Thursday, November 8, 2012


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.    ~David Hume, 1739
"It was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of  their emotional reactions." ~ Jonathan Haidt, observation regarding the subjects of a university research project in moral psychology. 

Andy Borowitz, in his New Yorker blog, wryly reports that in the last campaign the nation “spent $2.5 billion on nothing” – his point being that after the expensive dust had settled, the political scene looked much the same as before.

We keep hearing that both sides use negative and attack ads “because they work.” But we are also hearing, increasingly, that, on the one hand, they don’t really change many minds and, on the other, there are only a handful of actual “independents” out there toward whom the ads are supposedly targeted. So what gives?

Jonathan Haidt’s very persuasive theory in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics” is that we are all guided fundamentally by our intuitions and “feelings,” and that our powers of reason and logic are used primarily to support what we feel. (Run, don’t walk, to order this book. It will change how you view your own strongly-held beliefs as well as those of your political opponent.)

The central metaphor of much of Haidt’s thesis is that
...the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. 
The elephant and the rider.
In this metaphor, the elephant lurches where it will, and the rider follows dutifully along--trying to make the best of it.

This is why--if objective facts contradict my subjective belief--I will maneuver or discount the facts so that I do not have to abandon my feelings.

This is why I give my candidate the benefit of the doubt, but hold the other guy’s feet to the fire. In both cases I use “reason” to be able to do this.

This is why a legislator in our Minnesota House of Representatives can say, “I just don’t feel that global warming can be true.

This is why there are no consistent biblical literalists. All “literalists” accept what they feel is right, and interpret the rest away. (In all of the Bible-based argument against homosexuals, I’ve never heard anyone propose that they should just be killed. That’s in there, too. Leviticus 20:13)  1

You can give yourself a little test to determine the applicability of this theory: 1) From the time you began to care about political matters, did you “think” yourself into your current place on the conservative-liberal spectrum, or did you come to “discover” your social and political persuasion. 2) Regarding the upcoming election, what would it take to change your vote to the other candidate? Did you approach the debates and speeches with an openness to changing your mind if the opponent made a more intelligent, reasonable argument? 3) [This applies only to self-described Christians:] The New Testament clearly states that your wealth is to be surrendered and divided up to benefit the poor. How much does it bother you that you are not doing this? 2

Haidt does not say that reason is never relevant or consequential, it is just that, most often, when we think we are being guided by reason and rationality, it is something deeper and more primal that is actually calling the shots. 3

It would be easy to conclude from this that the billions spent on attack ads are a waste of money, because nobody’s mind is going to be changed. Yet we are told that they are effective. The other recent truism in campaign politics is that it may be more important for a candidate to motivate his or her own supporters to vote than to try to win over the supporters of the opponent. If we combine these two theses, perhaps what is happening is that the negative ads are feeding the primal beast (to slightly adapt Haidt’s elephant metaphor) – throwing red meat to nourish the antipathy we already feel, not to change our minds but to stoke our “feelings.”

But I hope that it could lead to a more civilized conclusion: If we all realize that (with a few exceptions) our minds are made up and are not going to be changed, the whole campaign ad industry could be re-directed to simply and positively encourage us to see the importance of voting as a way of supporting our candidate. It becomes a contest not of who can change the most minds, but who can get out the most voters.

And to Haidt’s psychological research we can add another intriguing subject of recent study: that our political (and religious) tendencies may be genetically influenced. If we put all this together, we could arrive at a conclusion that the most negative thing you can say about your political-opponent neighbor is, “He can’t help it.”


1 Another conclusion of Haidt's study is that our beliefs can be influenced by someone whom we respect and are close to. I think the reason most biblical literalists don't work for a ban on divorce (even though it is roundly condemned in the Bible) is that it's literally too close to home.

2 This little test is my own crude application of Haidt’s thesis. The case made in his book is much more sophisticated.

3 In the New York Times column, “The Stone,” Haidt has an ongoing debate with some philosphers regarding the use of reason. It is interesting (to me) that in the current campaign my gut, or "feelings" lurched me unquestionably into the Democratic camp; but I had to use my reason to ponder between Bernie and Hillary.

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