May 22, 2013 A Vote for Reason

A Vote for Reason

By MICHAEL P. LYNCH                                                                       Opinionator. The Stone, NYTImes web site, September 30, 2012

Suppose I offer, at no charge, to drop a drug in the water supply that would cause almost everyone in the country to vote like you this November. You would probably feel at least a little bit tempted to take the deal. Presidential politics is a matter of grave import, after all. Still — many of us would hesitate, and rightly so. There seems to be something really wrong with manipulating people to believe things even when the stakes are high. We want to convince our opponents, yes, but we want them to be convinced by our reasons.

The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons.

This hope that exchanging reasons matters, not just for what it gets us but in itself is as old as Plato, but it has often been derided as something of a muddle-headed fantasy, as “nothing but dreams and smoke” as Montaigne put it in the 16th century. And of course there is some sense in this. You don’t have to be Karl Rove to appreciate the obvious fact that the evidence often fails to persuade, to suspect that what really works are the tried and true methods of good advertising, emotional associations and having the bigger stick (or “super PAC”).

Recently, however, some social scientists, most notably the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, have upped the cynical ante. In Haidt’s view, the philosophers’ dream of reason isn’t just naïve, it is radically unfounded, the product of what he calls “the rationalist delusion.” As he puts it, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. [1] Haidt sees two points about reasoning to be particularly important: the first concerns the efficacy (or lack thereof) of reasoning; the second concerns the point of doing so publicly: of exchanging reasons.

According to Haidt, not only are value judgments less often a product of rational deliberation than we’d like to think, that is how we are supposed to function. That it is how we are hardwired by evolution. In the neuroscientist Drew Westen’s words, the political brain is the emotional brain.

Often “reasoning” really seems to be post-hoc rationalization: we tend to accept that which confirms what we already believe (psychologists call this confirmation bias). And the tendency goes beyond just politics. When people are told that they scored low on an I.Q. test, for example, they are more likely to read scientific articles criticizing such tests; when they score high, they are more likely to read articles that support the tests. They are more likely to favor the “evidence,” in other words, that makes them feel good. This is what Haidt calls the “wag the dog” illusion: thinking that reason is the tail that wags the dog of value judgment.

Indeed, reason sometimes seems simply beside the point. Consider some of Haidt’s own well- known research on “moral dumbfounding.” Presented with a story about consensual, protected sex between an adult brother and sister — sex which is never repeated, and which is protected by birth control — most people in the studies reacted with feelings of disgust, judging that it was wrong. Yet subjects struggled to defend such feelings with arguments when questioned by

researchers. [2] Even so, they stuck to their guns. Haidt suggests that this means that whatever reasons they could come up with seem to be just along for the ride: it was their feelings doing the work of judgment.

Data like this — and these examples are just the tip of a very large iceberg — certainly should give us pause; but we need to be careful not to exaggerate the lessons it has to teach us. The inability for people — in particular young college students like those in Haidt’s study — to be immediately articulate about why they’ve made an intuitive judgment doesn’t necessarily show that their judgment is the outcome of non-rational process, or even that they lack reasons for their view. Intuitions, moral or otherwise, can be the result of sources that can be rationally evaluated and calibrated.[3]

Moreover, rational deliberation is not a switch to be thrown on or off. It is a process, and therefore many of its effects would have to be measured over time. Tellingly, the participants in Haidt’s original harmless taboo studies study had little time to deliberate. But as other studies have suggested when people are given more time to reflect, they can change their beliefs to fit the evidence, even when those beliefs might be initially emotionally uncomfortable to them.

Indeed, recent history seems to bear this out: Consider, for example, the change in attitudes toward homosexuality and gay marriage taking place in the United States. Perhaps we can explain large-scale moral and political change of this sort without having to evoke the efficaciousness of reasons, but it seems just as likely that appeals to evidence — evidence, in fact, often uncovered by social scientists — have had at least some impact on how people view same-sex (or interracial) marriage. And it seems downright likely that rational deliberation is going to be involved in the creation of new moral concepts — such as human rights. In short, to show that reasons have no role in value judgments, we would need to show that they have no role in changes in moral views over time.

This brings us around to Haidt’s second main point about reasoning, mentioned above. He endorses what he calls a Glauconian view of reasoning about value. The reference here is to an old saw from Plato: What would you do with a ring of invisibility? Fight for truth, justice and the American way or spy on people and steal stuff? In Plato’s “Republic,” the character Glaucon asks this question to illustrate the idea that it is merely the fear of being caught that makes us behave, not a desire for justice. Haidt takes from this a general lesson about the value of defending our views with reasons. Just as those who do the “right” thing are not really motivated by a desire for justice, those who defend their views with reasons are not “really” after the truth. As the cognitive scientists Mercier and Sperber put it, what they are really after — whether they acknowledge it or not — are arguments supporting their already entrenched views. If so, then even if appeals to evidence are sometimes effective in changing our political values over time, that’s only because reasons themselves are aimed at manipulating others into agreeing with us, not uncovering the facts. To think otherwise is to once again fall into the rationalist delusion.

In giving reasons we certainly aim to get others to agree with us (I’m doing that now, after all). And aiming at agreement is a good thing, as is searching out effective means of reaching it (indeed, this is one of the noble ideals of Haidt’s book). But it is less clear that we can coherently represent ourselves as only aiming to get others to agree with us in judgment.

To see this, think about how Haidt’s view applies to itself. The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons. So if those reasons convince me that his theory is true, then reasons can play a role in judgment — contra the theory. Think about the passage I quoted above in this context: those who love truth need to take a good, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. This sounds like a self-defeating argument: we are being advised to use reason to see that reason is flawed.

There is a larger point here. Even if we could start seeing ourselves as giving reasons only to manipulate, it is unclear that we should. To see ourselves as Glauconians is to treat the exchange of reasons as a slow-moving, less effective version of the political correctness drug I mentioned at the outset. And we are right to recoil from that. It is a profoundly undemocratic idea.

To engage in democratic politics means seeing your fellow citizens as equal autonomous agents capable of making up their own minds. And that means that in a functioning democracy, we owe one another reasons for our political actions. And obviously these reasons can’t be “reasons” of force and manipulation, for to impose a view on someone is to fail to treat him or her as an autonomous equal. That is the problem with coming to see ourselves as more like Glauconian rhetoricians than reasoners. Glauconians are marketers; persuasion is the game and truth is beside the point. But once we begin to see ourselves — and everyone else — in this way, we cease seeing one another as equal participants in the democratic enterprise. We are only pieces to be manipulated on the board.

Critics of reason, from Haidt to conservative intellectuals like Burke and Oakeshott, see reason as an inherently flawed instrument. As a consequence, they see the picture of politics I’ve just suggested — according to which democracies should be spaces of reasons — as unfounded and naïve. Yet to see one another as reason-givers doesn’t mean we must perceive one another as emotionless, unintuitive robots. It is consistent with the idea, rightly emphasized by Haidt, that much rapid-fire decision making comes from the gut. But it is also consistent with the idea that we can get better at spotting when the gut is leading us astray, even if the process is slower and more ponderous than we’d like. Giving up on the idea that reason matters is not only premature from a scientific point of view; it throws in the towel on an essential democratic hope. Politics needn’t always be war by other means; democracies can, and should be places where the exchange of reasons is encouraged. This hope is not a delusion; it is an ideal — and in our countdown to November, one still worth striving for.

NOTE: A related article by Gary Gutting will be published later this week. The Stone has also invited a response from Jonathan Haidt.


[1] “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” p. 89. Haidt’s fascinating book concerns much more than the points focused on here; its principal aim is to diagnose the causes of ongoing political rifts.

[2]I don’t meant to suggest, and neither does Haidt, that such feelings can’t be defended; that is a different topic.

[3]See Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011) and “What Does the Modularity of Morals Have to Do With Ethics? Four Moral Sprouts Plus or Minus a Few,” Owen Flanagan and Robert Anthony Williams. Topics in Cognitive Science 2 (2010) 430-453. On the following point about changes, see J. M. Patxton, L. Ungar, and J. Greene, “Reflection and Reasoning in Moral Judgment” Cognitive Science 36: 1, p. 163-177.

Michael P. Lynch is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. His most recent book is “In Praise of Reason.”

Scott Iowa City

The fact that reason can be easily swayed by emotion does not mean that emotion must inevitably subvert reason. Spiritual traditions and the history of philosophy are candles of light, pointing towards the capacity within humans for compassion, reason, and emotion to coexist peacefully.

avispartan117 Coppell, TX

I find it interesting that so far, everyone has missed the elephant in the room; what is the definition of reason?

Is reason defined as the process of deriving true conclusions from true assumptions? That seems to be what most people here are implicitly accepting. If so, then you inevitably run into a whole bunch of problems related to knowing the truth of your assumptions: What, besides emotion, can justify moral assumptions? What aspect of reality do moral assumptions even refer to? You assume that the observed can be used to predict the unobserved, that other people have minds, and that a world exists independent of your perceptions, but how do you know all this is really true? The inevitable result of any “rational” skepticism under this definition of reason must be solipsism and moral nihilism, unless you choose to irrationally take some things on faith, which we all do out of necessity.

Another definition of reason is the instrumental one; good reasoning is any process that allows you to correctly achieve a goal. But then proper reasoning would only be defined relative to the goal, which itself is determined by desire.

That, in a nutshell, is what this article means to me: at the root of all well founded belief is an unfounded belief. You don’t need neuroscience and psychology to prove this, all you need is an armchair and a passing grade in philosophy 101

robmattles Chevy Chase, MD

Reason has survived or even prospered through evolution. Its use is presumably a survival advantage still. If voters are swayed by raw emotion then those who so manipulate the emotions of we sappy-headed impressionable voters surely use reason to create their enticements. So though there’s little hope for reason replacing base passion as our prime mover, it remains a power in our arsenal that gives advantage and reward. So here’s to Reason, the step-child of Passion. It has its moments and I wish it many more.

Ross Williams Grand Rapids, Minnesota

“Perhaps we can explain large-scale moral and political change of this sort without having to evoke the efficaciousness of reasons”

There is no evidence that those changes resulted from reason. More likely they resulted from people being exposed to gays and having openly gay family, friends and co-workers. Its a great example of reasons following action, in this case the acceptance of gays.

“those who love truth need to take a good, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. This sounds like a self-defeating argument: we are being advised to use reason to see that reason is flawed.”

And the argument failed with the author for the reasons sited. But it seems to me this argument misses the point entirely. Its not that people aren’t persuaded by argument, but that arguments only “persuade” us of things we are already prepared to accept emotionally. This is considerably different than using reason to discover or identify “truth”.

In fact, the notion of the democratic process being a search for “truth” is a complete misunderstanding of its purpose common among abstract thinkers. But the purpose of the democratic process is to resolve conflicts between competing interests without resorting to violent conflicts. Truth has nothing to do with it. The importance of articulating reasons in that process is to provide a roadmap for compromise by clearly explaining what each side values.

Connor Wood Boston

There’s something missing in this analysis of Haidt’s position: Haidt espouses a Glauconian viewpoint in order to ultimately facilitate better integration of reason and intuition, not to dismiss reason outright. That is, he assents to the traditionally conservative claim that reason is inherently flawed and we require each other’s oversight to behave well SO THAT he can point to the rare junctures in the decision-making process where reason really can have positive influence. …

Ross Williams Grand Rapids, Minnesota

Cassamandra –

Actually not. I remember a training with Cesar Chavez and the insight this this statement provided to a young organizer. Paraphrased – “Don’t try to reason with people. Get them to act and they will find the reasons for themselves.” This was persuasive not because of its arguments, but because it reflected and explained the actual experience of both the speaker and the audience.

We remember the eloquence of people like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. But it was their actions that changed us. Whether they were “great leaders of the people” or “radical outside agitators” depended on your own experience with them.

The notion that we are more accepting of gays because of reasoned argument seems silly to me. You have to believe we found undiscovered reasonable arguments that had always been there. We understand them, where past generations haven’t. Apparently the idea is that we are somehow smarter than people before us.

I think what really changed was our experience. We came to accept reasons that explained that experience. It wasn’t the reasons that changed us, we changed the reasons.

Howard Los Angeles

Reasoning is always from premises. If you disagree with someone else’s premises, that doesn’t mean that the conclusions that person draws from the premises are illogical; it means that you don’t buy the premises and therefore don’t think they warrant the conclusions.

Most people don’t have complete philosophical systems consistently and rationally based on a few axioms. Spinoza and Leibniz may have done so, but most people hold beliefs that are not always compatible. Consider the champions of both free market competition and literal interpretation of the New Testament, for instance. Or those who favor DNA testing of everyone in the population but don’t believe in the evolutionary science that explains the process. Or who give reasons for not believing in reason.

Reason, and testing our conclusions as a way of seeing if our premises are true, is the only method we have of validating or refuting anything that goes beyond our immediate experience. Learning enough logic to identify our own premises and those of our opponents would be a darn good thing.
The distinction between agreeing with the conclusions of an argument and accepting the validity of the argument is a weapon against prejudice

Rawebb LiKle Rock, AR

While there are clearly exceptions–both people and issues–where reason plays a constructive role, those are exceptions. The great majority of psychologists (I am one) would agree with Haidt. People’s attitudes towards issues–including moral issues– represent some kind of internal balance among behavior, feelings and beliefs. We have known for years–and I just saw in confirmed in a major research report–that the least effective way of trying to change someone’s mind is to tell them something that contradicts their beliefs. If you want to change people’s minds, you have to change their behavior (e.g. give them the opportunity to interact with openly gay people so that normal human decency can prevail.) In a paraphrase of that famous line from the Vietnam era, if you have them by the behavior, their hearts and minds (feelings and beliefs) will come tagging along. Reason is what we use after the fact to justify our behavior to witnesses so they will not think we are horrible people.

MaK Upstate NY

“The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons. So if those reasons convince me that his theory is true, then reasons can play a role in judgment — contra the theory.”

I am not endorsing Haidt’s larger position. But this is a poor argument. Haidt is claiming only that there is no appeal to reason in *moral* contexts; presumably he is not arguing against a role for reason in science and mathematics But Lynch’s argument here does not involve a moral judgment, but presumably is meant to be something more along the lines of scientific reasoning. After all, a general philosophical assertion about the role of reason in moral judgment is not itself moral in character, any more than a claim about obesity in the U.S. is itself fat. There is no self- reflexive problem here.

Deborah Houston

What I have found is that people simply don’t believe facts that are contrary to their preconceived notions, not that they take the same facts and come to different conclusions. In fact, that implies that if they did believe the facts, they are convinced they would have to change their conclusions, so I don’t think it is that people are not interested in reason, so much as people do not want to believe that they could be wrong. Therefore, it is the facts themselves they change in their minds rather than their interpretation of the facts. Changes in public mores such as attitudes toward same sex marriage really are made through education and the dissemination of facts. It is up to the press to sort this out as they used to instead of presenting different facts as if they were two equally valid opinions. A workable democracy depends on it

Josh Hill

New London

More, I think, that it is practiced by a tiny minority, and debated by their followers. The caveat being that to some extent, all of us are followers — no one can master every field today. So for example when I defend global warming, I am essentially passing along the views of scientists active in the field, along with my own belief — based on my own scientific training and knowledge of history — that

their views are more likely to be correct than those of energy company shills and corrupted politicians. And, really, most people can’t do even that

Opinionator — The Stone NYTimes Web site, October 4, 2012,

Haidt’s Problem With Plato


This is the second of two posts dealing with arguments concerning reason found in Jonathan Haidt’s recent book “The Righteous Mind” (the first, “A Vote for Reason,” by Michael P. Lynch, was published on Sunday). Haidt’s response to these two pieces will be published at The Stone this Sunday evening.

Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” is an important and exciting book, from which I’ve learned a great deal about the limitations of human reasoning. I was, however, disappointed at what struck me as its cavalier treatment of some highly relevant work by philosophers. To illustrate my concerns, I begin by reflecting on Haidt’s effort to refute Plato’s central argument in “The Republic.” This is where Plato tries to show why a just (morally good) life is superior to an unjust (immoral) life.

Plato would not be surprised to learn that people typically don’t use reason to seek the truth.

Socrates (as usual, Plato’s spokesman) responds to a view put forward by his young friend Glaucon. On this view, someone who devoted his life to nothing but satisfying his selfish desires would be entirely happy. At the most, Glaucon suggests, happiness would require a person’s keeping his selfishness secret and enjoying a reputation for virtue. Glaucon does not believe this claim, and he hopes to see Socrates refute it and show how morality, just by itself, brings happiness.

Haidt pithily summarizes Socrates’ argument: “Reason must rule the happy person. And if reason rules, then it cares about what is truly good, not just about the appearance of virtue.” He maintains that Socrates goes wrong because he assumes a false view of the role of reason in human life. ”Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth,” where justification means pursuing “socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us.” Haidt supports his claim about the actual role of reason with an array of fascinating psychological experiments cumulatively showing that “Glaucon was right: people care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality,” and use reason accordingly. This view of reason also, he suggests, best accords with an evolutionary account of how our rational capacity developed.

Plato, however, would hardly be surprised to learn that people typically don’t use reason to seek truth and prefer appearance to truth. His cave allegory (in the “Republic”), which compares us to prisoners condemned to view only shadows of images of real things, vividly expresses this view. And his metaphor in the “Phaedrus,” of a charioteer (reason) desperately trying to control two

horses with one of them (our desires) struggling to go its own way, illustrates the difficulties of rational control.

Haidt’s psychological studies count against Plato only if we take them as denying any chance of rational control and allowing no alternative to a life dominated by our immediate inclinations — our “gut reactions,” as Haidt puts it. But Haidt makes no such claim, saying only, “we should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.” Nevertheless, he adds, “if you put individuals together in the right way … you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent product of the social system.” Haidt’s view here is plausible, especially since, if reason could never rule, we couldn’t trust even Haidt’s own impressive line of rational argument from scientific evidence.

But Haidt’s view here is not at all alien to Plato, who saw truth arising only from the right sort of discussion among inquirers accountable to one another. Nor would Plato object to Haidt’s claim that ethics is based on intuition — direct moral judgments — rather than on reasoning. Haidt’s “reasoning” corresponds to what Plato calls dianoia, the process of logically deriving conclusions from given premises. Such logic yields merely hypothetical knowledge (if p, then q), since logic cannot prove the truth of its premises. Reasoning, therefore, will reliably yield truth only when it is completed by acts of intuition (noesis) that justify the premises from which we reason.

Plato’s intuitions are not like the snap judgments of everyday life, driven by genes and social conditioning. But nor are they the insights of individuals meditating in isolation. Plato’s intuitions derive from a long and complex process of physical, emotional and intellectual formation in a supportive social system. (This is what Plato means by the “education” of his philosopher-rulers.) These intuitions are what — given sufficient experience, maturity and, especially, responsible intellectual engagement with others — we hope will replace the snap- judgment intuitions Haidt rightly sees as underlying so much of our moral life.

Haidt’s experimentalist critique of Plato misses its mark because he ignores what Plato actually thought in favor of an oversimplification of his “rationalism.” He does something similar in suggesting that Kant’s ethics reflects a personality within the autism spectrum. Likewise, he implausibly suggests that John Rawls can be refuted by surveys showing that people do not share the judgments Rawls thinks we would make in the fictional situation of his “original position.”

Haidt doesn’t take such philosophers seriously, I suspect, because they don’t proceed like empirical scientists, testing their ideas through experiments. He’s right — and many philosophers agree — that ethicists should take account of the recent explosion in sophisticated experimental work on morality. But it’s important to realize that Haidt’s own discussion requires him to move beyond empirical studies and in the direction of traditional philosophy.

One way Haidt does this is by confirming experimental results with real-life experiences. For example, he tells how, while he was writing an account of experiments showing how people put forward obviously bad arguments to support their intuitions, he himself did that very thing in an argument with his wife. Much of the force of Haidt’s case depends on such concrete examples (and as a fascinated reader, I found myself frequently supplying them from my own experience).

Without such examples, we would well question the relevance of simplified and controlled laboratory experiments to the complexities of unmanaged real life. Haidt is convincing largely because his experiments resonate so well with what we find in our pre-scientific experience.

But the great philosophers — Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzsche — describe moral experiences far more carefully and subtly than most of us can, and moreover, they provide historical perspectives that can help offset the limitations of our own limited viewpoint. Admittedly some contemporary philosophers spend more time than they should fussing with contrived and arid examples of runaway trolleys and ticking time bombs. But there also those — like Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum — who offer rich and subtle delineations of our moral experience. I suspect that Haidt could make excellent use of this sort of philosophical work.

In another vein, Haidt often evokes conceptual distinctions, a central concern of centuries of philosophy, to make sense of his experimental results. He particularly develops a critique of the distinction between cognition and emotion, but without engaging the significant body of philosophical discussion on this topic. Even more important, Haidt acknowledges the need to distinguish between what we in fact do and what we ought to do. As Haidt’s lone hero among the great philosophers — David Hume — points out, there is a logical gap between what is done (descriptive ethics) and what ought to be done (normative ethics). Haidt acknowledges that his concern as a psychologist is overwhelmingly descriptive. But he says almost nothing about how to connect his work with the compelling normative questions of human life. Engaging with the extensive philosophical discussions of Hume’s distinction between “is” and “ought” could help fill this major gap in Haidt’s account of ethics.

Understanding ethics requires the sort of experimental work empirical psychologists do, as well as the reflections on lived experience and the conceptual analyses philosophers provide. Ignoring or trivializing either enterprise impoverishes the other. Many philosophers are learning a great deal from the work of Haidt and other empirical psychologists. I hope that Haidt will return the compliment.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre

Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone.

SC Erie, PA

If I understand Haidt correctly, his is a Darwinist conception of reason. According to his research, reason is merely a tool, or rather a weapon, in human competition —- for supremacy, survival, etc.

Competition is driven by emotion. And while emotion is the motivator of all action, its subjective nature makes it an unreliable judge of situations and courses of action.
While one might not deny the competitive use of reason, it can hardly constitute the full extent of it. Reason does not exist apart from the totality of human existence. It is not the hermetically sealed function Haidt would have us believe it to be.

There must be something more to guide us through the hall of mirrors that is the human emotions than a competitive version of reason. And it seems that the very processes that Haidt attributes to reason are, to the contrary, those governed by emotion. They end up providing us with a narrow, first person view of reality. When we strip away that maze of emotion what remains is a wider conception of a non-egotistical truth attained through a less deterministic process of reason.

Arthur Chicago

You do an excellent job gutting Haidt’s superficial dismissal of far subtler thinkers. For a particularly rich trove of work on both how second- and third-rate scholars have distorted first-rate philosophers, and on how first-rate philosophers have even distorted or reformulated one another’s work, see the publications gathered at

Peter Texas

Haidt either is a conservative who falsely claims ideological neutrality or has yet to figure out that he is a conservative. One form of conservative ideology insists on the necessity of authority because there are no other sources of moral or normative constraint. That is, we all have to bow in front of some decider or deciders (God, the President, our boss, the man of the house) because without obedience and submission we would be overrun by chaos. The liberal response here is that people can develop and improve their moral understandings, and so we can have order from the masses, not simply imposed. Haidt’s polemic in this book is another installment in the ‘we are incapable of reason and morality so please kick us into submission’ that follows conservative thinking. While he may well be right that there are many conditions under which many people will use reason driven by desire, there are also instances of the reverse. And, as Prof. Gutting suggests, these positive capacities can be nurtured. The choice is really between a world in which we are coerced to follow authorities who might or might not have our interests at heart or a world in which communities seek to nurture individual’s abilities to reason and care for each other. Regrettably, we are still very far removed from the second world

Sal Anthony Queens, NY Dear Professor Gutting,

Though I haven’t read Haidt’s book, a recent experience thoroughly mirrors your observations concerning his attempt to diminish Plato. I read Sam Harris’s “Free Will”, which came out a few months ago, and as soon as I finished it I went online and read St. Augustine’s “On Grace and Free Will.”

I had no preconceptions as to which might prove the superior text, nor was I seeking to contrast a scientific approach with a spiritual one. I simply wanted to compare the notions of antiquity with those of modernity and see how each held up.

Interestingly, Augustine buried Harris in every possible way, and it was as much a matter

of his intense reflection as it was the humble manner with which he considered questions whose answers still remain mostly unresolved. ….

A Reader Ohio

Thank you for defending philosophy from Haidt’s superficial, self-satisfied attacks. The well-known fact that reason rarely rules our lives does not contradict Plato; it’s merely the starting point for Plato’s efforts to achieve this difficult rule of reason.

If Haidt asserts that the rule of reason is not just difficult but impossible, because reason “was designed to seek justification, not truth,” his position is incoherent. I will leave aside the looseness of the word “designed” when used by a supposedly evolutionary thinker. The more glaring problem is that, as a researcher, writer, and thinker, Haidt must assume that his own reason is capable of seeking and finding truth — and that he himself can be guided by reason, at least in his activities of researching and writing.

Dick Mulliken Jefferson, NY

The capture of psychology by empiricists
led to an extraordinary trivialization of the field. Since psychologists are only permitted to study the measurable we at best can only nibble at the edges of important issues.


The Stone October 7, 2012, 5:00 pm, NYTimes Website
Reasons Matter (When Intuitions Don’t



This post by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt is a response to two previous articles in The Stone — one by Gary Gutting, the other by Michael P. Lynch — which argued against certain views on reason found in Haidt’s recent book, “The Righteous Mind.”


Among the most memorable scenes in movie history is Toto’s revelation that the thundering head of the Wizard of Oz is actually animated by a small man behind a curtain, who lamely says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Modern psychology has, to some extent, pulled the curtain back on human reasoning and shown it to be much less impressive than it sometimes pretends to be, and much more driven by the hidden force of intuition.

I never said that reasons were irrelevant. I said that they were no match for intuition.

In separate essays in The Stone last week, Michael P. Lynch and Gary Gutting both argued that reason can do far more than I give it credit for in my recent book, “The Righteous Mind.” Lynch

in particular urges us not to give up hope for a democracy based on the exchange of reasons, and he tries to use my own arguments to counter my cynicism: “The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons.” But I never said that reason plays no role in judgment. Rather, I urged that we be realistic about reasoning and recognize that reasons persuade others on moral and political issues only under very special circumstances.

I developed an idea from Howard Margolis, the distinguished social scientist who died in 2009, that two basic kinds of cognitive events are “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why.” (These terms correspond roughly to what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others call “System 1” and “System 2” and that I call the “elephant” and the “rider.”) We effortlessly and intuitively “see that” something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or “reasons why,” which we can give to others. Both processes are crucial for understanding belief and persuasion. Both are needed for the kind of democratic deliberation that Lynch (and I) want to promote.

I’d like to show how these two processes work together by offering here a figure that I cut from my book a few months before turning in the manuscript, thinking it would be too confusing for a broad audience.

In the figure (adapted from Margolis) I’ve drawn a two-dimensional epistemological space showing the four cognitive states you might be in as you hear and discuss a story about X — let’s suppose that X is two adult siblings having consensual safe sex. The horizontal dimension is intuition: you intuitively “see that” X is bad (in which case you start on the left edge of the figure). The vertical dimension is “reasoning-why”: you search for reasons why X is bad (you try to reason your way downward). There are only two safe, comfortable spots on the table: the

lower-left corner, where your intuitions say that X is bad and you have reasons to support your condemnation, and the upper-right corner, where your intuitions say that X is good and you have reasons to support that claim. People in those two corners believe that they have knowledge, or justified true belief. So how does a typical moral argument proceed?



Let’s suppose you find yourself in the lower-left corner: you intuitively condemn Julie and Mark (the two siblings), and you think you have good reasons to back up that condemnation. Your opponent is a libertarian who believes that people should be able to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, so she starts off in the upper-right corner. She has an intuitive sense of the importance of personal autonomy, and she has reasons to support her endorsement of Julie’s and Mark’s autonomy. According to Margolis, people don’t change their minds unless they move along the horizontal dimension. Intuition is what most matters for belief. Yet a moral argument generally consists of round after round of reasoning. Each person tries to pull the other along the vertical dimension. Therefore, if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment. You’ve been dragged into the upper-left quadrant, but you still feel, intuitively, that it’s wrong for Julie and Mark to have sex. You start sounding like the participants in my studies, one of whom said, “Gosh, this is hard. I really — um, I mean, there’s just no way I could change my mind, but I just don’t know how to — how to show what I’m feeling.”

This, I suggest, is how moral arguments proceed when people have strong intuitions anchoring their beliefs. And intuitions are rarely stronger than when they are part of our partisan identities. So I’m not saying that reasons “play no role in moral judgment.” In fact, four of the six links in my Social Intuitionist Model are reasoning links. Most of what’s going on during an argument is reasoning. Rather, I’m saying that reason is far less powerful than intuition, so if you’re arguing

(or deliberating) with a partner who lives on the other side of the political spectrum from you, and you approach issues such as abortion, gay marriage or income inequality with powerfully different intuitive reactions, you are unlikely to effect any persuasion no matter how good your arguments and no matter how much time you give your opponent to reflect upon your logic.

If Lynch’s “hope for reason” is that we can someday create a political culture in which partisans will change their minds as a result of democratic discussions that focus on the vertical dimension only, then I do not share his hope. But as an intuitionist, I see hope in an approach to deliberative democracy that uses social psychology to calm the passions and fears that make horizontal movement so difficult.

One of the issues I am most passionate about is political civility. I co-run a site at where we define civility as “the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.” We explain our goals like this: “We believe this ability [civility] is best fostered by indirect methods (changing contexts, payoffs and institutions) rather than by direct methods (such as pleading with people to be more civil, or asking people to sign civility pledges).” In other words, we hope to open up space for civil disagreement by creating contexts in which elephants (automatic processes and intuitions) are calmer, rather than by asking riders (controlled processes, including reasoning) to try harder.

We are particularly interested in organizations that try to create a sense of community and camaraderie as a precondition for political discussions. For example, a group called To the Village Square holds bipartisan events for citizens and community leaders in Tallahassee, Fla. They usually eat together before talking about politics — an effort to push a primitive cooperation button by breaking bread together. They talk a lot about their common identity as Tallahasseans. These are all efforts to manipulate participants — to change the warp of the epistemological table so that the horizontal dimension isn’t so steeply tilted, which opens up the possibility that good arguments offered by friends will move people, at least a trace, along the vertical dimension.

This is the approach that I took when writing “The Righteous Mind.” Lynch and Gutting both assert that if my argument about the limits of reason were correct, then I contradicted myself by writing a book offering reasons why my argument was correct. But I never said that reasons were irrelevant. I said that they were no match for intuition, and that they were usually a servant of one’s own intuitions. Therefore, if you want to persuade someone, talk to the elephant first. Trigger the right intuitions first. And that’s exactly what I did in the book. I didn’t rush in with summaries of the scientific literature. Rather, as I explained to readers (on p. 50):

I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology.

Gutting grants that my strategy is effective: “Haidt is convincing largely because his experiments resonate so well with what we find in our pre-scientific experience.” Would Lynch and Gutting

say that I was being manipulative by trying to create such intuitive resonance? Was this the moral equivalent of dropping a drug in the water supply to cause people to agree with me?

I don’t think I was being any more manipulative than To the Village Square, or than Martin Luther King Jr., who used metaphors and oratorical skills to make his moral arguments intuitively resonant. As I see it, I was addressing myself to the horizontal dimension of the epistemological space first, trying to pull skeptical readers over to the right, or at least to the midline of the map (in Chapters 1 and 2 of the book) before offering them reams of evidence and arguments (in Chapters 3 and 4) to try to pull them up into the upper right corner. Reasons matter, reasons produce movement on the epistemological map, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.

This is why there has been such rapid movement on gay marriage and gay rights. It’s not because good arguments have suddenly appeared, which nobody thought of in the 1990s. The polling data show a clear demographic transition. Older people, who grew up in an environment where homosexuality was hidden and shameful, often still feel a visceral disgust at the thought of it. But younger people, who grew up knowing gay people and seeing gay couples on television, have no such disgust. For them, the arguments are much more persuasive.


More From The Stone

Read previous contributions to this series.

To move on to another point, Gutting argues that I oversimplified the rationalism of the great moral philosophers, and surely I have. I am particularly pleased to learn that Plato was more keenly aware than I had realized of the importance of social context for the cultivation of good reasoning. But when Gutting suggests that I don’t take such philosophers seriously “because they don’t proceed like empirical scientists, testing their ideas through experiments,” I must disagree.

Throughout my career I have sought insights into morality from many disciplines. I found the experimental work in moral psychology to be mostly sterile and uninspiring. My early heroes were philosophers (like David Hume, Allan Gibbard and Owen Flanagan), sociologists (like Emile Durkheim), historians (like Keith Thomas) and anthropologists (like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske). My heroes were the ones who had what I thought was the right view of human nature, emphasizing emotions, intuitions and the power of social and cultural forces. (Gutting is right that I should have cited Nietzsche, MacIntyre and Nussbaum.) To the extent that I seem disrespectful toward rationalist philosophers, it is because I found it frustrating to read the false psychological assumptions woven into many of their arguments.

But I hope I did not come across as disdainful of philosophy in general. I love Aristotle’s emphasis on habit — and I had a long section on virtue ethics in Chapter 6 that got cut at the last minute, but which I have just now posted online here. And in my last book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I quoted and praised philosophers in most of the 10 chapters, from Epictetus and Boethius through Montaigne and Nietzsche. Philosophers were the best psychologists for more than 2,000 years, and many of their insights have been validated by experimental psychology.

I should also say that philosophers have the best norms for good thinking that I have ever encountered. When my work is critiqued by a philosopher I can be certain that he or she has read me carefully, including the footnotes, and will not turn me into a straw man. More than any other subculture I know, the philosophical community embodies the kinds of normative pressures for reason-giving and responsiveness to reasons that Allan Gibbard describes in “Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.” I wish such norms could be sprinkled into the water supply of Washington. Alas, as Plato tells us, paraphrased by Gutting, truth arises “only from the right sort of discussion among inquirers accountable to one another.” Politics is a very different game from philosophy, and partisans are accountable to their teammates and their funders, not to one another. If we’re ever going to tone down the demonizing and open up space for compromise and collaboration in our political lives, I’d start by hiring Glaucon as a management consultant, and I’d work with him to redesign the social world of Washington and the institutions within which politicians work. I’d want to make good thinking and openness to compromise redound to a politicians credit, and make hyperpartisan posturing and inflexibility become sources of shame.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. He is the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” and of “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.”

Lori New York

A classic psychological explanation of intuition is that it is rapidly processed data derived from prior experience. For example, a professional in a certain situation will have an “intuition” about a client or a patient that is based on previously seeing many similar situations and by unconsciously reviewing, comparing and contrasting, reach a quick “feel” that may be at odd with what is considered “reason.”

Doug Terry Maryland, DC Metro area

I have another way of looking at political beliefs. I often say we acquire our beliefs before we acquire the reasons to hold them. We know what we want to believe, by tradition, upbringing, social influences, etc. and we set off in the world to find the reasons that support those conclusions. Conversely, we block out information that might explode our sense of confidence and correctness. Belief is more important than fact, reason is secondary to belief.

Why is this so? We are all members of communities and various social groupings. In my neighborhood, most people tend to be Democrats and some of them are moderate to liberal Democrats. This is the tide that carries a lot of people along, helps to reenforce their beliefs and forms the framework when any new events, intrusions, move into their belief systems. When I lived in the Dallas area, just the opposite was true: most people were on the right, a number were on the far, far right.

We are all subtlety influenced by those around us and we have built-in sympathy for those we know and live around. If I were to go back to Texas, I’d have a bit of a Texas accent within a month. I call this “sympathetic identification”. I would not likely become far right, but I would likely see some merit in the arguments of some around me.

We can change, but we don’t like to. It would involve admitting that we were once wrong. Voters are NEVER wrong, it is only the politicians who betray them, at least in our mindsIt is not a “stand-alone” process but is based on multiple experiences.

Jim New Orleans

Max Planck is quoted thus “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiar with the idea from the beginning.” In essence many scientific viewpoints are based on intuitions rather than fact. These viewpoints can become so dogmatic that no amount of reasoning can overcome what often becomes “conventional wisdom”. Perhaps in politics, like in science, we just have to depend on population turnover to correct defects in reasoning that inhibit the development of wisdom.

David Todd Miami, FL

“Gosh, this is hard…there’s just no way I could change my mind, but I just don’t know how to… show what I’m feeling.” Feelings can indeed be hard to argue with. I’m a salesman (life insurance) and probably have more experience than Mr. Haidt does in persuading the recalcitrant. People who rationally ought buy the product (they have dependents whom they love) may nonetheless refuse it. Superstition for example can get in the way: “If I buy a policy, then I’m going to die” or “My wife will spend it with another man.” Try arguing with that. On the other hand it happens with surprising frequency that your prospect will say: “I’ll tell you right now I’m not buying any life insurance”–and then proceeds to buy it.

It has a great deal to do with how you “frame” the purchase. Mr. Haidt will know exactly what I’m talking about. Yet to an extent it appears to contradict his point. Wording is critical in selling. If you find the right words, you may be able to make it strikingly evident to a prospect that the purchase you are recommending makes good sense. There is a flash of insight on his part. For present purposes, the thing to bear in mind is that the insight comes first: the act of understanding happens first. Then—and only then—will emotions start to shift.

Mr. Haidt appears to be implying that there is no component of reason in intuition. I’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow with excruciating care. I find no such implication in his book.