Intuition versus Reasoning

A former professed liberal psychologist has written a new book that aspires “to drain some vitriol from public debate and enable conversations across ideological divides” but in so doing his insight into the renewed argument on “nature vs. nurture” may offend some liberals

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt challenges traditional liberal views on the "nature vs. nurture" argument defines intuition as a direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process.  From a philosophical standpoint it is an immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object; a pure, untaught, noninferential knowledge.

Has “evolution etched into our brains like the taste buds on our tongues [some] psychological bases” that determine good and bad, right and wrong, as Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, theorizes?  It’s an interesting concept and based on what little I have read on it, Haidt offers up some compelling arguments that make good food for thought.  He thinks morality is predominantly intuitive but it’s not quite clear in Marc Perry’s account why this leads Haidt to feel that  “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

Human nature may indeed consist of moral imperatives “etched into our brains” through evolution but evolution is a process and simply because some people retain a sense of morality based on mankind’s earliest conditions doesn’t mean that those feelings are confined to those narrower, original concepts.  Reasoning comes from experiences and as the human condition changes those experiences broaden our understanding and allow us to see things outside the original box.

The more intellectual conservatives use reason to explain their so-called intuitive morality as opposed to the “grunt” conservative whose sense of morality is more a gut-level reaction – “I can’t explain it but I know it’s wrong”.  Yet this was pretty much the path taken by liberal Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on his ruling regarding a case about hard-core pornography.  The subjective nature of hard-core porn is one of those issues that lacks clearly defined parameters and beyond what had to that point been attempted to describe it in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, Potter simply declared that I know it when I see it”.

Haidt’s example of this phenomenon he calls “moral dumbfounding” has “a brother and sister named Julie and Mark who decide to make love while on vacation in France. She’s on the pill; he uses a condom.”

The experience brings them closer. But they decide not to do it again. Was it OK?

Most people immediately condemn the siblings and then search for explanations. The dangers of inbreeding. Emotional damage. But when the experimenter points out that no harm befalls Mark and Julie, subjects typically resort to an answer like, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”

It seems to me that once reasoning is interjected that refutes their intuitive feelings about it, rather than consider it’s moral imperative is not necessarily a foregone conclusion, the grunts simply kick in their heals and defend its immorality because they “feel” it’s wrong.  Is Haidt saying this alone is what makes up our human nature?

There are of course those legitimate feelings we have that come from a sense of doom and foreboding.  The “flight or fight” reaction of humans as well as all other animals seems to be of this nature.  But do conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals as a result of some intuitive capability we have or is it a learned response based on the culture they shared growing up?  Haidt’s own life experiences seems to personify this complex notion.

Haidt seemed destined for the liberal tribe. He grew up in suburban New York as a secular Jew whose mother worshiped FDR. He attended Yale in an era when President Ronald Reagan was routinely mocked on campus. He relishes new adventures like interviewing Hindu priests and laypeople in India, a project that stripped away his hostility to faith and exposed him to a broader palate of moral concerns, such as community and divinity.

A partisan liberal, [Haidt] plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004.  But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

Now either Haidt was a closet centrist in the first place or his intellectual curiosity led to some reasoning that challenged his nurtured views as a liberal.  A similar case can be made about David Brock but where his strong conservative upbringing and early conservative political energies shifted in the mid-1990’s, leading him to author the book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative and to found the very liberal media watch dog group, Media Matters for America.  Brock’s transition seems to refute Haidt’s theory about one’s basis for morality.  What it does suggest is that if there is an intuitive gene for morality it is not something that makes us more politically conservative.

One of the perspectives of Haidt’s I’m drawn to is his “social construction” view of morality

Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.”

Haidt sees this social construct as something that is innate; somethings that is grafted onto “psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters.”  But I have always viewed our means to interpret events and conditions around us as a result of our cultural filters.  How we are raised to view things by listening to and mimicking our parents and other significant mentors is a learned response that is subconsciously assimilated into response modes as we develop.

Though it may be human nature to care for families and punish cheaters it is not a sense that can be defined in a narrow frame of reference.  Our ability to think can expand on the earliest “innate” characteristics and those who choose to push the envelope may be viewed as more liberal but they are not necessarily less inclined to understand our programmed nature for acting on such traits.

Why is the practice of caring for families by less traditional roles where the wife always stays home and raises the kid more in line with our human nature?  This innate instinct of “traditional family values” that conservatives tout is not immutable.  The mere fact that our social and economic lives have changed so dramatically in the last century points out that the need to adapt is in conflict with what we have been comfortable with for those earlier millennia when social and economic life was pretty stagnate in comparison.

As for punishing cheaters, the methods used depends not on some innate sense of righteous justice but more by our innate attachment and relationship to individuals.  Many anti-social behaviors that were once viewed as part of someone’s physiological makeup are now seen as mental health issues requiring therapy, not physical punishment or even ostracizing them from the group.  But that doesn’t mean liberals are opposed to harsh penalties for some cheaters.

Where the liberal contingent in this country seeks stricter punishment for those cheaters in institutions too big to fail whose actions caused the economic collapse in 2008 and want many of them to spend some time in jail, conservatives appear less inclined in this direction while strongly advocating prison as a means of punishment for low income minorities who violate social taboos on drug use.  Apparently it is only when those who we share some empathy with are charged with “cheating” behavior are we ambivalent on the severity of punishment.

Haidt does have his critics within his field and Parry’s article brings those to light but in all fairness to Haidt, this brief account of his theory more than likely doesn’t allow all the nuances that will be laid out in his upcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon), scheduled to be released next month, giving him a stronger base to make his case.  I think I will add this to my reading list to see if my comments here are insufficient or discover instead that Jonathan Haidt may be the victim of the stereo-type that says “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brain.”

UPDATE:  See a recent interview between Bill Moyer’s and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt here on Moyers and Company



Liberty, Equality and Hostility


13 responses to “Intuition versus Reasoning

  1. In my view, morality is instilled during our childhood, but our choices made when we are adults are based on the life lessons we have learned and our experiences along with morality.

    I agree with Hansi though about Christian conservatives.

    A very thought-provoking post!

    • I agree Angela that morality should be instilled during our childhood but this clearly doesn’t happen with a lot of families. of course Haidt would argue that the inclinations for morality are within all of us but are perhaps smothered by some aspect of reasoning. Reasoning is not always something that is done for higher purposes but to justify actions that serve our own self-interests

  2. This is a toughie. I think we probably have to look at the earliest “groups” of humans in order to figure this out with any real sense. No doubt our need to band together for mutual safety and support led to the formation of a good many dos and don’t. Morality in it’s intitial stages, it would seem to me was mostly pragmatic. That is of course, if you leave out any moral imperative “invested” in a soul by a creator. I think one could spend a good deal of time trying to follow the threads down to a meaningful conclusion. I’m inclined to think myself that other than pure self-preservation, most everything else is learned behavior. And that is WITH a strong believe in a God. So where that leaves me, I’m quite unsure. lol

  3. I think “a strong belief in a God” is part of our make-up Sherry. I also think spirituality is an innate part of who we are but beyond that I don’t really try to speculate too much about things we can’t seem to know in the fashion we do with our natural world.

    My point about cultural filters however was aimed specifically at religion. There may indeed may be some supernatural being that we fill connected to but how we experience that has in large part been driven by traditions that originated at a time when people weren’t able to explain the natural world without the use of spirits.

    The fact that so many variations on a creator God exists gives credence to a “sense of God” without really knowing what all of that entails. The best we can do is utilize the objects and sensations in our own culture to give body and soul to something that seems so remote from humans. That’s why I think in western culture we personify God as a wise old fatherly figure, something that held value to the paternalistic pre-Abraham cultures.

  4. Morals and morality have been debated for eons by philosophers……personally, I think morality is something we learn through experience….for instance. I find the act of war far more immoral than the act of fornication…..I received this feeling after participating in both…personally I prefer an experienced bartender to a shrink…….for the bar guy/gal has experienced life not used math equations to come to a conclusion…..just saying….

    • “for the bar guy/gal has experienced life not used math equations to come to a conclusion”,/i>

      And provided you don’t throw a bender and stay until the bar closes, it’s cheaper. 😉

  5. I can’t put my finger on exactly what is the question here. It seems to be about whether morality comes from reason or intuition. It touches on whether liberals or conservatives have a better understanding of human nature. It also involves the difference in views of morality from the right and the left. That’s three false dilemmas, as far as I can tell:

    Reason and intuition both contribute to every significant aspect of human psychology, and that includes morality.

    Liberals, as a group, and conservatives, as a group, may or may not include a large group of people who aren’t quite political enough to make it very obvious which side they’re on, and I would assume that by including or excluding them, the difference in the understanding of human nature on the two sides would fluctuate between positive and negative. Why would there be some inherent link? The same can be said of “right” and “left”.

    There are alarms going off in my head about the use of words – “morality” in this case. Specifically, this article seems to make an attempt to nail down the “true meaning and import” of the word, as if there were such a thing. It’s a platonic ideal with which I cannot agree. We invented words out of a practical necessity to communicate, and we did it in a very sloppy and haphazard way, which means the words that survived and are still used have extremely rich histories. “Morality” comes from the Latin “mores” which we translate as “customs”. To me, morality is a deeper and more traditional version of the word “customary”.

    The most useful meaning I can put on the word “moral” involves seeing the words “right” and “wrong” as indicators of a quality in logical arguments. In this sense, intuition can’t really play a role because it doesn’t do logic. “I can’t say why, but it just feels wrong,” to me, only means “That seems too different from normal for me to find acceptable.”

    However, there is a second use of the word “moral” that doesn’t lend itself to “right” and “wrong” as descriptions of logical arguments. Rather, it describes what people will do and avoid doing. It’s tempting to say they don’t do certain things because they’re “wrong”, but the point is that even a good logical argument (a “right” logical argument) won’t change their mind because their decision isn’t reasoned, it’s intuited.

    Both intuited morality and reasoned morality should be respected. Liberals and conservatives should be respected, and the left and the right should both be respected. There is value in both sides of all of them. For me, the important political issue is how much coercion people are willing to use to prevent “immoral” behaviors. I think ANY coercion on the grounds of immorality is too much coercion. For example, I don’t believe in punishing the cheater for cheating. Rather than punish him, we should coerce the cheater into giving up whatever he gained through cheating and compensating everyone who was harmed by his cheating. You can call that punishment, but I think that opens the door to the idiocy of wasting effort punishing people (like “Julie and Mark”) who haven’t caused any harm to anyone.

    • Great comments Dave and I think you are spot on with this comment “Reason and intuition both contribute to every significant aspect of human psychology, and that includes morality”

  6. Pingback: Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism « Marmalade·

  7. I once had someone say to me “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brain.” My answer was simple. I have a heart and a brain and is why i’m a moderate. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

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