emotional ends.

    But, all in all, Haidt is part of the vanguard of the Humean emotion-driven model of human motivation. His contribution is invaluable.

  • I’m of the opposite opinion to michael r. Haidt has exhibited muddled thinking on the sociology of reason for a long time now. He couches poor thinking in even poorer terminology that requires the reader to filter through the muddle to get at what he is saying,and in the end all he ends up telling us is that HE has an authoritarian personality (ala Altemeyer) and prefers to rationalize that instead!

    You actually weren’t hard enough on Haidt. He’s useless.

  • ” Emotion is always the motivating force, reason being employed (always) to emotional ends.”

    But this is not borne out by any actual research at all. In fact, this is little different from what Frued postulated, and has been rejected by cognitive research for many decades now.

  • Michael R: “Emotion is always the motivating force…”

    Ichthyic: “But this is not borne out by any actual research at all”.

    So what Antonio Damasio and David Brooks have been babbling on about is wrong? I don’t think so. Even common sense says that, while both emotion and reason are necessary and complementary cogs in our machinery, the function of reason is to inform, whereas the function of emotion is to move us into action.

    The tandem of fact and associated emotion is what drives us, but the function of emotion is more directly responsible for motion than the function of reason is.

  • Michael, I am unhappy about your willingness to discredit the concept of inutition. Sure, like a lot of words pepole often have conflciting understandings, but I think it is a useful concept.

    To define it as “a muddied term somewhere between emotion and reason” is completley inadequate. We need to have concepts ranging from instinct to reason, and including things like intuition, feelings and emotion.

    Massimo Pigliucci provides an interesting overview of intuition in his last podcast. Worth listening to.

  • Ken, I wasn’t passing comment on the concept of intuition. It is a useful concept. I will listen to the podcast if I have time.

    Rather, my comment was on Haidt’s misuse of the term e.g. he had a previous article called The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail, and his new book has a chapter called The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail.

    I’ve only skimmed the chapter but it appears he is in fact using the term intuition for when he means emotion – probably because there’s a general aversion to the subject of emotion in academia and he wants a more respectable label.

    I’d prefer he stick with the word emotion, but I can see why he’d use the word intuition because it’s less scary.

    Maybe he does have a valid reason to use the word intuition instead of emotion, but I doubt it.

  • This topic very much relates to the old “Nature vs Nurture” topics complimenting “Good vs Evil” topic.
    Our modern human society based on “mass thinking mass method” is not the way humanity develped over a short 5 million year evolution that shapes us as humans biologically and culturally.

    “Mass Thinking Mass Method” Human culture is neither sustainable beyond one or two generation or a “good fit” to our human evolutionary biology.

    Makes sense ?

    Avi Dey
    Coordinator
    Cafe Twin STEM Education Community Greenhouse Demo Project