Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Jesuits vindicated

This morning's must read piece is the Sunday New York Times book review of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. You may be tempted to think that Haidt means some other person's "righteous" mind but he means yours because he argues that all minds are righteous. It's just the way the brain works:
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. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments
To appreciate how thoroughly subversive a view that is, consider one of the most famous arguments of the modern era. Pascal indicted the Jesuits because they had already decided what they believed and then went looking for arguments to shore up that belief. "How horrible!" we all say. But Haidt shows us that modern brain research tells us that all brains work that way. Pascal was doing exactly what he accused the Jesuits of doing.

The obvious question in response to this is: How do we learn then? Because it must be the case that at least one of the two sides—Pascal or the Jesuits—was wrong and quite possibly both were. We have been trained over and over again to think that the solution to the problem is to "be objective". To step back and see the problem from the outside. Haidt's argument, and he is right, is that everything we learn from brain science and social research tells us that this move to objectivity is impossible. It just can't be done.

Here's the thing though. That mythology of objective thought is relatively recent in human history. Neither Sir Isaac Newton nor Galileo thought such a thing was possible. For centuries upon centuries people functioned just fine without it. Which isn't surprising as it is a myth in both senses: meaning it's a story people us to justify beliefs that otherwise couldn't be justified but it is also not true.

And yet these people argued and used reason and even did some damned impressive science. How did they manage this? They managed it by learning socially. Arguments are resolved by being lived out. You take the high road and I'll take the low and we'll see who gets to Scotland first.

And here is the challenge for moderns. Reviewer Will Saletan writes:
The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected.
But he doesn't get it. Saletan's world views don't start with the individual and neither do yours. They couldn't. (The end of Saletan's piece is a great example of what Haidt means as Saletan tries to reassemble the very rationalism Haidt has demolished. Not only does Saletan's brain run on train tracks that he can't get it off of, he keeps imagining that it's really the other guy's brain that is stuck in a groove.)

We had a fascinating reminder of this with the recent rise of gas prices. The press instinctively reported that there was nothing Obama could do about this. When gas prices rose during the previous Bush administration, the press instinctively reported that Bush could and should do something about it. It's a tribal belief. Journalists feel that Obama is one of their tribe and Bush is not. Logic and reason have nothing to do with it.

That doesn't make the press wrong—at least not always wrong. But it should change the way you read the press. Every story you see is an opinion piece.


  1. Jonathan Haidt's new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both in intuitive and learned behavior. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual." Here are four paragraphs from it:

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

    The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

    1. Thanks for commenting. You're opening quite a few doors here.

      1. A lot hangs on what we mean by "internalized". Conscience means more than habits which can also be the result internalizing moral principles. At the very least, conscience has to be something given; it has to be a sort of voice within us and "internalized" is not sufficient for that.

      2. Internalized moral principles are not necessarily a good thing. If Joe has learned to hate some visible minority he has internalized moral principles. They are bad moral principles but they remain moral principles.

      3. There are, no doubt, religions that say that conscience is the "inner warning voice of God" but most are considerably more sophisticated about it than that. The Catholic view, for example, is that we are given a conscience but we are also required to form it.

      4. Socrates's Daemon only gave negative notices but even these are subtle. For example, the Daemon stops him from leaving Phaedrus after their debate about love but it does not tell Socrates exactly what to do—all it says is that this isn't good enough, you can't leave until you do better.

      It seems to me that Socrates was onto something very important here. An absolute duty to obey your conscience need not mean that it tells us what to do in particular situations. My conscience may tell me to re-examine a choice but that does not preclude the possibility that I might decide the original choice is still the correct one. (Just because I feel guilty does not mean that I am guilty and neither am I innocent simply because I feel no guilt. My conscience does me a huge favour by urging me to examine myself more closely regardless of what I conclude as a result of that examination.)

      5. Finally, it's important to grasp that Freud turns the process upside down. Traditional morality always maintained that our urges and desires needed to be brought in line with moral training. If there was a problem maintaining moral integrity it was always with the desires. Freud argues that it is the super ego that occasionally needs to be fixed to maintain unity. That is a complete subversion of both classical and religious morality.

      I'd add that Freud is now rightly dismissed as pseudo science.

  2. Jules, you did not publish my response to your reply.

    1. I didn't get the response. Perhaps something went wrong with Blogger? I'm sorry I missed the chance to read it. Do you remember what you said well enough to try again?