Haidt: The Rationalist Delusion

Beginning on page 103 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt Haidt describes why it is a delusion to think that reason is the path to moral truth.


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.”45 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).46 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.47

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, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers-who reason about ethical principles all day long-should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students.48 And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.

Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.49 In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. 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). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings 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.”so 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 itY 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).

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, S’ but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law.53 Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any 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 coIning 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 reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position 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. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to serve their elephants more effectively. If you want to make people behave more ethically, there are two ways you can go. You can change the elephant, which takes a long time and is hard to do. Or, to borrow an idea from the book Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath,54 you can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on. You can make minorand inexpensive tweaks to the environment, which can produce big increases in ethical behavior.55 You can hire Glaucon as a consultant and ask him how to design institutions in which real human beings, always concerned about their reputations, will behave more ethically.



30 thoughts on “Haidt: The Rationalist Delusion

  1. Great article.


    Posted by empiricalmage | February 13, 2017, 9:49 am


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