Musings in Moral Theology (2)
The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.
• Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
• • •
The first principle Jonathan Haidt sets forth in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is:
Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
Haidt urges us to recognize that there are two kinds of cognition that we access when making moral judgments: (1) intuition, and (2) reasoning.
As for the first, thousands of “tiny flashes” of judgment “flit through [our] consciousness” every day. These are “automatic” processes that lead us to make “effortless” judgments and decisions, and in fact, they run the human mind and have for millions and millions of years. The process of reasoning that we value so highly and put so much stock in, in fact is more of a servant to this intuitive process.
The metaphor Haidt uses to describe these two forms of cognition and how they function is that of the elephant and the rider. Over the course of human evolution, the elephant (intuition) took on a rider (reason) because the rider did something useful for the elephant. The elephant is still in charge and leads the way, but now it has the rider to come up with rationales for the decisions it makes. He once wrote an article called, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.”
The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future (because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads) and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present. It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters. And, most important, 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. (p. 55)
Jonathan Haidt says that independently reasoned judgment is rare. Moral reasoning is not something people do in order to discover the truth. Humans just aren’t wired to dispassionately examine all the evidence and then come to rational conclusions when making moral judgments: “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments.” (p.55)
The rider goes where the elephant goes and then explains/justifies why he went there.
But there is more — a social angle to this. Making moral judgments is not an individualistic endeavor. Haidt calls his theory the “social intuitionist model 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 the disputes that are so common in daily life. (p. 55)
Our moral arguments feel right to us because they align with our intuitions and help us feel accepted and properly aligned within our group. This is the “righteous mind,” and the natural response when someone comes at us with another point of view is to go immediately into defense/combat mode.
However — and this is important — what Jonathan Haidt is not saying is that the elephant is so relentless that it cannot be redirected onto other paths. Intuition is not destiny. We can change or modify our positions. We can allow ourselves to reflect upon our own automatic responses and allow reason to persuade us to see things a bit differently. We can also make space for people who are gifted “elephant whisperers” to help us see things from other perspectives so that we can begin to grasp and feel other moral intuitions.
And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (p. 58)