BookTalk.org Hall of Fame
2037 times in 1542 posts
Reason Versus Emotion
This is a common and even tired topic to bring up, but Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, gave me a new way to view this dilemma. Best thing to do would be to read pp. 44-51 of his book, since I won't be able to do his presentation justice. I really like the way he unfolds the evolution of his thinking with a bit of dramatic flair, so that we get an interesting narrative and not just an argument.
He tells us he was stuck in the "Jeffersonian" mode of separate functional areas for reason and emotion. They ruled a divided kingdom. He came to realize that "my thinking was entrenched in the prevalent but useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion. Cognition just means information processing, "which includes higher cognition (such as conscious reasoning) as well as lower cognition (such as visual perception and memory retrieval)."
Emotion, though harder to define, is actually a kind of cognition in itself. Scientists have gradually established this. (I suppose this is what made the phrase '"emotional intelligence" possible in the first place.) "Emotions occur in steps, the first of which is to appraise something that just happened based on whether it advanced or hindered your goals. These appraisals are a kind of information processing; they are cognitions. When an appraisal program detects particular input patterns, it launches a set of changes in your brain that prepare you to respond appropriately....Emotions are not dumb...Emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with cognition is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather, or cars with vehicles."
The distinction is really between two kinds of cognition, intuition and reasoning. The interesting thing about intuition is that at most times it doesn't even rise to the level of emotion; it goes on under the surface almost unnoticed, comprising the elephant. Haidt says that we make "dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgments and decisions...every day. Only a few of these intuitions come to us embedded in full-blown emotions." Reasoning is another word for "controlled processes," the rider on the elephant. Haidt chose an elephant because it is not only larger but more intelligent than a horse. "Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years...When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer. Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant." So Haidt is not disparaging reason, only installing it in its evolutionary place.
Haidt shows us a complete model of moral judgment that describes his basically Humean perspective. An important addition to Hume in Haidt's "social intuitionist" model is its ability to account for the essential social nature of moral judgment. "Moral talk serves a variety of strategic purposes, such as managing your reputation, building alliances, and recruiting bystanders to support your side in disputes that are so common in daily life." The social milieu of moral judgment also enables us to change our moral views, as we are exposed to both the "social persuasion" and the "reasoned persuasion" of others. Haidt believes that changing our judgment through private reflection is relatively rare, as is reasoning producing moral judgment. Not unknown, but rare.