I did not make a mistake in disagreeing with Haidt

August 13th, 2010 by PaulBloom

I appreciate Jonathan Haidt’s gracious and constructive response to my Nature paper, and I want to begin my reply by acknowledging my considerable debt to him. My own research into moral psychology got started when I was approached by David Pizarro, then a graduate student at Yale, concerning Jon’s classic 2001 Psychological Review article. David and I ended up writing a commentary on this article. Soon afterwards, I began a series of studies, with David and others, on the emotion of disgust, and here again Jon’s work was a catalyst and an inspiration. So I am a huge fan of Jonathan Haidt.

I do not, however, find his response convincing.

1. He has read my article as a critique of his Social Intuitionist Model. But it isn’t.  The point of the article was to argue for the importance of deliberative reasoning as an important aspect of moral psychology. I make this argument by outlining what I see as the modern consensus, which is, as Hume put it, that moral reasoning is “the slave of the passions”. Jon is probably the most prominent defender of this view, but other scholars who accept it, to varying degrees, are Stephen Stich, Philip Tetlock, Jesse Prinz, Philip Zimbardo, Drew Westin, and Michael Gazzaniga. When I begin my third paragraph by saying that I predict that “this theory” will be proven wrong, I’m referring to the reason-as-slave view, not any more specific theory.

In my second paragraph, I say that many psychologists think that reasoned arguments for moral beliefs are “mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions.” Then I write: “As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, although we like to think of ourselves as judges, reasoning through cases according to deeply held principles, in reality we are more like lawyers, making arguments for positions that have already been established.” This is a perfectly accurate summary of his view from the 2001 paper, which is the paper of his that I cite.

2. It’s clear from the text, though, that Jon is categorized among those who endorse “the wholesale rejection of reason” in the formation of moral judgments. He is right to complain about this. The adjective was an overstatement of my part — one web dictionary says that it means “extensively and indiscriminately”, and it’s clear from his 2001 paper and elsewhere that Jon allows for some limited role of reason — and I apologize for it.

What about “rejection of reason”? Theories lie on a continuum and, in the space of views concerning morality, Jon’s theory in his 2001 paper really is famous in its rejection of reason. Jon seems to disagree; he modestly says “I merely rejected the worship of reasoning common in the Kohlbergian tradition.” – implying that his paper was nothing more than a gentle corrective to some over-zealous Kohlbergians! Well, I’ll leave this for the reader to judge. But I will point out that his title is “The emotional dog and the rational tail” And abstract begins with this:

Research on moral judgment has been dominated by rationalist models, in which moral judgment is thought to be caused by moral reasoning. Four reasons are given for considering the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached. The social intuitionist model is presented as an alternative to rationalist models. The model is a social model in that it de-emphasizes the private reasoning done by individuals, emphasizing instead the importance of social and cultural influences.

And the paper ends with this:

The time may be right, therefore, to take another look at Hume’s perverse thesis: that moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning, just as a surely as a dog wags its tail.

3. There is a lot of the Social Intuitionist Theory that I agree with. But I think it is mistaken in the view that private moral deliberation is irrelevant and unimportant. On the contrary, I would argue that it’s a central aspect of our moral lives. David and I argued for this in our response to Jon’s 2001 article, and I’ve expanded on this point in my 2004 book and again in my Nature article. Jon begins his reply to me that “we agree on the basic story”. But, unless his views have changed, we don’t.

Posted in moral psychology12 Comments »

12 Responses to “I did not make a mistake in disagreeing with Haidt”

  1. [...] Your Morals About Us Our Blog Links « Moral Beauty, Politics, Gender, and Personality I did not make a mistake in disagreeing with Haidt [...]

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    Wow! A quasi-real time debate on our blog….this is how quickly academics should work, IMHO…:) …and a fair response. Honestly, it sounds like you both agree with each other _now_…that both reason and intuition/emotion matter…and the specifics of the paper seem less important than current views to me.

    Paul, I do have one specific question. While I think reason is important, I don’t think it’s possible to “reason” about _what_ matters….meaning that if I know what I want, I can reason about how to get there. But how can I reason about what I want? At some point, if I keep asking myself why I want what I want, the answer will be “just because” (essentially Hume’s argument).

    So while I think that reason and emotion both matter, emphasizing emotion seems more important to me because:
    1. Emotion likely comes first, because you can’t reason whether or not you care about the suffering of others, for example.
    2. Most people overestimate the impact of reason…so if both matter, correcting people on the side of the importance of emotion seems more utilitarian.

    Thanks again for joining the blog. I hope you’ll post more.

  3. Paul Bloom says:

    Thanks for the welcome, Ravi.

    You are certainly right that moral reasoning draws upon intuitions that are not themselves grounded in reason–self-evident truths, as Thomas Jefferson puts it. But this is true for all aspects of reasoning, including induction, deduction, arithmetic, causal reasoning, and so on. So I’m not sure what follows from this.

    In any case, my view is that “Which is more imporant—reason or emotion?” is the wrong question to ask. The two categories are hopelessly broad and overlapping, and the question of “importance” is barely scientific. I hope this isn’t what Jon and I are arguing about!



  4. Virgil Reese says:

    Paul, I wish you had just asked Jonathan “Why the discrepancy between your statements acknowledging a role for reason in morality, and the wording of your 2001 paper’s abstract and final statement?” And I also wish you had responded more directly to the several statements he brought forth supporting a claim that he has recognized an important (if limited) role for reason in morality. It seems to me that Haidt, in a polemical critique of a pervasive overemphasis on the role of reason, may have, both in his abstract and final sentence, poorly represented the nuances of his own position, which does include a real appreciation for reason’s important (if limited) role in sculpting moral instincts. I’m not advocating that you refrain from criticizing specific comments by Haidt, or that you let your differences in emphasis go unnoted. But I think inaccurate to hold up one or two flawed statements, even if they are were prominent ones, as if they completely defined Haidt’s position, especially when he has just offered direct evidence that he holds a more nuanced view.
    My outsider’s view is that you have both contributed important insights that may help usher in a major advance in our understanding of human morality. It would be a shame if this advance were delayed by an unnecessary focus on occasional flaws in one another’s presentation, as opposed to recognizing and encouraging the best of each other’s arguments.

  5. Paul Bloom says:

    Hi Virgil — I doubt that Jon would agree with you that the abstract and conclusion of his 2001 article were “flawed statements” that poorly represent the nuances of his position. I taken a more generous view, which is that he wrote them becuase he believes they are true. That is, while he does allow for some limited role of reason, he really does think that, when it comes to moral judgment, reasoning is little more than post hoc justification. It’s the tail, not the dog. This is a view shared by many respected philsoophers and psychologists. The point of my Nature article was to argue that it’s mistaken.

  6. Virgil Reese says:

    Paul, thanks for your response. I take your point. The reasonableness of my comments obviously hinge on whether or not Jonathan would be willing to admit that he may have poorly summarized his views. Therefore I address this question to Jonathan, if you are listening. Would you be willing to concede that part of your differences with Paul could be over a few statements of yours that, when taken in isolation, do not accurately depict of your overall views?

  7. zeljka buturovic says:

    “In my second paragraph, I say that many psychologists think that reasoned arguments for moral beliefs are “mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions…”

    To me, the main problem with the Nature article arises from the fact that you use ‘reason’ to mean “reasoned argument” and “sympathy eliciting story-telling” simultaneously. Those are two quite different things, not least from Haidt’s perspective. His work tends to question the importance of the former, not the latter. And in your article, you use the former to establish what Haidt’s view is, but then you use the latter to provide an alternative that compensates for the supposed limitations of his approach. But this “alternative” is in fact already a part of his approach.

  8. Paul Bloom says:

    Hi Zeljka — Of course, they are different, but the argument in my article is that they are related. I start by describing how “sympathy eliciting story-telling” can change people’s moral views. But I then argue that these stories exist in the first place because people possess the capacity for rational deliberation—we are smart enough to generate novel moral insights and express them in clever ways. And I conclude: “It would be a mistake as scientists — and as politically and socially engaged citizens — to dismiss the importance of this reflective process in shaping our morality and, consequently, the world in which we live.”

  9. joeedh says:

    I have a suggestion for the scholars here. Concentrate your research on the invisibly disabled. In many ways the invisibly disabled are treated far worse then any other minority group, but are unique in that most of this mistreatment is by people who believe they are helping.

    Being invisibly disabled gives you a perspective on the limits to reason, and an innate understanding of Jon Haidt’s moral foundations, and the human tendency to doublethink rather then contradict deeply-held moral intuitions.

    I also wanted to mention the importance of incentives. For some reason, my family has some kind of genetic psychological disorder in that we cannot do anything without incentives. I know, I know, that sounds weird. But it’s true. To control our lives, we tend to spend a lot of effort building the right incentive structure. My own view is some humans have a survival compulsion to follow incentives, and to control our lives we learn to control the incentives, not our behavior per se.

  10. I don’t understand the difference between “moral reasoning” and “reasoning in general.” If moral reasoning is post-hoc justifications based on emotions et al, then so is ALL reasoning about anything:morals, prime numbers, e=mc2, etc.

  11. Steven Deedon says:

    This exchange might move through the current impasse by moving down a level or two of abstraction, e.g. with Jonathan citing experiments/data demonstrating intuitive decision making (and including some definition of intuition) and Paul demonstrating through similar evidence moral decisions made through a pattern of logic (acknowledging that the logic may be shadowed by intuition or emotion). One would then want to compare the strength of intuition “generated” decisions v. those generated by logic, in terms of how often they are translated into behaviors. One suspects that although sometimes intuitive decisions defy logic, in other cases they are the foundation of a decision albeit extended by logic in its application.

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