Alleged problems with small attorneys riding big elephants

October 1, 2010 | By | Reply More

I’ve previously written about Jonathan Haidt’s approach to human moral psychology.  His approach is termed the “Social Intuitionist Model” of moral motivation and it suggests that

moral behaviors are typically the product of multiple levels of moral functioning, and are usually energized by the “hotter” levels of intuition, emotion, and behavioral virtue/vice. The “cooler” levels of values, reasoning, and willpower, while still important, are proposed to be secondary to the more affect-intensive processes.

Haidt has used the metaphor of an intellectually-nimble lawyer riding on top of a huge emotion-permeated elephant to illustrate his counter-intuitive approach,  suggesting that the small articulate lawyer on top often lacks meaningful control over the elephant. Moral judgments are usually dominated by emotions such as empathy and disgust (the strength of these is represented by the big-ness of the elephant). In short, Haidt is quite sympathetic to David Hume’s suggestion that moral reasoning is essentially “the slave of the passions.”

In the March 25, 2010 edition of Nature (available here), Paul Bloom expressed concern that something important has been left out of Haidt’s model.  In reaction, Haidt defended himself against Bloom’s attack (see below), indicating that Bloom (whose work Haidt admires, for the most part) has misconstrued Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model. I believe that summarizing this exchange between Haidt and Bloom sharpens the focus on the meaning of Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model.

In his article in Nature, Bloom admits that many psychologists agree that “the reasoned arguments we make about why we have certain beliefs are mostly post-hark justifications for gut reactions.” He is concerned, however, that Haidt’s model “leaves little room for rational deliberation in shaping our moral outlook.” Bloom argues that we have more control over our sense of right and wrong than Haidt is willing to admit. Bloom argues that Haidt’s theory “will be proved wrong in its wholesale rejection of reason.”

He then argues that emotional responses alone cannot explain one of the most interesting aspects of human nature: that morals evolve. The extent of the average person’s sympathies has grown substantially and continues to do so. Contemporary readers of nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers of the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labor and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.

Bloom then argues that Haidt’s approach “doesn’t explain the shifts in opinions on issues” and it doesn’t account for “how are moral attitudes can change toward those with whom we never directly associate– for example, why some of us give money and even blood to people with whom we have no contact and little in common.” He argues that such acts of “long-distance charity” are now seeing as good, even though they were not widely advocated in the past. What’s missing?

Bloom believes that Haidt is overlooking “the role of deliberate persuasion.” He argues that language, including language in the form of story telling, is an effective tool for motivating our sympathy toward others. To Bloom, it is apparent that humans use language in our attempts to persuade others, and it often works (as an example, he refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

Bloom concludes that “it is this generative capacity that contemporary psychologists have typically ignored.” He concludes that we are not helpless prisoners of our emotions. Rather, humans are “natural storytellers” who affect the moral outlook of each other through the use of persuasion. He admits that “moral views make their impact by being translated into a motion.” On the other hand, a complete theory of human morality needs to ask “where these views come from in the first place.”

Jonathan Haidt responded to Paul Bloom, arguing that Bloom has misconstrued Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model:

I have never engaged in a “wholesale rejection of reason.” Four of the six links in the Social Intuitionist model are kinds of reasoning. I merely rejected the worship of reasoning common in the Kohlbergian tradition. I took seriously the research on motivated reasoning and the confirmation bias, which show that, just as David Hume said, reasoning is extremely effective as a servant, but rather ineffective as a tool for discovering the truth, at least when carried out by individuals . . .

I fully agree with Bloom that emotions cannot be the whole story of morality. That’s why I shifted from talking about emotions in the 1990s to talking about intuitions, which are clearly a form of cognition, in the 2000s. . . .

Of course, even intuitions, which are much more common and flexible than emotions, are not the whole story in [Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model]. They’re just most of the story. They’re where the action is. So if you want to produce social change, you’ve got to change intuitions. Oddly, Bloom uses narrative and story-telling as examples of the sorts of processes that are powerful in producing moral change. But these are exactly the sorts of processes that the SIM emphasizes, because stories and narrative are so effective at triggering intuitions.

Haidt also cited to some of his earlier work to illustrate that he is largely in agreement with Paul Bloom on the power of story-telling to produce social change, and has always been:

In the social intuitionist view moral judgment is not just a single act that occurs in a single person’s mind. It is an ongoing process, often spread out over time and over multiple people. Reasons and arguments can circulate and affect people, even if individuals rarely engage in private moral reasoning for themselves.

For more on the power of story-telling, see here.


Category: cognitive biases, Good and Evil, Human animals, Ingroup/Outgroup, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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