Friday, October 05, 2012

Can Reason Never Rule When it Comes to Morality?

The River Raisin in our backyard

Last year I read Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. Many thought it to be 2011's book of the year. For Kahneman "fast thinking" is something we do all the time. It can't be turned off. Fast thinking generates first impressions, intuitions, intentions and feelings. Kahneman calls this "System 1." "Slow thinking," on the other hand, is something that can be turned on and off. This is reflective thinking, deliberate reasoning. Kahneman calls this "System 2." System 2 can check system 1 for errors.  However, activating system 2 requires a substantial amount of mental effort. For Kahneman "reason" (System 2) can and does rule, but not for the most part and with considerable effort.

Jonathan Haidt, in his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, also claims that persons are mostly about System 1 and rarely about System 2. His language is different, but the outcome is in the same ballpark as Kahneman. Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting writes:

Haidt's view is that  "“we should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.” Nevertheless, he adds, “if you put individuals together in the right way … you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent product of the social system.” Haidt’s view here is plausible, especially since, if reason could never rule, we couldn’t trust even Haidt’s own impressive line of rational argument from scientific evidence." (Gutting, "Haidt's Problem with Plato")

Haidt rightly sees, says Gutting, that snap-judgment decisions rule most of every person's moral decision-making. Ethics is more based on intuition rather than moral reasoning. Here Gutting critiques Haidt's analysis of Plato.

Gutting: "Plato’s intuitions are not like the snap judgments of everyday life, driven by genes and social conditioning. But nor are they the insights of individuals meditating in isolation. Plato’s intuitions derive from a long and complex process of physical, emotional and intellectual formation in a supportive social system. (This is what Plato means by the “education” of his philosopher-rulers.) These intuitions are what — given sufficient experience, maturity and, especially, responsible intellectual engagement with others — we hope will replace the snap-judgment intuitions Haidt rightly sees as underlying so much of our moral life."

Haidt's and Kahneman's work is important in understanding how "decision-making" actually works. For them it's mostly non-rational and non-logical in the sense of not forming premises that infer conclusions. Yet rationality (reflexive moral consciousness) is needed to argue for the truth of moral propositions.