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Conventional Wisdom, Reason and Experience, Religion, The Fallacy of Reason

Religion, Morality, and Ideology: Like Things That Should Be Judged Alike.


This post is the second half of a two part essay.  In part one I argued that religions, moralities, and ideologies are different manifestations of a single underlying element of human nature: our tendency to form into groups of like-minded people and compete with other groups.  In this post I continue that argument and make the additional claim that since religions, moralities, and ideologies are for all practical purposes the same thing they should all be judged by the same criteria.  Specifically, if religion is to be judged by the wars and atrocities that have been committed in its name, or by the truth or falsehood of its core beliefs, then it’s only fair to judge secular moralities and ideologies by the same criteria.  If religion fails by these criteria then so do most mainstream ideologies, except for one.

Here’s a brief review of why religions, moralities, and ideologies, are manifestations of the same thing.  It is from a lecture by Jonathan Haidt entitled “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege,” (emphasis added) (video)  (transcript)

How can there be a creature on earth that is so good at ultrasociality without any need of kinship? How can that be? Well the answer is that we have this special trick, you see. We evolved this incredible trick unlike anything else in the history of life, of being able to circle around sacred objects. And when we circle around sacred objects together we then trust each other and function together as a team. […] As long as people share ideas about what is holy, what is sacred, what is untouchable, then they will be bound together into a community that can work and achieve some degree of ultrasociality. This ability is absolutely crucial for war. We wouldn’t have war without this. We wouldn’t have civilization. And we wouldn’t have politics. War, politics, religion, all of these things, are manifestations of this incredible ability we have to bind ourselves together in large groups that are not blood relatives and often risk our lives or give our lives.

Humans are Groupish

Chapter eleven of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt is about the evolutionary origins of the psychological mechanisms which lend themselves to religiosity.  The gist of that chapter is captured in its title, “Religion Is a Team Sport.”  Everything in that chapter applies equally to secular idologies.  For example, in the following passage from that chapter I’ve changed the word “religion” to “ideology,” and it applies just as well:

Ideologies are social facts.  Ideologies cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees.  Durkheim’s definition of ideology makes its binding function clear:

An ideology is a unified system of beliefs and practices, relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called an ideology, all those who adhere to them. (page 287, paperback version)

In that same chapter, Haidt’s use of a football game as an analogy for religion applies equally to gatherings of people which center around shared values.  For example, political rallies or conventions (again, I’m changing just a few words of Haidt’s original text):

A political convention is a superb analogy for religion. From a naïve perspective, focusing only on what is most visible, (i.e., the spectacle, the production values, the silly hats, the party atmosphere), political conventions are extravagant, costly, wasteful, proceedings that impair people’s ability to think rationally.  …  But from a sociologically informed perspective, it is a religions rite that does just what it is supposed to do: it pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred).  It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply part of a whole.”

In the final paragraph of the chapter, Haidt summarizes as follows:

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about. And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.(page 318, paperback version)

The quotes I’ve chosen here only scratch the surface. They’re conclusions of Haidt’s wide and deep study of the evolutionary origins of religion, morality, and ideology; indeed, of his entire body of work, which includes extensive examinations of the works of a wide array of social scientists and researchers other than himself.  The evidence is clear and overwhelming.  Religion, morality, and ideology are variations, manifestations, of a single underlying element of fundamental human nature; that of the “special trick” we evolved which is “unlike anything else in the history of life,” which allows us to “trust each other work together as a team,” and without which civilization would not be possible; that of our instinct, our intuition, to form into groups around shared ideas about “what is holy, what is sacred, what is untouchable.”       

Intuitions Rule

The first principle of moral psychology is “intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.” (1) We use the “slow” thinking of conscious reasoning to form post hoc rationalizations for the “fast” thinking  of the intuitive reactions we have to the social world around us.(2) The real motivations, the real causes, of human interaction are our intuitions.  The religions, moralities, philosophies, and ideologies we use to justify and defend our actions do not, indeed cannot, cause those actions.  The most we can say of them is that they are accessories after the fact.  Haidt explains:  

To take one example, religion does not seem to be the cause of suicide bombing.  According to Robert Pape, who has created a database of every suicide terrorist attack in the last hundred years, suicide bombing is a nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.  It’s a response to boots and tanks on the ground – never to bombs dropped from the air.  It’s a response to contamination of the sacred homeland.  (Imagine a fist punched into a beehive, and left in for a long time.)

Most military occupations don’t lead to suicide bombings.  There has to be an ideology in place that can rally young men to martyr themselves for a greater cause.  The ideology can be secular (as was the case with the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka) or it can be religious (as was the case with the Shiite Muslims who first demonstrated that suicide bombing works, driving the United States out of Lebanon in 1983).  Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task.  Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” (page 312, paperback version) 

Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Muslimism, rationalism, secularism, scientism, atheism, new atheism, liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, etc., are all alike; they are all examples of “slow” post hoc strategic reasoning designed to justify and defend our “fast” intuitions about right and wrong, and about how to live our lives.   Intuitions come first, religions, moralities, philosophies, and ideologies second.

Thinking Is For Doing

The second principle of moral psychology is “moral thinking is for social doing.” (3) Moral thinking helps people to “form tight, cooperative groups that pursue collective ends…and they do this most strongly when in conflict with other groups.” (4) Members of a group often use their moral thinking to try to persuade other people, whether those people are members of their own group or of others, to go along with their way of social doing.  Indeed, it is now thought that reason itself evolved not for the purpose of finding truth, but for the purpose of persuasion.(5, and more on this below.) 

Social doing happens at many levels, from interpersonal interaction among individuals and families, to small group interactions within and among neighborhoods and communities, to massive group interactions between political parties, ideologies, religions, and nations.  Social doing takes many forms, from acts of care and philanthropy to acts cruelty and war. 

The strategic reasoning and moral thinking of religion has been used as a tool to justify and support the social doing of wars and atrocities “as was the case with the Shiite Muslims who first demonstrated that suicide bombing works, driving the United States out of Lebanon in 1983.”  Historically speaking, this sort of thing happens when politics and religion are for all practical purposes one and the same or at least tightly intertwined. The concepts of freedom of religion and freedom from state coerced religion are relatively recent historical developments, and even now are not universal.

Secular ideologies are no different. The strategic reasoning of many of secular ideologies has been used to justify the social doing of some of the most devastating wars and most barbarous atrocities and genocides in the history of the planet; THE most barbarous if measured by the sheer number of innocent victims who suffered or died, OR by the deliberate, systematic, cold-blooded nature of the methods through which they were carried out, OR by the fact that they were committed by the state against its own people.  Among these ideologies are socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism,(6) and whatever “ism” was used to rationalize the French Revolution.(7)(8) 

Ideological Visions

Recent social science research reveals that human nature consists of at least six “evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (9) Those mechanisms are some of the primary contributors to many of the intuitions mentioned above. The mechanisms include moral foundations, chief among which are care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  The first three of these are known as the “individualizing” foundations because their primary focus is on maximizing the well being and autonomy of individuals.  The latter three are known as the “binding” foundations because their primary benefit is to help make cooperative society possible through the suppression of self interest.     

The same research also reveals that religions, moralities, and ideologies use these mechanisms in differing amounts to construct their “sets of beliefs” about the nature of mankind. Belief systems fall roughly into two major categories (10); that of the “constrained vision” of conservatism which applies all of the foundations in a roughly equal balance between individualizing and binding, and that of the “unconstrained vision” (11) of liberalism which applies roughly only the individualizing foundations (and of those mostly just “care”).  The unconstrained vision often openly rejects the binding foundations.(12) 

The Constrained Vision

The constrained vision tends to look toward the lessons learned by a society through the experience of its every-day life, tempered with reason, as the surest guide to overcoming obstacles and solving problems within that society.   

In this vision, the collected wisdom of a society’s experience is understood to be a type of knowledge in itself, accumulated over the entire duration of a society’s existence.  In the business world this sort of knowledge is often known as “corporate” knowledge.  It is the way things are done, and the understanding that they are done this way for a reason, and that the reason, even if we don’t have personal knowledge or memory of it, is either one of two possibilities: 1) something bad or harmful happened in the past and this practice developed to prevent it from happening again, or 2) something good or beneficial happened in the past and it was this practice which helped to bring it about.  In the social world this sort of knowledge is known as “custom,” or “tradition,” or “practical knowledge:” it is manifested in the operation of the culture’s institutions and in its day-to-day way of life.  It is codified in its laws.  The collected wisdom of experience comes at a price, often a heavy one, so we do not make changes to it lightly, and if we do, we do so at our peril.  The constrained vision is reflected in the work of intellectuals such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Edmund Burke.  Thomas Sowell summarizes this concept (emphasis in original):

“In the constrained vision, any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision making, and often even for his own personal decisions.  A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from even more vast numbers of those from generations past.  Knowledge is conceived in the constrained vision as predominantly experience – transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation…

In this vision, it is not simply that individuals rationally choose what works from what does not work, but also – and more fundamentally – that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other.  Values which may be effective at the tribal level will tend to be overwhelmed by values that permit or promote the functioning of larger aggregations of people.  From this perspective, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he is still better served by custom than understanding.”  There is thus “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the system of rules and conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.

Knowledge is thus the social experience of the many, as embedded in behavior, sentiments, and habits, rather than the specially articulated reason of the few, however talented or gifted those few might be.” (13)

The constrained vision’s reliance on experience does not, however, equate to blind faith.  Nor does its skepticism of the power of reason preclude the use of reason.  Rather, the vision gives a healthy respect not only to the power of each, but also to the limits of both, and, just as it does with the individualizing and binding foundations, seeks to find an appropriate balance between them.  Sowell continues:

These cultural distillations of knowledge were not considered infallible or immutable – which would have been a solution instead of a trade-off – but rather as a tested body of experience that worked, and which was to be changed only after the most circumspect, and perhaps even reluctant examination.  We should attend to the defects of the social order, according to Burke, with the same trepidation with which we would tend the wounds of our fathers.  They are not to be ignored, but neither are they a mandate for experiment or hasty inspiration.  With no examination whatever, there would be no evolutionary process, and therefore, in this vision, no basis for the confidence in tradition and enduring institutions whish was the hallmark of Burke, and to varying degrees other believers in the constrained vision.(16, again)

Sowell’s use of the word “sentiments” in the earlier quote is important because it goes to the heart of the constrained vision’s understanding of the relationship between experience and reason; between subconscious “sentiments” – also known as “passions,” or “intuitions” – and “circumspect…examination”; between the “fast” thinking of the elephant, and the “slow” thinking of the rider.  They work together.  I fact, they are inseparable.  After all, what is intuition if it is not the collected wisdom of millions of years of human experience inculcated into the psyche of each of us through evolution.  As David Brook noted in The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, and as the first principle of moral psychology illustrates, “intuition and logic exist in partnership.” 

The respect for the collected wisdom of experience correlates closely with another key attribute of the constrained vision: epistemological modesty.  Epistemological modesty is the recognition of “the limits of human knowledge, especially of the social and political world.”(14)  We simply can’t know all the facts, and even if we could, no single human mind or even group of minds, can possibly process all of the facts and, through reason, derive the best solution or policy regarding any particular social issue.    

Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery.

Not knowing ourselves, we also have trouble fully understanding others. …

Not fully understanding others, we also cannot really get to the bottom of circumstances. No event can be understood in isolation from its place in the historical flow – the infinity of prior events, minute causes, and circumstances that touch it in visible and invisible ways.

And yet this humble attitude doesn’t necessarily produce passivity. Epistemological modesty is a disposition for action. The people with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance. We can design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate for the limits of our knowledge.

The modest disposition begins with the recognition that there is no one method for solving problems. It’s important to rely on the quantitative and rational analysis. But that gives you part of the truth, not the whole.(15)

In short (and indeed this Part of this post is a very short overview), the constrained vision, in its understanding of, philosophy about, and reaction to – both in word and in deed – human nature demonstrably tends toward a model of human behavior called the Social Intuitionist Model, in which in which intuition, judgment, and reasoning – both our own and that of others –  work together synergistically to determine the way we see and respond to the social world around us.(16)  

The Unconstrained Vision

The unconstrained vision, on the other hand, takes almost the opposite view.  It tends to place its faith practically speaking, in reason alone; the power of the human mind to overcome obstacles or solve problems through logical analysis of objective facts.  The knowledge thus gained is sometimes referred to as “technical knowledge.”(17).  The unconstrained vision tends to place a much lower value on the collected wisdom of human experience – on practical knowledge – than does the constrained vision.  In fact, the unconstrained vision places such a high value on the technical knowledge that comes from reason alone that it tends to eschew the practical knowledge, in all its forms, that comes from experience.  The unconstrained vision is reflected in the works of figures like Jean Jacque Rousseau, William Godwin, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.  Thomas Sowell summarizes:

“Reason,” according to Godwin, “is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.”  Passions and biases may exist, but “if we employ our rational faculties, we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities.”  

“The unconstrained vision had no such limited view of human knowledge or of its application through reason.  It was the eighteenth-century exemplars of the unconstrained vision who created “the age of reason,” as expressed in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book of that era.  Reason was as paramount in their vision as experience was in the constrained vision.  According to Godwin, experience was greatly overrated – “unreasonably magnified,” in his words – compared to reason or to “the general power of a cultivated mind.”  Therefore the wisdom of the ages was seen by Godwin as largely the illusions of the ignorant. The age of a belief or practice did not exempt it from the crucial test of validation in specifically articulated terms.  In Godwin’s words, “we must bring everything to the standard of reason.”  He added:

Nothing must be sustained, because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regard it as sacred, or because it has been to bring its validity into question.

Similarly, according to Condorcet, “everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect.”  It was “only by meditation,” Condorcet said, “that we can arrive at any general truths in the science of man.”

Given the ability of a “cultivated mind” to apply reason directly to the facts at hand, there was no necessity to defer to the unarticulated system processes of the constrained vision, as expressed in the collective wisdom derived from the past.  “The pretense of collective wisdom is the most palpable of all impostures,”  according to Godwin.  Validation was not to be indirect, collective, and systemic but direct, individual, and intentional.  Articulated rationality was to be the mode of validation, not general acceptance based on pragmatic experience.  According to Godwin, “persons of narrow views and observation” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society.  Therefore this cannot be the method by which to decide issues.

Implicit in the unconstrained vision is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons of narrow views” and those with “cultivated” minds.  From this it follows that progress involves raising the level of the former to that of the latter.  According to Godwin:

Real intellectual improvement demands, that mind should, as speedily as possible, be advanced to the height of knowledge already existing among the enlightened members of the community, and start from thence in pursuit of further acquisitions. (18

In short, the unconstrained vision tends toward rationalism: the notion that “reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge,” (19) and is thus not encumbered in its thinking by epistemological modesty.

The Purpose of Reason

Reason is not what it’s cracked up to be.  For centuries it was thought that the evolved purpose of human reason was to help us to make better decisions and to help us to find the truth.  But if that is so, then what explains the fact that reason is so fraught with biases like the confirmation bias, and so poor at helping us to achieved its assumed purpose?  The explanation is that the initial assumption about the purpose of reason has been wrong all this time.  It is no the case that reason evolved to help us make better decisions and find the truth.  Rather, the true evolutionary purpose of reason is to help us persuade others to see things our way.  Reason evolved to help us win arguments.  Here’s Haidt, summarizing the latest findings in the study of reason:

“The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology).  The concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings [about how bad reason is at helping us make better decisions and find truth] make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.  As they put it, “skilled arguers…are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.”  This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful, and so ineradicable.  How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view?  Yet, in fact, it’s very hard, and nobody has yet found a way to do it.  It’s hard because the confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind). (pages 104-105)

The Rationalist Delusion

Since the evolved purpose of reason is to win arguments rather than to find truth, and since reason so consistently fails to achieve the latter, the belief “that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge” (19, again) is a delusion.  Haidt explains this delusion as follows:

“Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines delusion as “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”  As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.  It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).  The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature.  It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.

From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior.  They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth.  They believe that people who reason well are most likely to act morally.(The Righteous Mind, page 103 paperback version)

Compounding the rationalist delusion, the notion that pure, emotionless reason, like that of Mr. Spock from Star Trek, is even possible is itself a delusion. In the book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, described what happened to people for whom the “reasoning” portions of the brain – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC for short – had become disengaged from the emotional, intuitive parts.  Haidt summarized Damasio’s findings in The Righteous Mind (emphasis in original):

“Demasio’s patients could think about anything, with no filtering or color from their emotions.  With the vmPFC shut down, every option at every moment felt as good as every other.  The only way to make a decision was to examine each option, weighing the pros and cons using conscious, verbal reasoning.  If you’ve ever shopped for an appliance about which you have few feelings – say, a washing machine – you know how hard it can be once the number of options exceeds six or seven (which is the capacity of our short-term memory).  Just imagine what your life would be like if at every moment, in every social situation, picking the right thing to do or say became like picking the best washing machine among tenoptions, minute after minute, day after day.  You’d make foolish decisions too.

Demasio’s findings were as anti-Platonic as could be.  Here were people in whom brain damage had essentially shut down communication between the rational soul and the seething passions of the body (which, unbeknownst to Plato, were not based in the heart and stomach but in the emotion areas of the brain). No more of those “dreadful but necessary disturbances,” those “foolish counselors” leading the rational soul astray. Yet the result of the separation was not the liberation of reason from the thrall of the passions. It was the shocking revelation that reasoning requires the passions. [Thomas] Jefferson’s model [of a brain with two parts, like the rider and the elephant] fits better: when one co-emperor is knocked out and the other tries to rule the empire by himself, he’s not up to the task.

“If Jefferson’s model were correct, however, then Damasio’s patients should still have fared well in the half of life that was always ruled by the head. Yet the collapse of decision making, even in purely analytic and organizational tasks, was pervasive. The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart. So Hume’s model fit these cases best: when the master (passions) drops dead, the servant (reasoning) has neither the ability nor the desire to keep the estate running. Everything goes to ruin. (20).

How To Use Reason Properly

Given our new understanding of the true purpose of reason (the rider, or conscious thought), and of its inseparable connection with our intuitions (the elephant, or subconscious cognition), what role does it play, and should it play, in our public discourse? As Haidt explains, the understanding gives us the answer:

“I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law.  Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of an individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron, by itself, isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain: you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoned is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the positions he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons.  We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self interest or reputational concerns are in play.  But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.  This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

And if our goal is to produce good behavior, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism.  Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. (The Righteous Mind, page 105, paperback version)

Summary and Conclusion

Religions and secular ideologies are alike in that all of them are post hoc tools of strategic reasoning and social doing, not causes.

Religions and secular ideologies are alike in that many of them have been used as tools to justify wars and atrocities.

Religions and secular ideologies are alike in that they are sets of beliefs, some of which are demonstrably false.(21)  

Since religions and secular ideologies are alike in these ways they should be judged alike.

If religion is to be rejected because some of its beliefs are demonstrably false, then any and all ideologies which at their core rest in part or in whole in rationalism should also be rejected because that belief, too, is demonstrably false.  It “is an example of faith in something that does not exist.(22)  A
nd what’s more, unlike faith in God, provably so. 

If religion is to be rejected because of the wars and atrocities that have been committed in its name, then any and all secular ideologies in whose name similar events have occurred should be equally rejected.  Among these are the secular ideologies of Chinese, Russian, and Cambodian communism/socialism, Italian Fascism, German Nazism, and whatever “ism” was used to justify the French Revolution.

Those who argue that the  world should be freed from religions because religions are based on sets of  beliefs that are demonstrably false, or because religions have been used  to justify wars and atrocities should argue with equal vehemence that the world should also be freed from all of the aforementioned secular ideologies which suffer from same flaws.


This is the “Central Metaphor” of Part 1 of The Righteous Mind.  Haidt originally identified four principles of moral psychology. The first was “intuitive primacy but not dictatorship,” which is a more descriptive version of his metaphor of “The Rider and the Elephant.”  The second was “moral thinking is for social doing.” For his book he combined them into this single principle “because I think it will be easier to remember and apply.”  (The Righteous Mind, page 386)

(2) See Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s “fast” thinking is referred to by Haidt as “the elephant,” and Kahneman’s “slow” thinking is Haidt’s “rider.”

(3) This is the second of Haidt’s original four principles of moral psychology.  Haidt and Kesebir described it detail in “Morality,” HANDBOOK OF SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 5th Ed., S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey, eds., Forthcoming They summarize the principle in that article as follows:

“The second principle, “moral thinking is for social doing,” reflects the growing recognition that much of human cognition was shaped by natural selection for life in intensely social groups. Human cognition is socially situated and socially functional, and a great deal of that functionality can be captured by viewing people as intuitive politicians and prosecutors, not as intuitive scientists.Reasoning evolved for the purpose of persuading other people to see things the way we see them, and for convincing them that the way we want to do things is the right way.

(4) Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

(5) The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning.  Here’s my summary of the key ideas: For hundreds of years it was thought that reason is fraught with flaws. It was assumed that reason evolved to help us make better decisions, and to find truth. Yet study after study showed that reason is prone to all sorts of biases, and that humans, when considered individually, are terrible at using reason to find truth. How can this be so? It can be so because the original assumption about the purpose of reason is the thing that is flawed, not reason itself. It is now believed by many social scientists who study reason that it evolved not to find truth, but to win arguments. With this new assumption everything else falls into place; all the biases, all the perceived “flaws” of reason make perfect sense. They’re not flaws at all, they’re features; features that help the rider do a better job of acting as press secretary on behalf of the elephant. Far from being flawed, reason is superb at doing what it was designed to do, persuading and winning arguments, and the built-in biases are some of its best attributes.

(6) “Genocide Unearthed,” National Geographic, January 2006 

“More than 50 million people were systematically murdered in the past 100 years—the century of mass murder: From 1915 to 1923 Ottoman Turks slaughtered up to 1.5 million Armenians. In mid-century the Nazis liquidated six million Jews, three million Soviet POWs, two million Poles, and 400,000 other “undesirables.” Mao Zedong killed 30 million Chinese, and the Soviet government murdered 20 million of its own people. In the 1970s the communist Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 million of their fellow Cambodians. In the 1980s and early ’90s Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party killed 100,000 Kurds. Rwanda’s Hutu-led military wiped out 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority in the 1990s. Now there is genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.”

(7) This footnote is an excerpt from the body of another post titled The Conservative Conundrum, and a Possible Solution.

“Haidt illustrated this in a talk he gave at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) called “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.”  He was working on The Righteous Mind at the time he gave the talk.  I watched that video online and typed up a transcript (hitting pause and rewind many, many times).  Here’s a portion of it.  In this quote he is talking about how the liberal three-foundation (but mostly just one) world view, which he calls the “unconstrained vision” (from Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions) actually performs in the real world:

“The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. In the French Revolution, I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the [passions].  David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.” I think Hume was right.

So I’m really concerned about rationalists.  But what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one.  No, what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t, want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right; we have reason on our side.  They called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people.  They committed genocide in the Vendee region, lining people against the walls and shooting them; putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.” So the French Revolution was based on the ex, the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, Sam Harris, people like that.

Um, other research, on 19th century communes.  Richard Sosis, anthropologist, compared, he found the records of communes in the 19th century.  Many were organized, were socialist communes based on equality and openness, many were religious communes.  And he looked to see how long did they last.  answer, the religious ones tended to last two to three times longer than the liberal, than the secular ones.  Because, if you bind people in, you, it turns out the active ingredient was demanding sacrifice.  Making them change their names, wear funny clothes, cut all contact with the outside, give up certain foods.  If you ask for sacrifice, if you constrain people, they form a community of trust, and they don’t cheat each other.

And if you say, “Welcome everyone.  Constraints are bad.”  It quickly decays into a moral, into moral chaos.  Again, the unconstrained vision, when it gets a chance to run things, screws it up.

Twentieth century communism, fascism, any any movement that tried to create a new man ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder.  Um, if any, if there are any historians here, but as far as I understand it most left wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions.  It doesn’t work.”

(8) It is important to note that I am talking about wars and atrocities that are orchestrated by governments or members of ideologies on a large scale in the name of a religion or of a political philosophy. I am not talking about atrocities that occur in the heat of the moment. For example, the atrocities of the killing fields of Cambodia were committed in the name of the political philosophy of the Khmer Rouge, whereas the atrocity of the My Lai massacre, for example, seems to have been committed in the heat of the moment.

(9) Part of Haidt’s definition of morality in The Righteous Mind, page 314 (paperback version):

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

(10) With one very important exception which I’ll note after this quote I agree with the following qualification about ideology from Haidt on pages 321 and 322 of the paperback version of The Righteous Mind:

I’m going to focus on what is known about the psychology of liberals and conservatives-the two end points of a one-dimensional scale. Many people resist and resent attempts to reduce ideology to a single dimension. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Moral Foundations Theory is that it gives you six dimensions, allowing for millions of possible combinations of settings. People don’t come in just two types. Unfortunately, most research on political psychology has used the left-right dimension with American samples, so in many cases that’s all we have to go on. But I should also note that this one dimension is still quite useful. Most people in the United States and in Europe can place themselves somewhere along it {even if most people are somewhat near the middle). And it is the principal axis of the American culture war and of congressional voting, so even if relatively few people fit perfectly into the extreme types I’m going to describe, understanding the psychology of liberalism and conservatism is vital for understanding a problem that threatens the entire world.

The important exception is this: Liberalism and conservatism are most definitely not the end points of the political spectrum. If they were then that would mean that Nazism, Fascism, Communism, etc. are somewhere between the two. This is clearly not the case. See the post Toward A More Accurate Political Spectrum.

(11) Thomas Sowell coined the terms “constrained vision” and “unconstrained vision” to describe conservatism and liberalism in his book “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. “[Haidt] especially sings the praises of Thomas Sowell’s “Conflict of Visions,” which he calls “an incredible book, a brilliant portrayal” of the argument between conservatives and liberals about the nature of man. “Again, as a moral psychologist, I had to say the constrained vision [of human nature] is correct.”  
Jonathan Haidt: He Knows Why We Fight, by Holman W. Jenkins, The Wall Street Journal

(12) Two quotes from Haidt.  The first from his original TED talk, the second from page 334 of the paperback version of The Righteous Mind:

I think that the greatest wonder in the world is not the  Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is really simple. It’s just a lot of rock, and then a lot of water and wind, and a lot of time, and you get the Grand Canyon. It’s not that complicated. This is what’s really complicated, that there were people living in places like the Grand Canyon, cooperating with each other, or on the savannahs of Africa, or on the frozen shores of Alaska, and then some of these villages grew into the mighty cities of Babylon, and Rome, and Tenochtitlan. How did this happen? This is an absolute miracle, much harder to explain than the Grand Canyon. The answer, I think, is that they used every tool in the toolbox. It took all of our moral psychology to create these cooperative groups. Yes, you do need to be concerned about harm, you do need a psychology of justice. But it really helps to organize a group if you can have sub-groups, and if those sub-groups have some internal structure, and if you have some ideology that tells people to suppress their carnality, to pursue higher, nobler ends. And now we get to the crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. Because liberals reject three of these foundations. They say “No, let’s celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership.” They say, “Let’s question authority.” And they say, “Keep your laws off my body.”

When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations-Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity-I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

(13) Full passage explaining the constrained vision’s understanding of knowledge, from A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, pages 37 – 40, paperback version.

In the constrained vision, any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day.to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work. Friedrich A. Hayek expressed this view when he

The growth of knowledge and the growth of civilization are the same only if we interpret knowledge to include all the human adaptations to environment in which past experience has been incorporated. Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions- all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge.

In this vision, it is not simply that individuals rationally choose what works from what does not work, but also- and more fundamentally- that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other. Values which may be effective at the tribal level will tend to be overwhelmed by values that permit or promote the functioning of larger aggregations of people. From this perspective, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.”

Knowledge is thus the social experience of the many, as embodied in behavior, sentiments, and habits, rather than the specially articulated reason of the few, however talented or gifted those few might be. When knowledge is conceived as social experience rather than solitary excogitation, then “a very small part is gained in the closet,” according to Hamilton.

In Burke’s words: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” By reason, Burke did not mean simply the written words of notable individuals but the whole experience of peoples, summarized in the feelings, formalities, and even prejudices embodied in their culture and behavior. These cultural distillations of knowledge were not considered infallible or immutable– which would have been a solution instead of a trade-off- but rather as a tested body of experience that worked, and which was to be changed only after the most circumspect, and perhaps even reluctant, examination. We should attend to the defects of the social order, according to Burke, with the same trepidation with which we would tend the wounds of our fathers. They are not to be ignored, but neither are they a mandate for experiment or hasty inspiration. With no examination whatever, there would be no evolutionary process, and therefore, in this vision, no basis for the confidence in tradition and enduring institutions which was the hallmark of Burke, and to varying degrees of other believers in a constrained vision.

The trade-off perspective of the constrained vision treats defects as inevitable, and therefore not in themselves reason for change, unless their magnitudes merit the inevitable costs entailed by change. “Preserving my principles unshaken,” Burke said, “I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.” On another occasion, he said: “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.” This was not a mere verbal patina on apathetic drift, as shown by Burke’s own relentless prosecution of Warren Hastings for alleged misconduct in his governance of India, or Burke’s unpopular stand in Parliament for freeing the rebellious American colonies, or his anti-slavery proposals. Adam Smith likewise urged the freeing of the American colonies- and other colonies as well- in addition to suggesting a number of domestic reforms and being opposed to slavery. In America, the men who wrote The Federalist Papers- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay- first came to public notice as leaders in the revolt against British rule. The constrained vision was not synonymous with (or camouflage for) acceptance of the status quo.

(14) Conservatism, by Jerry Z. Muller, pp 10-11.

Conservatives have also stressed the cognitive element of human imperfection, insisting upon the limits of human knowledge, especially of the social and political world. They warn that society is too complex to lend itself to theoretical simplification, and that this fact must temper all plans for institutional innovation. Such epistemological modesty may be based upon philosophical skepticism as in the case of Hume, or a religiously derived belief in the limits of human knowledge, as in the case of Burke of de Maistre, or on some general sense of the fallibility of human knowledge, as in the case of Friedrich Hayek or Edward Banfeld. /span>

(15) The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks, pp.244-245
(16) The book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, is, among other things, a description of, and an extended argument in defense of, the Social Intuitionist Model of human behavior. See pages 54-60 for an introduction and overview of the topic.

(17) The concepts of practical knowledge and technical knowledge are detailed by Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics and other essays.  Discussion of the types of knowledge is in the first chapter, here, and also here.

(18) From A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, pages 37 – 40, paperback version.

(19)  The Righteous Mind, page 7 (paperback version)

(20)  The Righteous Mind, pages 40-41 (paperback version)

(21)  “The Rationalist Delusion” is a major theme of Haidt’s work. It is a portion of his argument for the superiority of the Social Intuitionist Model of human behavior, and it is a named section of The Righteous Mind, on pages 103-106.)

(22) The Righteous Mind, page 107 (paperback version)


5 thoughts on “Religion, Morality, and Ideology: Like Things That Should Be Judged Alike.

  1. I just came across this quote from Edmund Burke, from his “Reflections on the Revolution in France:”

    “History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same — ‘Troublous storms that toss/ The private state, and render life unsweet.’ These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts.”

    From “Progressivism as Religion: Dworkin’s Flawed Belief,” by Peter Berkowitz:


    Posted by The Independent Whig | October 6, 2013, 11:06 pm
  2. Thank you.

    I agree they’re “of a type.”


    Posted by The Independent Whig | October 6, 2013, 10:32 pm
  3. Very nicely argued, and helpful. A portion of the intellectual left, deprived of religious motivations, move to a hive to their liking based on rationality.

    As it happens, I was just watching a montage of Christopher Hitchens lectures, in which he castigated religion in a very general sense with vituperative skill and intensity. It’s quite easy for me to sense how similar in spirit and effect that castigation is to the assumptive, venemous rejection of secular life in some arenas of religion- these mean-spirited rejections are of a type. When listening to Hitchens and Harris do their no-holds-barred castigations of religion (both are quite brilliant, of course), I hear the viscious certainty of Lenin ordering the mass murder of capitalists in 1919.

    The symmetry is a useful capstone and unifier of Haidt’s treatments of rationality and religion- well done, Gordon.


    Posted by jswagner | October 5, 2013, 9:57 pm


  1. Pingback: A Response To “Why are there so few non-liberals in social psychology? A closer look” | The Independent Whig - November 11, 2015

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