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.

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