Talking to the elephant

If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”― J. Haidt

If you haven’t read Jonathan Haidt’s work, I highly recommend you do. Haidt is a social psychologist who specializes in moral psychology. His latest book, The Righteous Mind, is a fascinating book on why it’s so difficult for people to talk about religion and politics. You’ve probably heard the saying: “You can talk about anything with people but religion and politics.” Why is that? The short answer is that religious and political beliefs have strong, non-rational, emotional elements that make critical discussions very difficult if not, depending on the person, impossible. We may want to have that honest, open philosophical discussion about politics or religion (or maybe even football!) but we tend to find that most people can’t without getting too angry or personal. Well, Dr. Haidt provides a way of seeing, and hence understanding, this problem.

Haidt invents a very useful metaphor for understanding how the rational and intuitive (emotional, non-rational) parts of our mind interact when our moral passions are engaged by questions of politics or religion. Haidt asks us to see our mind as divided into two parts: an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the emotional or intuitive part of our mind. The rider is the rational part of our mind. The elephant is much bigger and stronger and is ultimately in charge. The rider, who represents the slower, more reasoning part of the human psyche, can try to influence, goad, or reason with the elephant but the rider can’t make the elephant ultimately do what it doesn’t want to. More often than not the rider merely plays the part of a lawyer defending his client’s (the elephant) actions or decisions post-mortem. So when it comes to religion and politics our inner elephant is already leaning (or stampeding) in the preferred direction from the start. The rider does what he can, but for the most part he’s along for the ride.

So our moral judgments are mostly the product of emotional preference. Rational considerations play a very small part in moral judgments. Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology is: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” If we want to change people’s minds we have to begin by understanding that few people can be “reasoned” out of their moral beliefs. Reasoning is attempting to convince the rider. To change minds you have to talk to the elephant. And that’s not easy. People, as the old saying goes, believe what they want to in spite of mountains of evidence to the absolute contrary. There is an emotional attachment (and pay off) to moral beliefs and the sense of belonging people get from standing with like minded people (“your team”). There actually are some social benefits to this mindset. But this “tribal” mindset has also led to some of the worst atrocities in history.

So if the emotions play such a powerful role in the quality of our society and individual lives, what might we do to improve our moral emotional intelligence – if that’s possible at all. Basically, how do we train the elephant? Let me suggest one way. What this means, in my mind, is that an education in the Arts & Humanities is far more important than we ever thought. The Arts and Humanities, more than any other study, helps educate the emotions – the fuel of our moral sentiments. Besides teaching you how to think, more importantly, the Arts and Humanities teach us how to feel. The philosopher Roger Scruton makes a compelling argument along these lines in his book Culture Counts. Scruton is, of course, referring to the larger, more encompassing idea of (Western) Culture. But much of what he means by culture falls within the Arts & Humanities.

At first I actually came away from reading Haidt’s work with the impression that we’re all doomed. I mean if emotionality settles everything then what hope can we have in reason and progress. In fact, Haidt even says at one point that faith in reason is an illusion. But of course this is coming from a social scientist who’s just presented a well crafted scientifically “reasoned” argument. Should our faith in his conclusions also be considered illusory?

Let me conclude this ramble with some parting thoughts. Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor are an excellent way to understand how individuals reach moral decisions. We are emotionally driven creatures who feel first and reason second. As Shakespeare’s Gloucester says in King Lear, “I see it feelingly.” I think this idea is a sound observation that most of us understand intuitively. Emotions are king. But Haidt doesn’t attempt to say how we channel these emotional forces like, say, the ancient Greeks did in through their art, philosophy and history. Haidt provides an excellent image for understanding our dilemma, but he really doesn’t offer any ideas for how we might mitigate the problem. Or at least none that satisfies me. My thoughts are that we can, in the modern world, channel or inform our emotions through education, specifically in the Arts & Humanities. I’m not saying an education in the Arts and Humanities will be a sure bet for taming the inner elephant, but certainly it may help calm it. And it might even help soothe the elephant into listening to the rider.

3 thoughts on “Talking to the elephant

  1. I most especially appreciate your suggestion that “an education in the Arts & Humanities is far more important than we ever thought. The Arts and Humanities, more than any other study, helps educate the emotions – the fuel of our moral sentiments. Besides teaching you how to think, more importantly, the Arts and Humanities teach us how to feel.” Tragically, it seems the Arts and Humanities are being axed across the educational spectrum in favor of the more “practical” studies of science, mathematics, technology and whatnot… How will this deprivation affect us in the long-term?

    • Noblethemes – I’ve been reading about the struggles of university liberal arts programs lately. In fact, it was partially the impetus for writing this post. Liberal arts and humanities degrees aren’t going away but there is a marked decline because of the current economic environment. I’m not surprised. It’s too be expected. I expect larger state universities to scale back their LA programs in favor of more practical degrees. Universities are about education but there also about staying in business. Small liberal arts colleges and elites universities will serve as the bastions of liberal arts and humanities programs I suspect over time.

      As for the long term effects. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t humanities or arts majors who sank the world economy in 2008. No fine arts major cost anybody their job. No historian leveraged the banks 50 to 1. No, the crash of 2008 was the work of “practical” men and their practical educations. You can fill in the rest…

      Thanks for commenting.

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