Reason: an afterthought


From an article I read the other day:

"I generally try not to get involved on slacktivist, because a lot of people who discuss there tend to disagree with me pretty rigorously. Some of them are pretty incisive when it comes to ripping apart bad logic, and it takes me a while to figure out why I still disagree with them (if, in fact, I do). Maybe I just think slower, but I need to really weigh things out carefully before I jump in, or I end up overextending myself into an untenable position."

"This lack of communication is often exacerbated by the psychos, and the people who foolishly endorse them. The media knows a good story has controversy and an ability to produce knee-jerk, gut reactions, so they ramp up the broo-haw-haw and watch as escalating tensions diminish the chance of communication and meaningful dialog."

This is a quite common experience for me and the author summarizes my own thoughts quite well. I tend to have all of these instinctive responses and only later, through careful thought, am I able to formulate some very clear justifications for my beliefs. Unfortunately  I think that's a sign we are going about everything backwards. It's also a sign I am dogmatically clinging to ideas and not really keeping an open mind. This probably has a lot to do with how combative we are with each other. These things tend to be battles. Not even-handed, thoughtful, caring, reflective conversations in pursuit of a better world. When I reflect on my own experiences, it is usually when I discuss things calmly and rationally with a close friend that I am able to change my mind. I need the gentle prodding of someone I trust to help me reframe my views.

I am still slowly wading through the Righteous Mind by Haidt and have really been thinking reflecting and focusing on the analogy the author presents of an elephant (our unconcious mind) and the rider (reason).   The author called his book a decoder ring for understanding the other side. He lays out quite a few psychological studies that suggest that we are led by our impressions/instinct/emotion/intuition much more than reason/logic.

I think watching the recent gun debate unfold has brought this into focus for me. No one (well few people) is looking at public health data. No is looking at where we might actually reduce gun violence the most. It's a debate over how we feel about guns. To some, guns are bad things: they represent violence, murder, accidental injuries and are associated with crime. To others they represent security from wild animals or protection when police might be half an hour away. We all have post-hoc reasons why they are bad, but this isn't what drives our decisions. The fact that super-rare mass shootings are driving people to call for reform is further evidence of this. As heinous are the acts are they aren't a real threat to public safety. Cigarettes kill as many people in a day or two as have died from mass shootings in the last thirty years. This is about what makes people fearful - what sends shivers down their spine - what generates righteous indignation and higher blood pressure.

The author also suggests that our values can be generally divided into six buckets: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Liberals tend to value care and fairness above all else. Conservatives tend to value all five evenly. Through this lens it is easy to see how the gun debate is really just a debate over care vs. liberty.

When we weigh these moral values so differently it is easy to see how we will have no trouble disagreeing. To some, the right to carry a gun will never outweigh a few stories about domestic violence victims. To others, the thought of an innocent woman being sexually assaulted in some dark alley because she was completely defenselessly brings the same moral outrage. It's not that the other side is immoral, we just have different moral systems.

It doesn't make the solution any easier, but it does help us to see why we disagree. Hopefully it might help us stop demonizing each other.