My friend Brian recently turned me on to Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. The book seeks to figure out why we often can’t seem to agree with others on certain issues that seem obvious to us. Haidt presents a brilliant metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe why this happens. He says that the rider is our reason and the elephant is our intuition. The elephant takes us somewhere first and then we explain to ourselves why that way makes the most sense. In real terms, our intuition precedes our reasoning. That’s why simply arguing the reason why you believe something to a person who uses a different set of reasoning will be futile unless we take the elephant (intuition) into consideration.
While this may sound a bit confusing at first, Haidt does a tremendous job explaining this concept and breaking it down bit by bit. It served as a great personal test for me to consider the things I believe and then to ask myself the hard questions of why I believe it. Is it because of my reasoning alone, or has my intuition largely shaped it? This is a fascinating line of thinking to anyone brave enough to truly self-examine themselves in this way.
Here are some quotes from it that elaborate on this idea:
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, youâ€™ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendasâ€”to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong toâ€”then things will make a lot more sense.
Keep your eye on the intuitions, and donâ€™t take peopleâ€™s moral arguments at face value. Theyâ€™re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other peopleâ€™s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponentâ€™s charges.
You can see Jonathan Haidt’s full website for the book by clicking here.