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Some thoughts on reason and morality

#169: Dec. - Mar. 2020 & #109: Jul. - Sept. 2012 (Non-Fiction)
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Some thoughts on reason and morality

I think most people would say that their morality is based on reason rather than emotion, but perhaps we are all biased. A few things come to mind:

Thinking about how my own political/moral/religious views developed, it was certainly not merely copying my parents or other family, as they are quite different, and have changed since childhood. So I'm wondering how much I can attribute to reasoning, or perhaps I was prepared to be influenced by those particular views. So far in Haidt any theory or evidence on the origins of peoples' views seems to be lacking (maybe he will address this more later).

Also, should we strive to override these moral prejudices that we might have? For example, I don't consider myself left-wing, but I sympathize with their reaction against such characteristics of the right as blind patriotism and their opposition to gay marriage. Obviously, those holding such views do not see them as something to be overcome. So where does that leave us? What is the role of reasoning then, which according to the evidence is so subordinate to the emotion center of the brain?
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Well said, Dexter. I think it makes perfect sense that, in most cases, we would believe that our views are based on sound clear reasoning. After all, we reinforce our beliefs in so many ways. We tend to read the books that support our views, we spend more time with people who think as we do, and apparently, we focus on anything we see and hear that supports our views, while dismissing or playing down anything we disagree with.
At this point, Haidt is helping me to understand the development of other people's belief systems. I look forward to seeing what else he has to say about riding that elephant.l
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Dexter wrote:I think most people would say that their morality is based on reason rather than emotion, but perhaps we are all biased. A few things come to mind:

Thinking about how my own political/moral/religious views developed, it was certainly not merely copying my parents or other family, as they are quite different, and have changed since childhood. So I'm wondering how much I can attribute to reasoning, or perhaps I was prepared to be influenced by those particular views. So far in Haidt any theory or evidence on the origins of peoples' views seems to be lacking (maybe he will address this more later).

Also, should we strive to override these moral prejudices that we might have? For example, I don't consider myself left-wing, but I sympathize with their reaction against such characteristics of the right as blind patriotism and their opposition to gay marriage. Obviously, those holding such views do not see them as something to be overcome. So where does that leave us? What is the role of reasoning then, which according to the evidence is so subordinate to the emotion center of the brain?
Thanks for opening this thread. Of course, Haidt has thrown out the reason-emotion dichotomy, and the science appears robust enough to allow him to do this. There is almost nothing that we perceive that doesn't produce an affective nudge in our brains--or an affective boost in many cases. So he probably would want to qualify your statement about the reasoned base of morality. He chose the elephant to represent our unconscious processes not only because its size was right for the relative size of the unconscious vs. the evolutionarily later conscious thought, but because an elephant is smarter than some other animal we might ride, like a horse. Haidt stresses the power and intelligence of the automatic processes. Therefore I'm not sure he would object to anyone saying that his moral position is "based on reason," since we can see reason, of a sort, in something like our our intuitive reaction to stealing. Sometimes our moral reasoning, what he calls "strategic reasoning," is a gloss on our intuitions that actually holds up. It's just the priority of intuition that he insists on. He's more concerned with the nature of the process. Intuitions come first.

Looking at the incest scenario again, he wasn't trying to prove that many of the condemners of Mark and Julia had no good basis for disallowing incest, just that their particular rational arguments concerning what the brother and sister did were flimsy due to the provisos in the story. But these subjects felt they had to insist on a logical, consequential reason for strategic purposes. We usually don't like to admit that we can't put our finger on why we don't like something.

That's a great question you end with. I don't know how I'd like to answer that now. I'm sure it'll be coming up again.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

LevV wrote:Well said, Dexter. I think it makes perfect sense that, in most cases, we would believe that our views are based on sound clear reasoning. After all, we reinforce our beliefs in so many ways. We tend to read the books that support our views, we spend more time with people who think as we do, and apparently, we focus on anything we see and hear that supports our views, while dismissing or playing down anything we disagree with. At this point, Haidt is helping me to understand the development of other people's belief systems. I look forward to seeing what else he has to say about riding that elephant.l
This claim that most people believe their views are based on sound reasoning is not true. Most people actually have other motives for belief, including blind loyalty to what their community and family believe, and what they think will serve their personal interests. Any match between these motives and logical reasoning is a bonus.

In religion, politics and morality, most people are of the view that it is best not to think too much about their views, as that involves the risk of giving credence to dangerous ideas. George Orwell explained this well in his novel 1984, where he describes the irrational psychology of protective stupidity as follows:
George Orwell wrote: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimestop
Crimestop is a Newspeak term taken from the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It means to rid oneself of unwanted thoughts, i.e., thoughts that interfere with the ideology of the Party. This way, a person avoids committing thoughtcrime. In the novel, we hear about crimestop through the eyes of protagonist Winston Smith: "The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak. He set to work to exercise himself in crimestop. He presented himself with propositions -- 'the Party says the earth is flat', 'the party says that ice is heavier than water' -- and trained himself in not seeing or not understanding the arguments that contradicted them. Orwell also describes crimestop from the perspective of Emmanuel Goldstein in the book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism: Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Robert Tulip wrote: This claim that most people believe their views are based on sound reasoning is not true. Most people actually have other motives for belief, including blind loyalty to what their community and family believe, and what they think will serve their personal interests. Any match between these motives and logical reasoning is a bonus.

In religion, politics and morality, most people are of the view that it is best not to think too much about their views, as that involves the risk of giving credence to dangerous ideas.
It may be true that people have blind loyalty and do not think about their views, but I doubt if people would see it that way. Don't you think religious believers would say that they have good reason to believe what they do, that it is consistent with the evidence? They're not going to say, "well, it conflicts with logic and evidence, but I believe it anyway." People with certain political beliefs are not going to say "I believe this because it's in my self-interest."
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Dexter wrote: Don't you think religious believers would say that they have good reason to believe what they do, that it is consistent with the evidence? They're not going to say, "well, it conflicts with logic and evidence, but I believe it anyway." People with certain political beliefs are not going to say "I believe this because it's in my self-interest."
What and why people believe is only grounded in logic within scientific culture. In traditional culture, people often have not thought about why they hold beliefs. They believe what they are taught. This is a basic issue with the scientific revolution, which remains very partial.

False religious beliefs such as the virgin birth, miracles, the existence of heaven and hell, even the existence of Jesus, Moses, Abraham and God, do not stand up to any evidentiary scrutiny. Their apologists start to duck and weave as soon as any scientific logic is applied. They hold these beliefs as part of a fallacious acceptance of the teachings of cultural authority, not because of reason.

The other big factor is hypocrisy, where people say they believe something but actually don't. Hypocrisy is remarkably widespread. When people secretly hold beliefs that would cause arguments or ridicule if expressed, they conceal them with evasion and rationalization. Politeness means that people can avoid being pressed on their inconsistency and irrationality.

You are right that no one ever admits to believing something despite knowing it to be untrue (well hardly ever). But psychologically and politically, people display immense skill and cunning to avoid getting to this simple end game where a belief is shown to be illegitimate. Hope and ingenuity spring eternal when it comes to clinging to pleasant fictions.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Continuing this theme of knowing or not knowing what one believes to be untrue. What are we to make of the spin doctors, advertisers etc. who make a career of manipulating language and ideas to sell a product or politician. I wonder what it might be doing to my conscious and unconscious mind as I listen to endless hours of people, not searching for truth, but trying to persuade me that black is white.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Robert Tulip wrote: What and why people believe is only grounded in logic within scientific culture. In traditional culture, people often have not thought about why they hold beliefs. They believe what they are taught. This is a basic issue with the scientific revolution, which remains very partial.

False religious beliefs such as the virgin birth, miracles, the existence of heaven and hell, even the existence of Jesus, Moses, Abraham and God, do not stand up to any evidentiary scrutiny. Their apologists start to duck and weave as soon as any scientific logic is applied. They hold these beliefs as part of a fallacious acceptance of the teachings of cultural authority, not because of reason.
This is giving far too much credit to people based merely on their belonging to a 'scientific culture,' as if that would give them immunity from the influence of their intuitions. Even if you eliminate Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. beliefs in the supernatural, you're still left with many possibilities for motivated thinking. On a scale of potential harm, it's not clear that belief in the virgin birth or Buddhist reincarnation have an especially harmful result.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

DWill wrote:
Thanks for opening this thread. Of course, Haidt has thrown out the reason-emotion dichotomy, and the science appears robust enough to allow him to do this. There is almost nothing that we perceive that doesn't produce an affective nudge in our brains--or an affective boost in many cases. So he probably would want to qualify your statement about the reasoned base of morality. He chose the elephant to represent our unconscious processes not only because its size was right for the relative size of the unconscious vs. the evolutionarily later conscious thought, but because an elephant is smarter than some other animal we might ride, like a horse. Haidt stresses the power and intelligence of the automatic processes. Therefore I'm not sure he would object to anyone saying that his moral position is "based on reason," since we can see reason, of a sort, in something like our our intuitive reaction to stealing. Sometimes our moral reasoning, what he calls "strategic reasoning," is a gloss on our intuitions that actually holds up. It's just the priority of intuition that he insists on. He's more concerned with the nature of the process. Intuitions come first.

Looking at the incest scenario again, he wasn't trying to prove that many of the condemners of Mark and Julia had no good basis for disallowing incest, just that their particular rational arguments concerning what the brother and sister did were flimsy due to the provisos in the story. But these subjects felt they had to insist on a logical, consequential reason for strategic purposes. We usually don't like to admit that we can't put our finger on why we don't like something.
I'm vicariously enjoying this book discussion.

It's my sense that our "reasoned base of morality" is no more than post hoc rationalization of the way we already are. We have an instinctive disdain towards killing or at least towards killing those in our in-group. But because we sometimes need to kill (during war, for example), we can rationalize that someone is less than human or demonize them in some other way to make it okay to kill them. I would imagine we have an instinctive disdain towards incest as well, although there are probably instances of state-sanctioned incest such as in cases of keeping the royal line pure. I would suspect that all of these "instinctive" feelings conferred a survival advantage at some point in our past. And because we are storytellers, we come up with "just-so" stories to explain it. Many people believe our goodness stems from God or our religious beliefs, but at most religion reinforces the way we already are. Our mutual beliefs or shared stories also provide group cohesion.

Bruce Hood, a British psychologist, coined the term "supersense" to describe this instinctive underlay that helps us make sense of the world while also giving us a propensity towards supernatural explanations. Our "supersense" explains why, for example, why we might be hesitant to wear a sweater that belonged to a mass murderer (even if we know the sweater was never worn during an actual murder). We might explain this natural aversion as we don't want to touch something that was so closely associated with "evil." But perhaps it's basically an aversion to touching something that may be contaminated. Such an aversion may have conferred a survival advantage in the past by keeping persnickety people away from germs or other contaminants like Bubonic plague and small pox.

This article explains how "supersense" is akin to biological essentialism or as Dawkins likes to call it, "the dead hand of Plato."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-hoo ... 16869.html
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Moral reasoning as a type of story-telling is something I didn't think of. But this might parallel the myths that we created by taking measure of the way our world is (or the way we want it to be), and forming a story that gave with great authority the original reason for the world we found ourselves in.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

So Haidt's position on reason is that rational thought is never really rational and is always based on self interest. In fact he states:

the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled
at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant
wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for
elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm.

This does sound like "just so" story telling is a critical skill for all of us not only to justify our behavior to others but to explain it to ourselves as well. Psychology is replete with studies demonstrating the distortions and blindness to contradictory evidence to which each of us falls victim.

Later, he will argue that our intuitive moral beliefs are based upon a limited set of "moral foundations" which seem to be affective predispositions to respond positively or negatively to others behavior. Most of these seem to have been shaped by our evolutionary history and are incorporated into the stories we tell ourselves as we live. I am reminded of Hamlet's comment, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

scotchbooks wrote:So Haidt's position on reason is that rational thought is never really rational and is always based on self interest. In fact he states:

the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled
at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant
wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for
elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm.

This does sound like "just so" story telling is a critical skill for all of us not only to justify our behavior to others but to explain it to ourselves as well. Psychology is replete with studies demonstrating the distortions and blindness to contradictory evidence to which each of us falls victim.

Later, he will argue that our intuitive moral beliefs are based upon a limited set of "moral foundations" which seem to be affective predispositions to respond positively or negatively to others behavior. Most of these seem to have been shaped by our evolutionary history and are incorporated into the stories we tell ourselves as we live. I am reminded of Hamlet's comment, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
I keep thinking that it's important to specify that Haidt is talking about moral reasoning, just so people don't get the impression he would say that Charles Darwin, for example, was influenced by self-interest in his study of life. Reasoning is still the valuable, essential skill that everyone thinks it is. Our minds don't face a divide like that between the rider and the elephant at all times when reasoning is in play, such as when figuring a math problem, trying to understand our new smart phone, or working on a committee that wants to build a new school. But when it comes to that large area of our social lives that involves morality or reputation, reasoning does tend to be self-serving. I think you're right that Haidt takes that view. My own observation is that when we're with people we know well, in other words when the public aspect is removed, we are a lot more willing to be honest about our moral feelings, not dressing them up with specious reasoning nearly as much as we do when we're in a more public eye.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote: What and why people believe is only grounded in logic within scientific culture. In traditional culture, people often have not thought about why they hold beliefs. They believe what they are taught.
This is giving far too much credit to people based merely on their belonging to a 'scientific culture,' .
I'm defining scientific culture as "basing opinions on evidence". As Saint Paul said in Romans 3:23 "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Even scientists have prejudice, and fall short of logical standards of evidence in the formation of their opinions. But to the extent people base opinions on evidence, they do not rely on intuition. There is a continuum from 100% evidence to 100% intuition.

The most moral position would seem to be 100% evidence, except that we often find ourselves in situations requiring judgment, and therefore have to base decisions on intuition and the synthesis of prior evidence.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

DWill wrote:when it comes to that large area of our social lives that involves morality or reputation, reasoning does tend to be self-serving.
This is precisely the point that I find so disturbing about this whole discussion. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations said the butcher and baker look to self interest in selling meat and bread, and are self-serving in their commercial reasoning. But really, that is not the whole of value theory. People do not simply equate self interest with the good. They also accept that rule of law is an objective good, where their personal interests may be reasonably constrained. The larger public interest of the common good are served through stability, fairness and other matters which inform legal precedent and which conflict with selfish reasoning.

Self-serving reasoning asks 'what can I get away with?' Objective reasoning asks 'what is the public good?' The latter is Kant's categorical imperative of duty. Haidt seems very nihilistic, like Hume, lacking any comprehension of duty.

Haidt's discussion of Plato and Glaucon seems to neglect this distinction between public and private good. But I will have to look further at Plato's Republic again before commenting further on this one.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

First a thank you to DWill. I genuinely appreciate your prompt replies to contributors and the way you frame your responses to stimulate further discussion while still expressing your own opinions. Thanks! In fact the overall tenor of these discussions is quite rational :wink:

You are right of course, the risks of motivated thinking are most evident in beliefs about politics, religion and morality. But they also contaminate our thinking about issues where scientific knowledge should be dominant cf:

http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/ ... e1547.html

Scientists are held to standards of inquiry and observational verification not only by training but by their reference groups, professional organizations,peers, and journal review. This does not always prevent them from falling prey to confirmation bias or other errors but it does make it less likely. An imperfect system but the best we have. Don't get me wrong, motivated thinking does not equate to intellectual dishonesty. We are not dissimulating when we believe in ghosts, or adhere to prejudices. We are simply being human.

I keep thinking of Barbara Kruger's artful use of language: Belief + Doubt = Sanity. Whenever we are certain of our position we are most at risk of error.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Robert Tulip wrote: I'm defining scientific culture as "basing opinions on evidence". As Saint Paul said in Romans 3:23 "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Even scientists have prejudice, and fall short of logical standards of evidence in the formation of their opinions. But to the extent people base opinions on evidence, they do not rely on intuition. There is a continuum from 100% evidence to 100% intuition.
Others have written about logical standards of evidence, but that's simply not what this book is about. Morality, politics, and religion divide people for reasons that have little to do with falling short of logical standards.
The most moral position would seem to be 100% evidence, except that we often find ourselves in situations requiring judgment, and therefore have to base decisions on intuition and the synthesis of prior evidence.
Okay, I don't see much to argue with here. Judgment is what the book is all about.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:when it comes to that large area of our social lives that involves morality or reputation, reasoning does tend to be self-serving.
This is precisely the point that I find so disturbing about this whole discussion. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations said the butcher and baker look to self interest in selling meat and bread, and are self-serving in their commercial reasoning. But really, that is not the whole of value theory. People do not simply equate self interest with the good. They also accept that rule of law is an objective good, where their personal interests may be reasonably constrained. The larger public interest of the common good are served through stability, fairness and other matters which inform legal precedent and which conflict with selfish reasoning.

Self-serving reasoning asks 'what can I get away with?' Objective reasoning asks 'what is the public good?' The latter is Kant's categorical imperative of duty. Haidt seems very nihilistic, like Hume, lacking any comprehension of duty.

Haidt's discussion of Plato and Glaucon seems to neglect this distinction between public and private good. But I will have to look further at Plato's Republic again before commenting further on this one.
I should have modified the word 'reasoning' with 'moral. I think it is essential to keep the discussion from spiraling out to a larger frame of meaning than Haidt intends in this part of the book. If you'll look at his procedure, he attempts to back up his conclusions with experimental evidence, which is necessarily going to answer specific questions, not the larger philosophical ones you bring up. He says that when people engage in moral reasoning, that is, when they tell us why they have judged as they have, they tend to want to make themselves look good because people are watching. I hope others will tell me if they disagree, but Haidt doesn't rule on ideals such as the ones you mention above. People may well have these ideals; Haidt is neither saying they don't or that such ideals aren't good to have. I think you aren't taking into account the approaches scientists need to use if they are going to look into these matters of psychology. They need to steer well clear of advocating for certain goods, as you seem to want Haidt to do.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

DWill wrote:Morality, politics, and religion divide people for reasons that have little to do with falling short of logical standards.
Do you really think that? I suspect these divisions have a lot to do with an absence of good logic.

As a thought experiment, could it be true that if people had perfect logical standards, they would agree on everything? The argument here would be that division arises when illogical beliefs intrude into debate, and it is just because life is so very far from logic that we cannot imagine what it would be like to have a rational culture.

Public debate generally tries to use logic, convincing people by power of reason. As noted earlier, no one can admit to believing things despite knowing they are untrue. Logic can generally prove when a claim is false. But the problem is that most debaters refuse to put their premises up for examination, so they ignore elephants in the room. People rationalise their beliefs rather than subjecting their beliefs to logical scrutiny.

But then I suppose people will differ about their ends, their visions of the good life. For example with abortion, people differ on the extent to which the right to life or the right to choose are legitimate moral ends. All the evidence and logic in the world is not going to change these value frameworks.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

scotchbooks wrote:Whenever we are certain of our position we are most at risk of error.
Hello scotchbooks, welcome to booktalk.

Your comment here is surprising. In fact it is untrue. More commonly, whenever we are uncertain of our position we are at most at risk of error. This is the exact opposite of your proverb.

Sorry if my comment here looks pedantic, or ignores the spirit in which you made your comment. But it is an interesting example of a statement whose real intent is very unclear, as to whether it is a joke or serious, but which can readily become the foundation of other claims that are not so innocent.

It sometimes happens with fanatics that people are certain despite being wrong. But that is no basis to generalise about a link between certainty and error. Generally they are opposite.

The aphorism you made has the quality of a paradoxical homily, a light-hearted homespun Franklinism designed to inculcate humility and modesty. But consider the implications. Cliches like this have a perverse effect, leading people to doubt things that are actually true, especially claims that are fully based on scientific evidence.
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Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:Morality, politics, and religion divide people for reasons that have little to do with falling short of logical standards.
Do you really think that? I suspect these divisions have a lot to do with an absence of good logic.

As a thought experiment, could it be true that if people had perfect logical standards, they would agree on everything? The argument here would be that division arises when illogical beliefs intrude into debate, and it is just because life is so very far from logic that we cannot imagine what it would be like to have a rational culture.
I can see why you would be surprised at my statement, but what I mean is that the attachments that people can't avoid having are in general what create this sometimes troublesome, other times welcome, but always interesting mix of human voices. If you're saying there is some ideal condition under which we would all have the same attachments, and that condition would be brought about by everyone having perfect logic, I disagree. It's very possible for the logic of different views to be okay, in fact, yet for the division to remain.
Public debate generally tries to use logic, convincing people by power of reason. As noted earlier, no one can admit to believing things despite knowing they are untrue. Logic can generally prove when a claim is false. But the problem is that most debaters refuse to put their premises up for examination, so they ignore elephants in the room. People rationalise their beliefs rather than subjecting their beliefs to logical scrutiny.
Now it's my turn for surprise. Your public debate in Australia must be of a totally different kind than ours in the U.S. As you've said yourself, when we are forced to make judgments, which actually we do both automatically and deliberately, we need to rely to a degree on intuition. Then, if we give ourselves time and have the right habit of reflection, we might modify the inititial affective flashes we get from intuition. However in Chapter 4 of the book, Haidt tells us that only under certain conditions does the pause to consider really help us divert our thinking from its wonted path.
But then I suppose people will differ about their ends, their visions of the good life. For example with abortion, people differ on the extent to which the right to life or the right to choose are legitimate moral ends. All the evidence and logic in the world is not going to change these value frameworks..
Ah, yes. And what is implied is that logic is not one side or the other.
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