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The Righteous Mind

Why do WEIRD people think that their reason is stronger than their emotions?


According to Jonathan Haidt, author of ‘The Righteous Mind,’ I am a 'WEIRD' person!  That is because I am Western Educated and live in an Industrialized and Rich society which has a Democratic form of government.   

A Western education leads many of us to believe that arguments based on reason will prevail in our democratic discourse and, if one needs to achieve change in the political process, fanning the fires of emotion is not the proper approach. I imbibed these views at a very early age but my views began to change as I moved from high school through University. 

I studied science and mathematics as my primary subjects but by the time I left University an apparent conflict between 'scientific truth' and 'fictional truth' had entered into my thinking. I had studied English literature and came to understand that the methods I applied to science - methods involving models and the theories/facts constructed in support of them - could not be applied to a study of Shakespeare, Keats or Dickens. Oswald Spengler put it this way in 'The Decline of the West':

The means whereby to identify dead forms is mathematical law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy.

To understand great plays, poems, novels, music and art one has to understand myth and metaphorical language and that there are two kinds of truth - historical (factual truth) and mythical (intrinsic truth)

As humans we function in two realities which one might describe as an ‘outer’ reality and an ‘inner’ reality. The outer reality is ‘objective’ and 'physical'; the inner reality is ‘subjective’ and 'metaphysical'.  Examples of outer realities are physical phenomena such as gravity, heat, light, pain, the brain, the Earth etc. while inner realities pertain to things such as intuition, pleasure, greed, love, suffering, the mind and the World etc. 

Think of it in these ways - one can experience pain and yet not suffer; one can also suffer and yet not feel pain.  The brain has a mass and a shape while the mind does not.  The Earth can be seen from space as a solid sphere while the World exists only in the imagination as in 'a child's world', or 'the world of dreams', or 'the insect world'.

Consciousness, Ideas, and Thoughts
Our brains operate in three ways: intellectually, instinctually, and emotionally. Intellectually when we add 2 and 2 and get 4; instinctually when one’s blood pressure rises under threat of danger; and emotionally when one experiences love, hate, compassion etc. It is the instinctual and emotional parts of our brains which drive us into sectarian conflicts (protection of territory and revenge, for example).

What distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we have a higher degree of the intellectual (reasoning) component than other species. We have ‘thoughts’ which may be defined as combinations of various ‘ideas’ processed in our ‘consciousness’.  Further, all thoughts are expressed using either models or metaphors through the use of a ‘language’.  A language uses words, mathematical symbols, musical symbols etc.

One 'reads' sentences (combinations of letter symbols joined as words), mathematics (combinations of mathematical symbols combined as equations), music (combinations of musical symbols combined as melodies and harmonies) etc.

The human brain uses pictures and symbols to describe reality.  Indeed we became human when we first produced art. With pictures and symbols we began to think about the outer and inner realities of our lives. We developed ‘models and theories’ to describe our outer realities and ‘myths and metaphors’ to describe our inner realities.

For example the hydrogen atom is depicted as a point in the center of a circle to symbolize a proton with another point on the circle’s circumference to represent an electron. That is a model and we use a language (in this case mathematical language) to deepen this model’s utility by writing equations to describe things protons and electrons ‘do’.

With the use of the model we have a theory of how a hydrogen atom manifests itself but we do not know what the inner ‘being’ of a hydrogen atom really is. We can only draw a picture in our minds which we name as a thought and that is the limit of our understanding of what the thing depicted is.

We employ metaphors and myths to draw similar thought pictures for ideas about love, compassion, pride, etc.  Metaphors and myths refer to stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal fundamental truths and insights about human nature.  Roger Scruton wrote in the magazine, Prospect:

A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world, but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance.

 An example of myth is the story of the boy who was asked to guard sheep against wolves and to call "wolf" to the villagers if the sheep were threatened.  As a joke on the villagers he called "wolf" on several occasions. The villagers came and found no wolf. Then on a later occasion the wolf came, the boy cried "wolf" and the villagers did not respond. Why?  They no longer had ‘trust’ in what he said.

We do not know the historical ‘truth’ of this story i.e. did it physically happen at some place and time? It is myth - but that is of no consequence because we have an intrinsic truth in the story of how ‘trust’ can be lost by acting 'dishonestly'.

As humans we have two (and only two) ways, of communicating – through a model/theory or through a myth/metaphor. Paraphrasing Thomas Mann:

Myths and metaphors are descriptions of the way things never were, but always are.

(Myths seek to describe truths which are not factual but which are eternal.  The story of the boy who cried "wolf" may never have happened but the story is eternally true).

Models and theories are descriptions of the way things might be, but never are.

 (Models seek to describe truths which must be proven as facts to become eternal.   We once believed that the Earth was the center of the universe but what we thought 'might be' was shown eventually as 'never was').

Both models and myths employ real and imaginary components. In mathematics, real and imaginary numbers are essential for describing outer world reality. Imaginary numbers have essential applications in areas such as signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics. Imaginary numbers might be said 'not to exist' yet we conceive of them intellectually and use them to our advantage. Without imaginary numbers modern science would be paralyzed.  One understands that the square root of 4 is 2 but what does one understand by the square root of minus 3?  We don't know but we can use the concept.

Likewise real and imaginary situations and persons are essential for describing world realities using myths/metaphors. In common usage the word 'myth' may be understood by some as equivalent to 'fiction', or a 'half-truth'; yet 'myth' does not imply that a story is either objectively false or true, it rather refers to a symbolical notion of truth. Romeo and Juliet are imaginary persons yet through them we can exchange ideas about truths related to ideas about love and tragedy etc.

In ‘The Righteous Mind,’ Jonathan Haidt expands this model and metaphor view of how we describe the world into an explanation of how we have become polarized in our political behavior.  In a review of the book by the New York Times William Saletan writes:

You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong. This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The ­Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature.

Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational.  If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments.

What Haidt argues is that of the three components of our nature that I mentioned above - instinct, emotion, and reason - we do not use our reasoning powers in an independent way but primarily to support, using a theory or a metaphor, what our emotions have already told us it wants us to believe. 

The English Guardian newspaper summarizes Haidt's view that our reason is like a small 'rider' sitting on top of an emotional 'elephant'.  It is the elephant that controls our behavior; the rider has minimal control:

The arresting image Haidt gives for our sense of morality is that it's like a rational rider on top of an intuitive elephant. The rider can sometimes nudge the elephant one way or the other, but no one should be in any doubt that the elephant is making the important moves. In fact, the main job of the rider is to come up with post-hoc justifications for where the elephant winds up.

We rationalise what our gut tells us. This is true no matter how intelligent we are.

Haidt shows that people with high IQs are no better than anyone else at understanding the other side in a moral dispute. What they are better at is coming up with what he calls "side-arguments" for their own instinctive position. Intelligent people make good lawyers. They do not make more sensitive moralists.  This book has quite a lot in common with another recent work of popular political psychology, Drew Westen's hugely influential The Political Brain. Westen argued that people spend too much time trying to reason with the voters, oblivious both to how little impact this has and to how righteous it makes them sound. Westen insisted that their arguments had to be framed as emotionally engaging stories if people were going to hear what they wanted to say.

The New York Times reviewer continues: David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said "reason was fit only to be the slave of the passions,” was largely correct.

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies:

We were never designed to listen to reason.  When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.  

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. 

Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.  Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.

Unless a painting, a novel, a poem, a piano concerto or an essay on politics does not first strike an emotional reaction within an observer that person will not search for a reason to pursue further reflection.  As Haidt writes:

When we want to believe something we ask ourselves "can I believe it?" and then we find lots of reasons why we can.  But when we don't want to believe something the question we ask ourselves is "must I believe it?" and then we search to find just one reason why we can't.

And so we who are WEIRD people are forced to admit in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' that:

"The awful shadow of some unseen Power floats though unseen among us"


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mike Hirsch July 06, 2012 at 12:06 PM
Thank you for making me use my mind so early in the morning Michael. I think what you're saying is what all good salesmen know - people buy (whether it be a car or a political candidate) based on emotion rather than reason.
Aidan July 07, 2012 at 11:48 PM
I loved this piece .. it's worth reading more than once. Well done. Impressive stuff. And thanks for softening my weirdness.

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