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The Fallacy of Reason

Reason is for Winning, Not Truth Finding (and Moral Foundations are the Rider’s Tools of Reason)

In The Moral Mind: How five sets of innate intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules
(1) Haidt describes moral foundations as analogous to “innate ‘taste buds’ of the moral sense,” saying “The taste buds on the tongue gather perceptual information (about sugars, acids, etc.) whereas the taste buds of the moral sense respond to more abstract, conceptual patterns (such as cheating, disrespect, or treason). Nonetheless, in both cases, the output is an affectively valenced experience (like, dislike) that guides subsequent decisions about whether to approach or avoid the object/agent in question.

I think that’s fine, as far as it goes, but I think the taste bud analogy does not offer a complete and accurate characterization of moral foundations, or of morality.  The analogy is too passive; explaining only our likes and dislikes – our moral “taste palate,” if you will.  I think moral foundations, and morality, are much more than that.  I think they’re also used proactively by our Rider/Lawyer in our attempts to persuade others to see and do things the way we think they should be seen and done.  I think moral foundations are the bulding blocks not only of our likes and dislikes, but also of our attempts to affect change, and to convince others that our way is best.  Haidt’s second principle of Moral Psychology is “moral thinking is for social doing.” Moral foundations are tools of reason and “social doing,” they are the weapons of the culture war. 

But there’s an important clarification that must be made regarding “reason” which is critical to our understanding of the political divide and the role moral foundations play in it.  

It is well documented that human reason is fallible, and that’s putting it mildly.  We like to think that reason is for finding the truth, but the fact of the matter is that, except in rare circumstances in which people work together in groups to test ideas and where the members of the group do not have a vested interest in the outcome (roughly speaking, the scientific method and community), reason is actually quite poor at finding truth.

A recently developed theory of social science researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber postulates that “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth.  Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” 

In their paper Why do humans reason? Arguments for an arumentative theory Mercier and Sperber say that “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions.  This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

Their ideas are summarized in The Argumentative Theory – A Conversation with Hugo Mercier, on Edge.com.  Here’s an excerpt:

“And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias. Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves. And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. And it’s weird, when you think of it, that humans should be endowed with a confirmation bias. If the goal of reasoning were to help us arrive at better beliefs and make better decisions, then there should be no bias. The confirmation bias should really not exist at all. We have a very strong conflict here between the observations of empirical psychologists on the one hand and our assumption about reasoning on the other. But if you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you’re trying to convince someone, you don’t want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that’s what the confirmation bias helps you do. The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it’s actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning — but they’re very good at reasoning for arguing.” (2)

I believe that Moral foundations define more than just our inner elephant.  They are also the cognitive tools used by rider/lawyer for reasoning and arguing.  They are the constructs upon which our logical arguments are built.  They are the tools the conscious rider/lawyer uses to rationalize the elephant’s visceral reaction to like or dislike.  They are the building blocks of the arguments the rider uses to try to persuade others to see things our way.  Paraphrasing Haidt’s Second Principle of Moral Psychology, Moral Foundations are for social doing. 



(1) Haidt,  J., & Joseph, C. (2007). The moral mind: How 5 sets of innate moral intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, and S. Stich (Eds.) The Innate Mind, Vol. 3.  Available on the Publications page of Haidt’s web site MoralFoundations.org, and in MS Word, here.

(2) The Argumentative Theory, on Edge.com


5 thoughts on “Reason is for Winning, Not Truth Finding (and Moral Foundations are the Rider’s Tools of Reason)

  1. Using ‘ evolution’ to defend anything and everything is quite stale. Now that reason is being exilid from the rational paradigm (modern western paradigm) what about the knowledge created by and with the help of reason and also what will be done with the so called illiterates who used intuition instead of reason?


    Posted by Jinan k b | July 5, 2014, 12:37 pm
    • Hi Jinan k b,

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

      You’re right that knowledge is created with the help of reason.

      But I think it is accurate to summarize our current understanding of how knowledge comes to be by saying that it seldom, if ever, is created by reason alone on the part of an individual. That’s because, as mountains of psychological research shows, humans are very good at seeing the flaws in the logic of others, especially when we think their conclusions conflict with our own, but we’re terrible at seeing the flaws in our own logic. That’s where, and why, the scientific community comes into play, in which ideas are presented for the express purpose that they be tested by the rest of the community. Only after an idea passes the test(s) of review by the community does it become knowledge. Jonathan Rauch does an excellent job of describing the creation of knowledge in his book “Kindly Inquisitors,” as does Michael Oakeshott in his essay “Rationalism In Politics.

      Also, I think that rather than saying that reason is being exiled, I think it is more correct to say that what’s happening today is that we’re finally understanding its proper place in human thought and behavior.

      Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology is “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Or, as David Hume said in 1739, “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.” Haidt summarizes the new knowledge about reason that is emerging out of the scientific community, and puts it in perspective of the past two hundred years, as follows:

      Hume got it right. When he died in 1776, he and other sentimentalists had laid a superb foundation for “moral science,” one that has, in my view, been largely vindicated by modem research.l You would think, then, that in the decades after his death, the moral sciences progressed rapidly. But you would be wrong. In the decades after Hume’s death the rationalists claimed victory over religion and took the moral sciences off on a two-hundred-year tangent. (The Righteous Mind, p. 135)

      In answer to your closing question, the current knowledge about reason is that it goes hand-in-hand with intuition. Everybody uses both. The either/or situation in your question – that there are people who use intuition instead of reason – is not the case. For example, reason plays a key role in two places in Haidt’s social intuitionist model. The image below is from page 55 of his book, “The Righteous Mind.”


      Posted by The Independent Whig | July 5, 2014, 2:32 pm
      • friend
        you misread my statement. I have been exploring the biological roots for cognition- making sense of the world for a long time now and i have realized the trickery that reason or mind does almost 20 years ago. i once did a retreat called ‘against the tyranny of reason’.
        I have been vary of the modern knowledge system because most of it have been a product of the rational inquiry. Once in a while an authentic intuition happen and then several ‘researchers’ latch on to this and reason out and make a mess of it. (schools of thought is the result of this obsessive reasoning)
        So what I am asking is what to do with lots of nonsense that has come out of rational or reason based research.

        I am involved in an initiative called re imagining schools where we are questioning some fundamental premises or fallacys the rational cultures have produced. I have up loaded a video on you tube by name REASONING SHORT CIRCUITS COMPREHENSION. You can also see my writing on the rise of reason on my site http://www.re-cognition.org where i have looked at what i call as paradigms of knowing. How literacy rewired our cognition and how as a result reason became the cognitive tool.


        Posted by jinankodapully | July 6, 2014, 1:57 am
      • jinankodapully,

        What fascinating ideas!!

        I watched the video and I’ve briefly looked at Paradigms of Knowing. Your ideas about mind-body connections and disconnections resonate with some of the ideas in the works of Jonathan Haidt, specifically his books The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. You might enjoy them (if you haven’t already).

        The title of your retreat is interesting. There’s a book titled Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook, by Yuval Levin. I haven’t yet read it, but I think your comments have bumped it to the top of my reading list to see how it compares with your thoughts.

        Michael Oakeshott describes two types of knowledge in his essay Rationalism in Politics and Jonathan Rauch describes the development of knowledge in his book Kindly Inquisitors.

        I wonder if you’re familiar with these writings and what you think of them.

        I’ll keep your ideas in mind as I continue to read, learn, and write. After I give them some time to percolate they may influence how I look at things.

        Thanks for the information and the links. I enjoy your insights.


        Posted by The Independent Whig | July 6, 2014, 12:09 pm


  1. Pingback: Yes, I Am “Judgmental”: An Overview of the Position of The Independent Whig « The Independent Whig - July 4, 2012

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