Sunday, April 22, 2012

Emotion trumps reason according to author...reflections follow

By Andrew Preston, Globe and Mail, April 6,2012
(Andrew Preston teaches history at Cambridge University. His most recent book is Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.)

For decades, social scientists based their work on “rational choice theory.” Based partly on observations of culture and partly on evolutionary theory, rationalists argued that people generally made logical decisions about their choices in life in order to maximize their chances of positive outcomes. Many people didn’t make rational decisions, of course, but they were the failed exceptions who proved the rule. At both the individual and group levels, people behaved rationally by making decisions that would benefit them the most.

But occasionally, the real world imposes on conventional wisdom and academic theory. In 2008, the economic crisis shattered these comfortable assumptions. Those who believed in rational choice theory, and in naturally self-regulating markets, were left befuddled and disillusioned by widespread irrationality. Sometimes, it seemed, people did not behave in a rational manner, even when their own direct interests were at stake.
We already should have known better. While the popping sound of 2008 was louder than usual, it was by no means the first bubble to burst. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, coined the term “irrational exuberance” in 1996 to explain the inexplicable: why investors continued pouring their money into IT companies that couldn’t possibly be worth what their inflated stock prices indicated. Sure enough, reality set in, and the bubble burst four years later.
Yet rationality is a stubborn concept. Does reason rule human nature in our ├╝ber-modern, globalized age? Many of us assume that it does. But if investors, normally the most clear-eyed and unsentimental of people, were willing to risk their capital and assets on financial arrangements they barely understood, or on tech companies that were overvalued out of all proportion to their actual assets and income, then what does that say about human rationality more broadly? Irrational exuberance would seem to be just as accurate a predictor of human behaviour as rational choice.
Emotion rather than reason, then, is the key to understanding human nature. That at least is the central premise of Jonathan Haidt’s absorbing The Righteous Mind, which should come with a warning label: “contents highly addictive.” Written in a breezy and accessible style but informed by an impressively wide range of cutting-edge research in the social sciences, evolutionary biology and psychology, The Righteous Mind is about as interesting a book as you’ll pick up this year.
Borrowing from the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who differed from most other Enlightenment thinkers on this point, Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that reason is subservient to emotion. But he goes a step further, and here’s where The Righteous Mind becomes really interesting. Again building on Hume, Haidt argues that emotion is the source of morality, and therefore actually superior to reason.
The champions of reason have built a strong case otherwise. Emotion, they say, breeds superstition and conflict, and is a barrier to progress. Worst of all, it breeds religion, and religion breeds intolerance and backwardness. Western thinkers, from the ancient Greeks and French Enlightenment philosophes to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins, have assumed that modernity, based on reason and science, will inevitably lead to secularization and the decline of religion, which, in turn, will lift humanity to bigger and better things. Secularization theory has become conventional wisdom in the West. Yet around the world, religion shows no signs of abating.
Haidt has an answer for this: Thanks to natural selection, evolution has hard-wired religion, intuition and other emotional and sentimental alternatives to pure reason into our genetic code. In his most frequent metaphor, he compares the psychological interplay between reason and intuition to the relationship between an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents 90 per cent of the relationship, and the rider can’t force the elephant to go where it doesn’t want to go. Yet the rider can sometimes influence where they’re headed. For a variety of reasons peculiar to Europe, Westerners came to give more power to the rider. Still, emotion rules, even in the rational West.
When people believe that something is immoral even if it is harmless – when a man makes love to a dead chicken in the privacy of his own home, to use one of Haidt’s many graphic examples – they are morally dumbfounded. They know it’s wrong, but they can’t explain why.
Haidt argues that we have six moral senses – care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity – just as we have a sense of taste or touch. Liberals usually only feel the first three, whereas all six resonate with conservatives. This doesn’t mean that conservatives are morally superior, but it does mean that it will be nearly impossible to convert others to your cause through an appeal to reason.
The implications of all this are profound and far-reaching, and they help explain why the Western concept of “universal” human rights grounded in individual autonomy is actually foreign to most other cultures (and thus not so universal after all).
This is a troubling thought, and Haidt is not always convincing in explaining it. Though he’s careful to disavow homophobia and racism, his admonition to follow the elephant rather than heed the rider could easily be used to justify the suppression of gay rights or multiculturalism.
After all, people are morally dumbfounded by alternative sexualities all the time, but this should not excuse their ignorance and bigotry. But whether one agrees that the elephant knows better than the rider, nobody could doubt the power of emotion and intuition after reading The Righteous Mind.
Haidt argues that we have six moral senses – care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity – just as we have a sense of taste or touch. Liberals usually only feel the first three, whereas all six resonate with conservatives. This doesn’t mean that conservatives are morally superior, but it does mean that it will be nearly impossible to convert others to your cause through an appeal to reason.
(from article above)
And then there is this...
By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, April 21, 2012
Jonathan Haidt has a lot to say about WEIRD culture (of which he is an admitted member). His fascinating new book, The Righteous Mind, is a must-read for anyone who’s dumbfounded that Stephen Harper got to be prime minister, or that so many of his obviously stupid policies are so popular, or that Albertans appear to be on the verge of electing a party full of bigots and climate-change deniers.

Mr. Haidt is a social psychologist who studies the moral foundations of politics. He argues that conservatives and liberals operate with two quite different moral systems. Liberals are almost exclusively concerned with harm and fairness. They see society as composed of autonomous individuals who should be free to satisfy their wants and needs as they see fit. Conservatives have a wider moral palate. They are also concerned with loyalty, authority and sanctity – values that are deeply rooted in human nature and all societies throughout history. They see society as composed of people in relation to community, who have a set of roles, responsibilities and obligations to God and their neighbours. They believe there is much more to the moral domain than harm and fairness.
Mr. Haidt argues that politicians on the right have a built-in advantage, because they understand human nature better than liberals do. Most people’s moral frameworks are far broader – and far less rational and systematic – than liberals believe. Nonetheless, liberal psychologists (and politicians) have spent most of the past 40 years trying to explain why conservatives are so misguided. Why don’t they embrace equality, diversity and change, like normal people? Obviously, they’re repressed and afraid of difference.
Mr. Haidt believes that as long as liberals continue to pathologize conservatism, they’re doomed. Instead, they need to understand why the reaction of many ordinary people to the issues in the news is so different from their own.
The simple answer is that these people are less concerned with individual rights and universal justice than they are with things such as loyalty, authority and people getting what they deserve. They think, for example, that Omar Khadr is a troublemaker in a family of troublemakers who are disloyal to their adopted country and that he should be grateful he’s not dead. They’re glad our government is standing up to save the life of an innocent man, but they couldn’t care less if a brutal killer gets his just deserts. As for transgender beauty queens – well, whatever. But the whole idea that gender can be made irrelevant in human affairs – or that kids can, or should, be raised sexless – is ridiculous.
Of all the Harper government’s policies, the ones that drive liberals craziest are those concerning crime and punishment. To liberals, its law-and-order agenda is nothing more than base pandering to an ignorant electorate. But many Canadians have a sharply different view. They don’t care that crime stats are at record lows, or that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work. What they care about is the Vancouver bus driver who was off work for more than a year after a young thug bashed his face in. The thug got 18 months to be served at a rehab residence. They care about the stupidly light sentence imposed on Graham James for sexually abusing teenage hockey players and about shopkeepers who get charged by the police for trying to protect themselves from thieves. They think these things are profoundly wrong. And despite the enlightened views of liberals, an alarming number of them continue to support the death penalty.
Perhaps if these Canadians were better educated they wouldn’t think this way. Or perhaps, if liberals were better educated in moral psychology, they’d be able to understand why conservative policies are so appealing. My advice is to begin by listening to Jonathan Haidt.
As an avowed, unapologetic "liberal," I can see that there is some validity to the notion that conservatives pay more attention to the 'loyalty, authority, sanctity" aspects of the moral compass, than do liberals. I am revolted by the "attack on the bus driver" but much less interested in "revenge" as I see it, than in the rehabilitation of that attacker, given a full life-history as an integral and essential part of his treatment. It is this "retribution" aspect of the "emotions" as Haidt ascribes the points on the moral compass that is so anathema to this liberal.
While we can agree that our emotions trump our reason, (although all of us protest the inverse in our public discourse, and in much of our justifications for our actions, beliefs, attitudes and aspirations), it does not seem to follow that a society that pursues retribution, as a central tenet of its moral and ethical compass, as is illustrated by the countless acts of retribution in all countries for all time, is developing a society intent on finding and growing the "best angels" in its people.
What may be at the root of the differences between liberals and conservatives, however, is the tenacity with which liberals cling to hope in their pursuit of all moral questions, that seems less evident, to this observer, in the attitudes, beliefs and actions of conservatives. Do liberals actually believe, and live out of their belief, that human beings, no matter how contemptible, are still made in the image of god (imago dei) and thereby open to rehabilitation, reformation and a fully healthy development, given the appropriate conditions, individually? And do liberals also believe that the pursuit of social and governmental policies, regulations and budgets dedicated to the incarceration, punishment and neglect of this rehabilitative capacity, as liberals see it, are both short-sighted and counter-productive, in terms of recidivism, and thereby the "peace-making" within the society, in order to placate this "retributive" component of what Haidt calls the moral compass of human nature?
And while conservatives, analogous to the elephant in the above analogy, with liberals being the tiny, almost insignificant rider, plunder their way through the jungle, never forgetting an offence or an unmet punishment for wrong-doing, we liberals attempt to ride that intransigent and non-negotiable animal through the unconscious assignment of political power, in Canada, United Kingdom and too many other 'right-wing' governments, all the while knowing that without our perspective, on fairness and compassion, there will be no clean air, water and food, not mention health care, education and opportunity, if the conservatives squander all the money feeding their "moral compass" needs for retribution, and what they consider holiness...their own at least.

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