The Righteous Mind: Ch. 2 Discussion

Hannibal’s elephant declares war on Rome. Rational Carthaginian general unable to prevent hostilities.

Riding elephants and dogs wagging tails? With all these adorable metaphors, it’s almost as if Haidt wants us to like him. Why would that matter? Oh.

For me, the idea that my rational mind is just a rider, not even the driver, is uncomfortable. I think it’s because being rational is one of my best qualities. I think it’s because I work in academia, where we all give sage nods to each other for being rational. Lucid. Rigorous. Objective. I wonder, though, if some people experienced that assertion as a relief. Perhaps the idea that our conscious reasoning is just the tip of an iceberg makes us more, not less. It may suggest that untapped resources of audacity, resilience, and imagination lie just below our cognitive horizon. And it could be that the limits of our self knowledge do not provide a barrier to the self but an invitation to explore.

I’m glad we got some models in this chapter, and I’m even more glad that Haidt let us sit for a while with some models that he eventually discarded or modified (Jefferson, Hume). Everyone always talks about round pegs and square holes, but in science and philosophy it seems that no one really knows what shape the hole is; you just keep trying to cram things in and cross off options when they don’t fit. I think this makes me more willing to go along with Haidt and his metaphors. He’s demonstrated that he’s used a few methods and gotten to the limits of their usefulness, so even if his model doesn’t end up delivering THE TRUTH ABOUT EVERYTHING, it can still be a step in the right direction. Even if it ends up in the elephant graveyard of discarded hypotheses, that too will teach us something.

So Haidt’s basic premise is that people employ two different modes of cognition: instant, intuitive judgment and discursive, post-hoc justification (or reasoning). Most of the time he applies this to moral issues, but I think it’s interesting that one of his major lines of support comes from Margolis’ research, which was primarily directed toward visual and logical problems (which line is longer, etc.).  Something that wasn’t explained to my satisfaction was to what extent moral judgments and reasoning differ from other kinds of judgments and reasoning. Is there some kind of circuit or process in our brain that evaluates whether a particular issue is moral and then treats it differently?

Haidt’s reference to Carnegie at the end led in a somewhat different direction, that the approach our brain takes depends less on the objective subject matter (morals vs. fact) than on the way the brain processes the source of the information (attack vs. friendly persuasion). I notice that many of Haidt’s experiments put people into a defensive or justificatory posture from the very beginning. Almost all of them include some shocking content. I’m thinking especially of the experiment in which the subjects were told the interviewer was going to disagree with them and question their reasoning. Having just gotten through the oral comprehensive exam for my doctoral research, I very much think my mode of operation was a cornered animal with a mouth, willing to say anything necessary to maintain or modify my positions and live to write another day. And I wasn’t asked a single moral question, only factual ones. But my self-interest altered my posture.

Another example might be how very similarly-worded factual questions might engage us differently. For example, evaluate this assertion: Germany is a densely-populated nation. This is a factual issue. How much elephant comes to bear on it? How resistant would people be to changing their minds on this issue when presented with some studies? My guess is, not too resistant. But evaluate this very similar assertion: America is a Christian nation. That too is, at least on the surface, not a moral statement, but a factual one. But I imagine that at least some Americans would be triggered just by the mention of this controversial topic. We would immediately recognize the stakes, the interests, the implications, and the ramifications of how we answer. And I suspect the process of answering would look different than in the first statement. So is morality special?

I also wonder whether the control ratio between rider and elephant ever changes. Are there certain circumstances in which the rider can tug the elephant in a new direction, and others times when the rider is helpless? Are there ways of soothing or riling the element, and who stands to gain if those methods become known and systematically exploited, say by media or religions or corporations? The very fact that this book exists makes me think Haidt has some way of working through the rider/elephant dynamic, but if he succeeds, will he have undermined his own model?

One more issue concerns the role of evolutionary psychology in his account. Does it serve primarily to establish the rider-elephant model or merely to make better sense of why humans operate according to it? If we knew nothing about evolution, would the experimental data alone be sufficient to give us confidence in Haidt’s account of moral cognition?

On the whole, I’m hooked. I want to read more. Now I have to wait a whole week to go to the next chapter. But it’s worth it to read along with you, dear readers.


2 comments on “The Righteous Mind: Ch. 2 Discussion

  1. mramler

    Re: “The very fact that this book exists makes me think Haidt has some way of working through the rider/elephant dynamic, but if he succeeds, will he have undermined his own model?”, this.

    I also wondered if Andrew Pickering’s “mangle” metaphor for acknowledging / explaining how scientists interact with their experiments (and I think he’d include social scientists and their experiments, which is what Haidt’s case studies essentially are) is what you are getting at in the above, Charlie.

    From Susan Hekman’s book, The Material of Knowledge:
    ” ‘How the material world is leaks into and infects our representations of it in a non-trivial and consequential fashion.’ The result is what Andrew Pickering calls ‘mangle realism,’ a position distinct from either correspondence or coherence theories of truth. […] The focus of the mangle is the interaction of the constitutive elements. Science, its theory and practice, nature, machines, technology, and politics all interact in the mangle. Mangle is both a noun and a verb. It is the entity in which the interaction takes place, but it is also the action that occurs. The elements of the mangle are mangled; they are mixed up with each other into a combination in which the various elements lose their clear boundaries. […] Scientists are in a mangle when they do their work. But the significant advantage of the mangle is that the metaphor explains more than just science. It illuminates the situation of human agents in the contemporary world in nearly every aspect of our existence.”

    I, for one, was relieved that Haidt was so friendly to the subconscious and irrational ways of knowing, including emotion and intuition. However, it does seem a bit too neat to say that there is a rider on an elephant. I’d prefer a more mangled, dynamic, fluid interaction between the “rational” mind and the irrational mind/body/everything else. I think I’m knee-jerking against the term “rational”; maybe I’d prefer conscious. I did agree though that to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants. Or at least offer peanuts.

    Here’s my fav: “Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”
    Runner-up: “Reasoning requires the passions.”

    I wish Donald Trump were here.

    1. Charlie

      You’ve got me interested in Hekman. One of the things that people do when they run into an argument they’re not prepared for is to retreat to a stronghold. So when someone hears about a bizarre-sounding experience, they’re tempted to run into Fort Reason and say, “Well, that’s just emotional poppycock.” Or when we’re turned off by someone’s snide-sounding and perhaps overbearing use of expert knowledge and data, we retort with, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (because we all read Shakespeare). Not only are these defenses usually ad hoc, I think Hekman would say that they don’t even accomplish a full withdrawal. We can’t stop using an epistemic faculty just by deciding not to use it (consciously).