Monday, December 28, 2015


Regarding Jonathan Haidt's characterisation of our moral understanding as 90% intuitive and 10% rational - the Elephant and Rider - his advice to liberal Democrats (who he supports and wishes would use less strident, more winsome arguments) is that the "speak to the elephant, not the rider."

I resist this, because I feel that we should all be persuaded by the rational, not sub-rational arguments.  I should, you should, they should. To do anything else seems to be cheating, however effective it might be.  I would rather offend by driving all my nails to the center of the earth and being aggressive than to stoop to mere emotional manipulation.  In particular, pretending that an emotional manipulation is really a logical argument infuriates me.

Haidt's view is that arguments from reason should be reserved for friends and allies. Opponents cannot understand them, nor can we understand theirs.  He grants some exceptions to this, and is far kinder to conservatives than to liberals on that score.  But generally, we should talk to the elephant.


People who want to track this down will be interested in Antonio Damsio's research on patients who had damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain.  Their emotionality was severed from their moral decision making, so that they were something like the entirely rational beings beloved by all the aspie sci-fi authors and their readers:  Spocks or Mentats.  Their moral reasoning was not superior, or good-but-lacking-an-important element, as in I, Robot. It was horribly bad, start to finish. They were unable to make simple moral judgements. It seems the elephant should be the ruler, with the rider always scrambling and compensating.

I will be getting to Haidt's moral structures shortly, especially as he seemed to have listened to me for his revisions. (Or someone like me.)


Earl Wajenberg said...

"It seems the elephant should be the ruler, with the rider always scrambling and compensating."

Does that make it more acceptable to address the elephant instead of the rational/rationalizing rider?

james said...

Your thumbnail description of the emotion-less left me with the impression of a cowboy on a bicycle--jerking the reins this way and that, expecting reactions and counter-reactions that aren't there anymore.

Sam L. said...

"...all the aspie sci-fi authors..." I must have missed those; could you name some for me ("Names. Les; I need names"--Herb Tarlek, WKRP).

Christopher B said...

I see where Haidt's coming from on the use of rational arguments. You are far more likely to get a group of Riders to converge their north-bound Elephants on a single destination than you are to persuade a Rider to reverse the course of his south-bound Elephant. Better to try to distract the Elephant, and then hope the Rider will rationalize that He really wanted to go this way after all.

If we accept your hypothesis that most political views are social signaling then Haidt's pointing out that the dominance of liberal views in culture makes Elephant-distraction problematic. Non-liberals are marinated in the broadcasts of liberal social signals with the net effect of keeping their Elephants firmly headed in the opposite direction.