This is the fourth of an 18-part series that explores our deep cultural divide and offers 10 suggestions about how we can contribute to bridging the divide.
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
Suggestion #2: Intuition, Not Reason, Drives Moral Judgments, pt. 1
Ever since Plato, Western thinkers have argued that reason is superior to the emotions. Jonathan Haidt notes in his book, The Righteous Mind, “Almost all the greatest
philosophers—Karl Marx, Franz Boas, Margaret Meade, Steven Jay Gould, and almost every social science department in the U.S.—have gone farther and claimed there is no such thing as human nature. Thus we can reason our way to utopia. …Radical reformers have to believe the mind is a blank slate if they are to write their fantasies on it.” But science has found that the mind is not a blank slate. Humans are guided by fear, disgust, anger, affection, sympathy, and loyalty in ways that have been sharply defined by evolution. Reason is a new arrival in our human history.
People do reason, but primarily to prepare for social interaction, not to seek the truth. Haidt has found that our intuitions actually rule over reason. His research helped shift moral psychology away from rationalist models that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s to an understanding of morality from an intuitive level.
To explain intuition Haidt devises an elephant-rider metaphor. Intuition drives the elephant’s emotional processing. Thinking is the rider, affect is the elephant—the rider occasionally tells it where to go. The rider has the ability to reason and think about the future so he is useful to the elephant, but the elephant—like other animals—runs mainly on instinct.
The rider is also, according to Haidt, “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.” One of the most important functions of the rider is to make the elephant look good. Our instincts are immediate and the rider cobbles together moral justifications only afterwards.
The social aspect of moral reasoning is crucial. Moral reasoning, Haidt maintains, is “part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people.” The real purpose of morality is to justify our own actions to others and to set up rules to compel them to act as we believe they should.
Arguments are unproductive. Haidt continues, “Moral reasoning is like a dog’s tail: 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 your arguments ever convince anyone, it is only after you have taken the trouble fully to understand what he or she feels and thinks. Haidt believes it is such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our minds so readily shift into combat mode.
About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames
Dr. Ames’ varied life experiences—scholarly research, teaching, reflections, and extensive travels—have contributed to her balanced and thoughtful perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development trainings, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded the educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, developing globally-focused books and educational resources. She has written seven books, blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, and teaching units for the non-profit and clients.
Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate Them has just been released! $14.95
Divided addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.
It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.
Divided is one of nine books written by Dr. Ames and the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books