Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reason can be compatible with intuition in politics

At least since Greek philosopher Plato’s time (427-327 BC), people have considered the roles of intuition and reason in human thinking and cognition or perception. Intuition and reason are different biological processes. Intuition is defined as a rapid understanding or cognition of something without conscious reasoning or thinking. Intuition includes making moral judgments and eliciting personal emotions or passions. By contrast, reason is defined to be a conscious application of logic or analytical thought to situations or problems. Reason is a necessarily conscious process or something within our awareness. Sometimes an intuition or desire and reason conflict with either one capable of shaping a person’s ultimate judgment, decision and behavior.

The question is what are the roles, approximate or precise, that intuition and reason play in shaping our thinking, beliefs and behavior? Over the centuries, the tree basic theories arose. Plato believed that reason, being superior to our intuition and passions, ought to generally dominate our thinking and passions. Later, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued that intuition or passion governs human behavior with reason playing only a subordinate role. Hume argued that reasoning based on premises (inductive reasoning) and resulting causality cannot be justified rationally. He believed that human belief in causality results from experience and custom, not logic. Finally, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) concluded that intuition and reason were and should be more or less in balance, with either one having a similar or equal capacity to decide our beliefs and actions.

One social scientist, Johnathan Haidt, criticized Plato’s perception of our cognitive biology. He argues that 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.” Available evidence argues that Hume was more right than Plato and Jefferson. Social science research strongly suggests that humans are fundamentally intuitive, with reason usually playing a role largely limited to defending or justifying personal morals, intuitions or beliefs. For politics, personal judgments and beliefs are mostly matters of intuition, while morals are personal, hard-wired beliefs that shape our intuitions and beliefs.

Assuming that intuitionists such as Haidt are correct, what does that say about the role of reason and conscious logic in politics? Are humans forever doomed to endure politics and unavoidable conflict because our thinking is dominated by personal morals and passions, with only a limited role for conscious reason? Haidt argues something like that. He asserts that because we evolved to be “narrowly moralistic and intolerant . . . . our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Despite that bleak picture, Haidt argues that we should “at least do what we can to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.” In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, Haidt asserts that “my goal . . . . is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity.” He asserted that Hume “went too far” by arguing that reason is the “slave” of the passions. In addition, Haidt argues that although intuition dominates, it is “neither dumb nor despotic” and it “can be shaped by reasoning.”

Collectively, those statements sound much more like an appeal for reason than an assertion that it is delusional to want a bigger role for reason in politics. Haidt’s assertion that we “will always be cursed by moralistic strife” is his explicit moral judgment that our intuitive, righteous nature is a curse, not a blessing or a source of wisdom. In this regard, he is closer to Plato’s moral judgment about how things ought to be than Hume or Jefferson.

Reason and intuition are compatible
It is reasonable to believe that by acknowledging our inherently intuitive nature, Haidt is being rational and advocating for a more prominent role for rationality in politics. He is explicit about this: “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings . . . . are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law.” Although human cognition is fundamentally intuitive, that does not mean that reason has no significant role to play.

Nor does it mean that ways to enhance the role of reason and/or decrease the error-proneness in our political thinking and judgments can never be found. It is not reasonable to conclude that all people will be the same. The cognitive science that Haidt and others rely on is new. Well-defined biological limits have not yet been proven. There is no data to prove that reason can exert no more than, say, 1-5% of anyone’s cognitive power or influence.

Social science is not even at a point where it can conclude with reasonable confidence that all people are cognitively alike. Given the vast differences in individual talents, interests, morals and personal motivations, it is entirely possible that some people can be found whose thinking is closer to Jefferson’s postulated 50:50 intuition-reason power split than Hume’s postulated ~99:1 power split in favor of intuition being served by the rational slave. It may even be the case that a few people are closer to Plato’s vision of cognition where reason can dominate intuition. Data from Philip Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project and the discovery of a few superforecasters of future events strongly suggests that reason plays a much larger cognitive role in some people than Hume postulated.

What about the rationalist delusion?
How can square Haidt’s assertion that one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history is the rationalist delusion with an assertion that reason can and should play a bigger role in politics? Wasn’t Haidt’s comment a direct repudiation of a hope for more rationality in politics? If taken out of context, that is a reasonable way to see his comment.

But, for context, Haidt also said this in The Righteous Mind:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. . . . . I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. That was Hume’s project, with his philosophically sacrilegious claim that reason was nothing but the servant of the passions.”

Asking for a greater degree of rationality in politics in the face of our acknowledged intuitive nature isn’t necessarily delusional. Wanting more reason doesn’t elevate reason to the level of being either sacred or requiring cult-like moral rigidity. It is just a simple, common sense plea for a bigger role for reason in politics, nothing more. As asserted before, Haidt is being a rationalist in asking for more rationality in politics. He does that while being fully cognizant of the danger of distorting or denying our innate intuitive nature.

Does morality always bind and blind?
From my point of view as a rationalist or objectivist, Haidt’s most interesting assertion is that “morality binds and blinds.” Is that necessarily always true? It apparently has always been in the past, so it’s tempting to assume it has to be that way in the future. The problem with that is that it ignores what we now know about our cognitive biology. Mankind has never used a political ideology or set of morals that are (1) based on modern science in light of all of mankind’s relevant knowledge, and (2) designed to increase the role of reason in politics, while decreasing the power of our morals and biases to distort fact and logic.

Since the cognitive science is so new, such an ideology could not have existed until now. It is possible in theory at least that a political ideology or morals can be selected that are intellectually freeing and foster both undistorted perception and reason. To deny the possibility of rationalizing morals is irrational because there has never been a direct test of any unblinding and unbinding political morals hypothesis. Who knows, Jefferson may yet turn out to be closer to the mark than Hume at least for some individuals, if not entire societies.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Righteous Mind - Book Review

Book Review
The Righteous Mind:
Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
Johnathan Haidt
Pantheon Books 2012

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He wrote The Righteous Mind to “at least do what we can to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.” He explains: “My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity.” In view of America’s increasingly irrational political polarization and growing mutual partisan distrust, Haidt clearly has his work cut out for him.

To find answers, Haidt focuses on the inherent moralistic, critical and righteous judgmental nature of human cognition and thinking. He observes that human righteousness is self-righteousness. Because of that, our morals and judgments tend to be more subjective and emotional than objective and rational. Haidt points out that we are designed by evolution to be “narrowly moralistic and intolerant.” That leads to self-righteousness and the associated hostility and distrust of other points of views that self-righteousness so easily and quickly generates. Regarding the divisiveness of politics, “our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Haidt’s focus on subjective personal morality in politics echoes the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist. Lakoff described the fundamentally moral basis of liberal vs. conservative politics in his 1996 book Moral Politics (and in this fascinating 2005 lecture). The evidence from social science is now overwhelming: In dealing with politics, humans slip unconsciously (or are easily tricked) into subjective emotionalism at the expense of objective rationality (here, here, here).

Part 1: The forceful moral elephant and the lazy, sleepy rider
Righteous Mind is organized into three parts. The first part describes the process of human cognition, which boils down to intuitions that come first with strategic reasoning second. In the process, “moral intuitions (i.e., judgments) arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” Initial intuitions driving later reasoning exemplifies some of our many unconscious cognitive biases, e.g., ideologically-based motivated reasoning, which distorts both fact and logic.

Part 1’s central metaphor “is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” Notice that most of our mental processes are going on unconsciously.

Haidt’s elephant corresponds to our cognitive “System 1” that other social scientists, e.g., Daniel Kahneman and Philip Tetlock, refer to regarding our subjective moralistic, unconscious cognitive processes. The rider corresponds to “System 2”, which is our conscious, more rational (but easily deceived) mental processes. The elephant is motivated and moral, while the rider is lazy, distracted and, if given the chance, potentially much less morally constrained. Dealing rationally with our irrational biology requires real moral courage and two psychologically uncomfortable ingredients, self-awareness and a motivation to change.

Dealing with the psychological discomfort is where the moral courage comes in.

Part 2: Our six social receptor moral palette
In part 2, Haidt argues that our righteous mind “is like a tongue with six taste receptors” and “there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.” In his taste receptor analogy, Haidt asserts that “morality is like cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. . . . . Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors.”

Haidt’s six identified moral receptors (and associated emotions) are (1) harm-care (compassion or lack thereof), (2) fairness-unfairness (anger, gratitude, guilt), (3) loyalty-betrayal (group pride, rage at traitors), (4) authority-subversion (respect, fear), (5) sanctity-degradation (disgust) and (6) liberty-oppression (resentment or hatred at domination). These six foundations of morality are posited to be evolved response triggers to threats or adaptive challenges our ancestors faced along their road to survival and success. Modern triggers can differ from what our ancestors faced, e.g., loyalty to a nation or sports team can trigger the loyalty-betrayal moral in some or most people in different ways.

Massive surveys that Haidt conducted led to his observation that in going from politically very liberal to moderate to very conservative, the importance of the care and fairness morals decreased in most people, while the loyalty, authority and sanctity morals increased. The moral palettes of liberals and conservatives are such that you can usually tell one from the other simply by asking what qualities they would want in their dog. This kind of morals-based thinking and preferences spill over into every contested issue in politics. The biological cognitive basis for the polarization and distrust that now dominates and gridlocks American politics becomes crystal clear when politics is viewed through this lens of differing moral palettes.

Part 3: The obscuring narrowness of personal morality
The third part of Haidt’s book focuses on the limiting and blinding nature of personal morality. He observes: “Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature . . . . We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.” That self-deceit is a product of the elephant creating a personal moral framework that the lazy rider works within. Our individual moral frameworks are what unconsciously distorts both reality (facts) and logic (common sense).

It is easy to see why a policy choice that a liberal sees as perfectly logical based on a given set of facts is completely illogical when a conservative looks at the same facts and arrives at a completely different policy.

In trying to attain his goal of reducing subjective emotion and increasing objective rationality, Haidt is a little fish swimming upstream against a powerful, mindless partisan current. America continues its sad, needless descent into increasing polarized, subjective partisan irrationality. That may serve a self-interested two-party political system, including the major (not minor) interests that fund it. Unfortunately, those narrow gains in defense of our inept, corrupt status quo come at the expense of the public interest.

In essence, Haidt argues for political rhetoric that is more rational. His recognition of differing subjective moral palettes forces more nuance into how people think about and talk to each other, assuming they want to persuade people of different views. Such persuasion requires the rider to assume a bigger role to remain consonance between one’s own morals and people with different moral palettes. 

The few people like Haidt who argue for more rationality and less self-righteousness in politics probably represent America’s best hope for future global peace and continuing economic prosperity. Good luck to that rational little fish.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Thinking, Fast and Slow; Book Review

Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
Original publication: 2011

Dr. Kahneman, a psychologist, won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on prospect theory, in which he began to generate a more accurate description of the biological basis of decision-making. That work is directly relevant to politics. The biology behind seeing and thinking distorts reality and that shapes political decision-making or policy choices.

Kahneman’s book is based on several decades of research by himself and other social scientists. It focuses on the contrast between two ways of perceiving reality and thinking about what we think we see. Those modes of cognition can be simultaneous and overlapping. Kahneman’s research led to his recognition of a mental "system 1" and "system 2". The two systems do not necessarily correspond to different parts or bits of brain, but are used to describe what is going on in our heads. System 1 is an instinctive, intuitive-emotional and fast way of seeing the world and thinking about it. System 1 operates mostly unconsciously and without conscious effort. Although we don’t know it, system 1 usually dominates our mental activity, perceptions of reality, judgments and choices.

Not nearly as rational as we think
By contrast, Kahneman’s system 2 is slower, but more logical and calculating. System 2 requires biologically measurable work, tires easily, and is lazy, preferring to do the least work needed to get at a solution, even if it’s wrong. System 2 is the conscious part of human cognition and what we are aware of when we look at the world or political issues and consciously think about them. Applying this logical aspect of human cognition requires motivation and conscious effort. Because this mode of thinking is what we are aware of, people tend to believe that our conscious, “rational” thoughts constitute the main or only way we think. For most people, this aspect of our biology fosters a hard to reject but false belief that we are quite rational and well-grounded in reality.

Thinking in system 1 and system 2 is shaped by powerful innate but unconscious biases that distort both facts (reality) and logic (common sense). In that regard, our innate biases can be considered to be “de-rationalizing” because they prevent us from seeing unbiased reality and applying unbiased common sense to what we think we see. Our innate biases powerfully shape policy choices to fit personal ideology and/or morals. Kahneman’s book describes the research that reveals the basis that lead people to place too much confidence in human judgment, including their own.

Biases with real bite
The list of unconscious, de-rationalizing cognitive biases is long and surprising. They include:

  • Kahneman’s powerful “what you see is all there is” bias (the “illusion of validity”) that leads to perceptions and choices (i) based on what we directly see, (ii) not based on relevant information we are not aware of, both of which (iii) tends to kill our motivation to look for information we are not aware of, especially information that could contradict what we believe or want to be true;
  • Framing choices that lead to different perceptions and choices depending simply on how an issue is presented, the effects of which alter judgments even though the underlying facts are identical regardless of how the issue or problem is framed;
  • An unconscious bait and switch bias that unknowingly substitutes an easy, intuitively answerable question for a hard one that requires conscious effort and System 2 logic, which reflects system 2 laziness;  
  • Loss aversion, a tendency to irrationally prefer avoiding losses over gains by unreasonably overweighting potential losses and underweighting potential gains;
  • An energy-based judgment bias from being hungry or having low blood sugar, which affects judgments - e.g., it affects sentencing decisions that theoretically impartial judges hand out to convicts; and
  • An illusion of understanding situations or issues even when a person doesn’t have enough information to understand. Humans fit past events or facts into a “logical” story and then we believe we understand, and can’t imagine things differently. The human mind is highly adept at (i) unconsciously and rapidly making “sense” out of things based on insufficient information and (ii) drawing often flawed judgments based thereon.

Being subjective-intuitive and irrational isn’t hopeless . . . .
For people looking for more objectivity and rationality in politics, human biology sounds like a very big impediment, and it is. Fortunately, that isn’t the whole story. Political ideologues whose personal ideology or morals distort facts and logic can become aware of their own reality-distorting biology and that self-awareness helps reduce the influence of irrational biases on perceptions of reality and common sense. Progress toward objectivity requires the moral courage to accept our biology for what it actually is, not what we think it is.

. . . . but change isn’t going to be easy
One unusually self-aware political ideologue explained the difficulty this way: “My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. Knowing about the existence of motivated reasoning, however, can help us overcome it when it is at odds with evidence.”

Although Khaneman is silent on the issue, susceptibility to cognitive distortion may vary between different political or ideological groups. That supposition generally accords with research showing that more intense personal ideological belief impairs judgment. The American public is in a period of increasing ideological rigidity and political polarization. That is an impediment to acceptance of political objectivity. 

Another impediment is the two-party system itself. Both parties, most of their politicians, most partisan pundits, most of the press-media most of the time and players with campaign contribution money, foster an image of partisan political rationality and opposition irrationality. Fostering strongly-held partisan ideological beliefs feeds our unconscious biases. Playing on our illusions of rationality serves to defend and maintain the status quo, e.g., it hides the usually tenuous to nonexistent connection between political rhetoric and reality and logic. That doesn’t serve the public interest.

If they want objectivity, which is an open question, the American people have a lot of introspecting and learning to do. Objectivists have their work cut out for them and a long, long way to go.