The Righteous Mind – The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail

This is Part 3 of my journey through The Righteous MindHere is Part 2.

The social intuitionist model offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog.  A dog’s tail wags to communicate.  You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail.  And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.  If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.

– Jonathan Haidt

And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.

– David Hume

The Righteous Mind - By Jon Haidt

At this point in the book Jon describes the distinction of “seeing-that” versus “reasoning-why”.  The thinking here is that our reactions to religious and political statements come from a low-level rapid and unconscious pattern matching engine in our minds.  Research by Howard Margolis (building on previous work by Peter Wason) ultimately led both to the conclusion that judgment and justification are separate processes.

Margolis sees these as two different cognitive processes.  The “seeing-that” process is a form of pattern matching that all animals do and is a highly evolved and deeply ingrained part of all animal brains after hundreds of millions of years.  The “reasoning-why” process is brand spanking new in evolutionary terms and is only available to beings that have evolved language and have a need to justify their actions to other highly evolved beings. And of course we anthropomorphize lower animals, objects, and concepts when, out of frustration or a sense of comedy, we try to reason with something like our car or our dog.  The point is that the reasoning process is not automatic, it is a slower, conscious process that is bolted on top of our ancient, powerful, and efficient pattern-matching process.

And then Jon has this to say:

We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.

I do not completely agree with this, but I guess it depends on what he means by “best”.  Is the “best” reason one that aligns with the interests of your audience?  One that cunningly persuades your audience?  One that aligns with your previous thoughts and actions but may put off your audience? But anyway, yes, the rider definitely does not know the underlying reasons for the judgment that the elephant made.  Only by understanding the inner-workings of the elephant will we begin to incorporate the real reasons for our judgments into our righteous justifications.

In the end, Jon’s realization is that emotion vs. cognition is a false dichotomy.  Emotions are also a type of information processing and what we are really dealing with is a dichotomy of two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning, the intuitive dog and its rational tail or the intuitive elephant and its rational rider.

Jon has some very interesting opinions about Dale Carnegie that clash a bit with Susan Cain’s thoughts in her book Quiet.  Susan criticized Carnegie for leading the charge toward a more superficial and manipulative culture of social interaction, the Culture of Personality over the Culture of Character.  Jon on the other hand has high praise for Carnegie:

Carnegie was in fact a brilliant moral psychologist who grasped one of the deepest truths about conflict.  He used a quotation from Henry Ford to express this: “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”

It is indeed useful to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, part of my philosophy is that wisdom comes from the variety of human experience.  But how do we act once we’ve obtained that hard-won experience and knowledge?  It seems to me that the moral answer is to forge a deep and respectful connection with “the other”.  We should not use this connection to manipulate but instead to communicate effectively and to work toward the mutual benefit of both parties.

Leave your thoughts below!

About SciAwakening

Blogging about religion, science, psychology, and whatever else is currently on my mind.

Posted on March 25, 2012, in Books, Morality, Philosophy, Psychology, Social Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I appreciate the Hume quotes, which are apropos.

    “It seems to me that the moral answer is to forge a deep and respectful connection with “the other”. We should not use this connection to manipulate but instead to communicate effectively and to work toward the mutual benefit of both parties”

    This is a quintessentially liberal statement, one I agree with. You may be interested in, which is an effort along those lines. I would only add 1) that we don’t always “forge” the connection with the other, but we always “try to forge” it; and 2) yes, we form the connection to work together, but working together is not always possible. To me, your statement is independent of that potential failure, because it is a moral obligation: in other words, one tries, because it’s the right thing to do, and because it can be very powerful when it works. If we have to move on beyond the goal of mutual benefit to further important goals, so be it, but our goal should always be that connection anyway.

    I also appreciate your use of the term “the other”. You like philosophy: do you know of Luce Irigaray, who furthered a feminist version of the philosophy of the Other? I really have gained a great deal from her poetic approach to the notion of engaging with the other.

    Thanks for your thoughts on an important book.

    • Thanks for your comment Scott, I appreciate it. I’ve heard the term “the other” from various places. The one person I remember using it is Karen Armstrong. That looks like a very interesting web site. I’ll be checking that out some more in the future. Thanks for stopping by!

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