Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails (2)

The second chapter of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind is titled, "The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail." Last week I gave a quick review of the first chapter that the old Monday reading group is going through. Yesterday we met to traverse chapter 2.

1. The bottom line of this chapter is that people's "moral" sensibilities (including their sense of politics and religion) are primarily intuitive. People just know what is right or wrong and then they find reasons after the fact to justify their sensibilities.

So, most of the time, our intuitions (the dog) lead to moral judgments which lead to reasoning (the tail). We then influence other people's intuitions with our reasonings. This is the social dimension of the moral/political/religious process.

In another part of the chapter, he likens our situation to a rider on an elephant. The elephant is our intuition, and the rider is our reasoning about our intuitions. Really, Haidt claims, the elephant is in control, and the rider is merely serving the elephant.

2. He begins with the story of the debate among moral psychologists. Plato thought that reason ruled the person (or at least should). Hume thought that our passions ruled our reason. Jefferson thought it was a both/and, that we sometimes relied on reason and sometimes relied on our emotions.

As it turns out, our emotions are not separate from our cognition. "Emotions" are intrinsic to human decision making and those whose brains are "disconnected" here have trouble making any decisions. "Emotions" are intrinsic to cognition--they are part of our reasoning, not something different as Jefferson pictured.

These are apparently fighting words, although to look at American politics and religion, it seems pretty obvious to me. People know what they believe, then they go find reasons to justify it. As a Bible teacher, I have often found that if I can find another way to get people to the theological or practical conclusion they want to believe, then I can get them to be more objective about the original meaning of biblical passages or about some item of theology.

3. Haidt does not deny that a person can change his or her moral intuitions by way of private reflection or reasoned judgment together. He simply claims that those instances are much rarer (especially the private reflection one) than the knee-jerk intuition. Contrary to stalwart names like Lawrence Kohlberg and John Rawls, Haidt and others have suggested that most people use reason to generate clever justifications for moral intuitions they already have.

It was fun to see Haidt reference Dale Carnegie, who was so influential on my Dad. You influence people, Carnegie suggested, not by confronting them with the truth and reason but by understanding the other person's point of view. Empathy is the best way to help change someone else who is taking a "righteous" point of view, not confrontation. My Dad used to quote, "A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still."

4. So Haidt calls this model a "social intuitionist" model. He has done a good job of reeling us in and as much as admits that he is plying his trade on people like me as readers. No doubt at some point he will cross a line and I will start to disagree. He jokingly suggests at the end of this chapter that if he hasn't managed to appeal to the reader's intuitions, perhaps that reader should stop reading. But of course, he is simply manipulating the rationally oriented reader to want then to read more so as to prove him wrong rationally.

There are hints already that I will not completely buy him. I did not think well of E. O. Wilson twenty years ago, but Haidt has appealed to my intuitions in such a way that I barely caught that I was feeling sorry for someone that I mocked in ethics class in the late 90s. We readers are being played or shall I say that my intuitions are being played. :-)

5. Keith Drury isn't back in town, but let me suggest some ways he might mock the field of biblical studies if he were at lunch with us. A great deal of biblical studies is simply scholars playing out their moral intuitions on the playing field of the biblical texts. N. T. Wright is a great case in point to me. He has these interpretive intuitions that he then applies his considerable reasoning skills to justify post hoc, IMO.

The whole theological interpretation enterprise strikes me as little else but a high falutin' way of reading our already existing theology into the biblical text while going through the motions of historical exegesis. In my opinion, half of the Hebrews scholarship of the last ten years is little more than sentimental manipulation of texts and history to say things we want to think.

There are exceptions, IMO. There are people who truly are willing to come to any interpretive conclusion. They are the scientist types who approach interpretation from a less predetermined direction. They are not popular right now. Postmodernism opened up the door to a theological Mardi Gras that has yet to simmer down.

But Haidt would tell me it has always been this way. I'm simply pointing out the current dominant intuition.


RDavid said...

"There are exceptions, IMO. There are people who truly are willing to come to any interpretive conclusion. They are the scientist types who approach interpretation from a less predetermined direction. They are not popular right now."

Please provide some examples.

Ken Schenck said...

I consider scholars like James Dunn, John Meier, John Collins, Raymond Brown--the modernist crowd--to have been of this ilk. Obviously they all had biases, but they had a much more objective feel to them than the current state of things, IMO.