Reason is a press secretary, not a judge

By » Thu, May 17 2012
1797779207 66b4a15786 450x337 Reason is a press secretary, not a judge

Is it wrong to take a dump in these? (img by Chris Applegate)

You probably believe that you’re a primarily rational being, i.e. you weigh new ideas and impressions and respond to them based on logic and reasoned thought. But that’s probably not true, and there are a bunch of studies that show that the opposite is true: you use your rational faculties to justify or prove your gut reactions and emotional responses to new input.

Right now you’re dismissing that last statement because you’re perfectly rational and why should you give a fuck what some guy on a blog with a gasmask logo says. And you’d be right. And so would I.

I still think you should read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. But don’t read it because I said so. Read it because you’re fascinated by this summary over at NYT, which includes gems like this:

We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.

Even if you don’t read the book, keep an eyeball on how you react to stuff, especially now that we’re sprinting headlong into election season in the US. Remember that people who disagree with you aren’t always brain-damaged dupes (sometimes they are, just not always), and they may disagree with you because they value different things (equality over liberty, etc.). By all means continue to disagree. But know why you’re disagreeing and know that you’re just as prone to snap judgments as they are. You may end up respecting the people around you a little more, and I think that’s always a win.

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One Response

  1. James West on Facebook James West on Facebook May 17 2012 @ 9:38am

    I embrace it: I’ve always thought my subconscious was much smarter than I am.