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The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason 
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Post The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
I agree with Dexter that descriptive thread names might do a better job of attracting interest. I recall Chris saying one time that it's helpful for us to refer to the book title somewhere, so that the discussion would be more likely to come up in searches.

A section from the end of Chapter 3 talks about what reasoning can do to alter our intuitive impulses. It might be worthwhile to mention it, to make it clear that Haidt's rider-elephant metaphor doesn't imply that the rider is helpless to change whatever the elephant wants to do. Hume said that the reason is a "slave" to the passions, but Haidt thinks that's too strong, that it's true "the rider evolved to serve the elephant, but it's a dignified partnership, more like a lawyer serving a client than a slave serving a master." The big question is when the elephant is most likely to listen to reason. Haidt tells us the main way we change our minds on moral issues, or change others' minds, is by exchanging views with other people in a non-confrontational way. This more or less explains why internet discussion results in so little change in users' minds. Haidt's statement makes a lot of sense and doesn't need to be proved by research. One reason that people don't do more of this friendly exchanging, though, is that they really want to held on to what they already believe and don't want to even put themselves on equal ground with those with whom they disagree. (That part was my own opinion.) In certain cases it's also true that after trying to have a good-will discussion, it becomes clear that minds are just too far apart and aren't going to change, so it's best just for each to keep to its corner. We've found this to be true when we've tried to engage creationists. But I digress somewhat, because creationism isn't my idea of a subject involving moral reasoning.

We also may change our minds on our own, Haidt says, but this looks like flip-flopping in response to the circumstances, when Haidt describes it: "Depending on which victim, which argument, or which friend you are thinking about at a given moment, your judgment may flip back and forth as if you were looking at a Necker cube." I can see this easily happening, especially if we become more affectively involved in the moral topic. A hard-line stance on illegal immigration could alter drastically if we meet some "illegals" and become aware of their plight in human terms. At least, the attitude shown towards those human beings would likely be at variance with what we said was our position on the issue.

Is it possible for people simply to "reason their way to a moral conclusion that contradicts their initial intuitive judgment?" Yes, but JH considers it rare. He knows of only one piece of research that supports this kind of change. It appears to show that when people are forced to pause before coming out with their reasoning, they then sometimes decide to go against their initial reaction. Haidt has more to say in the next chapter about the special conditions necessary to force people to use reasoning to find the truth. They need to be forced because the natural, evolved use of moral reasoning is to serve reputation rather than find the truth.



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Sat Jul 14, 2012 1:08 pm
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Post Re: The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
DWill wrote:
Is it possible for people simply to "reason their way to a moral conclusion that contradicts their initial intuitive judgment?" Yes, but JH considers it rare.
Thanks DWill, this is raising some fascinating big questions in morality, with Haidt apparently arguing positions that I frankly find weak.

The point I raised earlier, and which still perplexes me in the elephant analogy, is that a rider has trained the elephant as a beast of burden, and instructs it to pick up trees, and to go and stop like a horse with a bridle. The rider controls the elephant, not the other way around. From the summaries here it seems almost as though the image is that the elephant is so big that a rider will just have to do what ever the elephant wants. But the analogy with morality is that our emotions are strong, but can be disciplined and controlled and directed by reason, that mind can be trained to bridle our passions. Plato explains this well in the Chariot Allegory in Phaedrus.

On the quoted text about reason changing opinion, the discussion of Haidt at hotair.com is useful to illustrate how consideration can change people's opinions, especially from youthful socialism to more mature conservatism.

Economics is full of examples where the intuitive compassionate moral response does not optimise welfare. Free trade is an obvious case, with economic justice demanding that people have the right to make and sell things competitively. Reason says the workers in a poor country have just as much right to sell their labour as workers in a rich country, and should not be unjustly prevented from trade through tariff barriers. It happens that people start off with the assumption that protectionism is a moral case, but on examination of the evidence they change their view and come to support free trade.

Hayek makes the same argument for socialism as a whole, that it seems on the surface to be more ethical than market economics because it defends the interest of the poor and oppressed, but deeper analysis shows this intuitive response to socialist politics brings a range of problems that were not seen at first glance. Hobbes pointed out that anarchy can seem a great idea, but reason induces us to accept the common limits of law. In all these cases we can analyse the evidence to form a view based on logic, a civil practice that Haidt apparently thinks is rare.

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Post Re: The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
Good examples, Robert, especially as I am a fan of Hayek as well.

I'm also skeptical about Haidt's position on reasoning here. Haidt does talk about moral categories that could help explain some of those positions, but I think reasoning does come into play more than he gives it credit for.

But to defend Haidt, try debating someone about the logic of free trade -- it is quite difficult to get past those intuitions.



Sun Jul 15, 2012 9:45 am
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Post Re: The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
Is it possible for people simply to "reason their way to a moral conclusion that contradicts their initial intuitive judgment?" Yes, but JH considers it rare.
Thanks DWill, this is raising some fascinating big questions in morality, with Haidt apparently arguing positions that I frankly find weak.

The point I raised earlier, and which still perplexes me in the elephant analogy, is that a rider has trained the elephant as a beast of burden, and instructs it to pick up trees, and to go and stop like a horse with a bridle. The rider controls the elephant, not the other way around. From the summaries here it seems almost as though the image is that the elephant is so big that a rider will just have to do what ever the elephant wants. But the analogy with morality is that our emotions are strong, but can be disciplined and controlled and directed by reason, that mind can be trained to bridle our passions. Plato explains this well in the Chariot Allegory in Phaedrus.

I can't vouch for Haidt's zoological accuracy. He chooses the elephant because it's a very large, intelligent animal with a mind of its own, over which a rider has a more tenuous control than he would have over a stupider animal such as a horse. Perhaps elephants in reality can be trained to a degree that works against Haidt's using them in his metaphor. But he doesn't say the rider (reason) has no control over the elephant, so I don't have a problem accepting the analogy. I find it to be one of the better ones that has been invented for mind/body, in fact. There's no avoiding recognizing the collision between your view and Haidt's view about this ability of reason to master our affective nature. Especially with regard to the main topic of the book, the true source of our ideas about morality (i.e., that they are descriptions formed from our intuitions, not what give us our morality), you're on opposite sides. Haidt contends that science supports his view rather than that of you and other rationalists.
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On the quoted text about reason changing opinion, the discussion of Haidt at hotair.com is useful to illustrate how consideration can change people's opinions, especially from youthful socialism to more mature conservatism.

This isn't necessarily a case of reason getting through, though. It's just a matter of a person's political outlook changing in response to many factors, and probably over a long stretch of time. You're also assuming that it's a lock that reason resides in a conservative view, but that is very debatable.
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Economics is full of examples where the intuitive compassionate moral response does not optimise welfare. Free trade is an obvious case, with economic justice demanding that people have the right to make and sell things competitively. Reason says the workers in a poor country have just as much right to sell their labour as workers in a rich country, and should not be unjustly prevented from trade through tariff barriers. It happens that people start off with the assumption that protectionism is a moral case, but on examination of the evidence they change their view and come to support free trade.

What is the intuition of a conservative in the U.S. (who might be called a liberal in Europe) regarding free trade? It's probably that free trade is right, since for conservatives any restraints on markets are wrong. The point is that you're misunderstanding Haidt if you think he is saying we should go with our gut feelings most of the time, because these are actually the right feelings. Not at all. See if my post on the rational delusion does anything to clarify his position for you.



Sun Jul 15, 2012 11:41 am
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Post Re: The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
DWill wrote:
What is the intuition of a conservative in the U.S. (who might be called a liberal in Europe) regarding free trade? It's probably that free trade is right, since for conservatives any restraints on markets are wrong. The point is that you're misunderstanding Haidt if you think he is saying we should go with our gut feelings most of the time, because these are actually the right feelings. Not at all. See if my post on the rational delusion does anything to clarify his position for you.


As a side note, while conservatives sometimes use the rhetoric of free trade, both parties are really protectionist and cater to the tribal intuitions of the populace. Just look at the Obama and Romney campaigns.



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Post Re: The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
I will have to read this book I think.

I agree with Roberts opening post in this thread, or rather, I agree with Haidt. Reason does not have direction on it's own. Or at least, it needs motive. Typically, the thoughts we engage are those that are motivated. The motives(e-motion) are intertwined with our chemical reward system. Some are strong, such as those in addictions. Others are subtle, such as the desire to impress others. Even contemplating difficult topics is driven by some desire.

Our thoughts won't touch on things of which there is no motive to think about. There is always motive, almost by definition. That motive in most cases seems secondary to the content of your thoughts.

But it's not as though we can't be aware of, and influence, our motives. Which is why it's more like a lawyer and a client. Rationally selecting one motivated train of thought over the other is an example. Many times at night in bed, my mind will revert to thinking about some video game I'm playing. I'll recognize this, and instead decide that thinking about the plot of my book is more productive.


If you adhere to some sort of process in analyzing concepts and beliefs, you can go a long ways to overcoming your own mental slavery. There are sets of rules in reasoning that more frequently lead to a truthful conclusion. Letting this system act as a check/balance on your own beliefs is a good thing. I've done away with many sacred cow beliefs because they haven't passed a test of process(fallacious or illogical or non-sequitur).

If you elevate an inductively supported process over any single particular belief, you will be less a slave to your passions than other people, because the process can trump your passion.

The key is to realize that even the best processes we have may be faulty. Stick to them with confidence, but not certainty.


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Sun Jul 15, 2012 5:42 pm
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Post Re: The Righteous Mind: Elephants Are Sometimes Open to Reason
Most of what Haidt says is ringing true for me, so I recommend the book. He does away with the split between reason and emotion, but puts emotion at the top, in the sense that if our emotions are impaired (say, through brain damage), reason doesn't even work for us. He doesn't say much about how we as individuals can better discipline our thinking to avoid errors; he would probably say that this is a poor defense against the influence of our gut feelings or intuitions, which have so much to do with the basic direction and content of our thinking when we're in the areas of politics, morality, and religion (really, is there much difference between these?) He says we shouldn't even expect reason in any individual's 'reasoning' when it gets as personal as it does in moral or political matters. When decisions need to be made, we should use some kind of public group process in which everyone feels comfortable and more or less equal, so that everyone is open to the rational persuasion of others and righteous minds are tamped down. I imagine a Continental Congress type of set-up, but I'm really a little vague on what Haidt would actually do.

I hope you can read the book and will tell us what you think.



Mon Jul 16, 2012 6:20 am
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