Reason and Rationalization


Happy day when theory can be considered in the light of immediate actual events. Let’s consider, shall we? First the theory.

At The New York Times’ The Stone, philosophers Gary Gutting and Michael P. Lynch responded separately to psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, in which Haidt argues for the primacy of intuition over reason in the formation, particularly, of our moral judgments. Gutting and Lynch argue that Haidt slights reason. Haidt responded that “Reasons Matter (When Intuitions Don’t Object).” All really agree on the general contours of the intuition-reason landscape, so the debate is mostly over emphasis, of where and to what extent reason might play a genuine role in persuasion – influencing people to change their minds.

My difficulty with Haidt’s argument (in the essay – I haven’t read the book) is fundamental – what I find a confused use of the key term, intuition. Haidt urges that

we be realistic about reasoning and recognize that reasons persuade others on moral and political issues only under very special circumstances.

He further argues that

two basic kinds of cognitive events are “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why.” … We effortlessly and intuitively “see that” something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or “reasons why,” which we can give to others.  Both processes are crucial for understanding belief and persuasion.

There are already a couple of confusions developing here. One is in the very concern with the subject of truth. Philosophy has been ever focused on the actuality of it, that is, with truth itself. Haidt, as a psychologist, is concerned instead with what people consider to be true, their convictions of truth, i.e. their beliefs. Merriam-Webster begins by telling us that intuition is “quick and ready insight; immediate apprehension or cognition.” It goes on to fudge the distinction between knowledge and belief, as the use of the word “intuition” will, but in philosophy intuition commonly refers to a priori knowledge. Psychology, by its different nature, is interested not in truth or knowledge, but in the (in this case, intuitive) processes by which people arrive at what they take to be truth or knowledge.

If we understand intuition as insight, we presume that there is something being seen and that it is not an illusion, so there is the suggestion, by common usage, of actual knowledge. If we understand intuition as merely a quick, immediate un-reasoned sense of conviction, this is a very different animal, with no necessary suggestion of sight or knowledge at all, just automatic belief. Writes Haidt,

Intuition is what most matters for belief. Yet a moral argument generally consists of round after round of reasoning.… Therefore, if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment.


This, I suggest, is how moral arguments proceed when people have strong intuitions anchoring their beliefs. And intuitions are rarely stronger than when they are part of our partisan identities. So I’m not saying that reasons “play no role in moral judgment.” …Most of what’s going on during an argument is reasoning. Rather, I’m saying that reason is far less powerful than intuition, so if you’re arguing (or deliberating) with a partner who lives on the other side of the political spectrum from you, and you approach issues such as abortion, gay marriage or income inequality with powerfully different intuitive reactions, you are unlikely to effect any persuasion no matter how good your arguments and no matter how much time you give your opponent to reflect upon your logic.

In some instances, we might call all this “intuition” because the defender of a challenged position may find himself falling back inarticulately on a deeply held conviction, though without the reasoned argument to defend it. Speaking philosophically, this is not intuition. It is an emotive claim based on learned, but not reasoned conviction. Speaking philosophically, we are precisely nowhere if we do not distinguish between “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “homosexuality is an abomination before God.”

Arguments based on emotional conviction, learned belief, or reliance upon divine origin are not intuitions; they are rationalizations. Rationalizations are, properly speaking, exactly what Haidt says people do when challenged to defend beliefs they hold according to what he calls intuition. “Therefore,” I have already quoted Haidt as stating, “if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment.” True. You are likely to start rationalizing. Reason, ideally, construes a conclusion forward from its premises. Rationalization constructs the premises backwards from the conclusion. And Haidt is right – it’s damned common, and in values arguments, difficult to overcome not just because people cling to their automatic and learned beliefs, but because a conviction about abortion does not reside in the individual in isolation, but is part of an entire complex of moral values, a world view. Altering a moral value means tilting that world view off its axis – a job, nearly, for Superman. But is it quite as unlikely as Haidt argues?

Says Haidt,

Reasons matter, reasons produce movement on the epistemological map, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.


This is why there has been such rapid movement on gay marriage and gay rights. It’s not because good arguments have suddenly appeared, which nobody thought of in the 1990s. The polling data show a clear demographic transition. Older people, who grew up in an environment where homosexuality was hidden and shameful, often still feel a visceral disgust at the thought of it. But younger people, who grew up knowing gay people and seeing gay couples on television, have no such disgust. For them, the arguments are much more persuasive.

Among the great difficulties in reasoning and philosophizing is that we do them with language, and carrying ideas in words is a little like transporting liquid in a sieve. It leaks. Above, in “when countervailing intuitions have been turned off,” what exactly does “turned off” mean? How precisely did the intuitions get turned off? What turned them off? Haidt contrasts older people with more traditional views about homosexuality with younger people with more tolerant, accepting, even embracing attitudes. Were these younger people born with them? How exactly did they acquire those socially altered views? Haidt says the young people grew up “seeing gay couples on television.” Well, how did they get there? Was it some of those at least slightly older people who put them there because their views, rather than abruptly changed, were changing? What was the process of their changing? What, gradually, for over forty years now, has been turning off what Haidt calls intuition and I call automatic thinking? I claim it is various forms of reason.

But enough of theory. Now, quickly to the actual. Last week, Greta Berlin a cofounder of the Free Gaza Movement was found to have posted to Twitter and Facebook a couple of truly vile anti-Semitic videos. There are many accounts of the ongoing story, but no better place to go to learn all about it than Avi Mayer, who broke the story. This manifest evidence of what always should have been recognized as the anti-Semitism of Berlin and her movement is not my focus here. What interest me in the context of this discussion are two responses to it.

One surprising response – surprising, I think to most if not all – was that of Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian and cofounder of The Electronic Intifada, who might have been expected to join in the ideological solidarity that led many to accept Berlin’s obvious lies about how the two videos came to be posted. Neither Abunimah nor Electronic Intifada has changed in their ideological orientation toward Israel, the tortuous nature of which I examined here. Still, there was this break with what is for many an easy, internal ideological coherence.

In contrast, consider Naomi Klein. Klein, who is Jewish, was one of a number of well-known people listed as serving on the advisory board of Free Gaza. Quickly after the controversy came to light, some people – including your humble scribe, no doubt decisively – began challenging Klein and these others about their connection to such an organization and person. Klein, who is not much of a tweeter, in one of her only two tweets on October 3, retweeted Hawaida Arraf in accepting Berlin’s explanation and apology. Two days later, the controversy growing and Berlin’s account of events ever less defensible, Klein did resign as an advisory board member of Free Gaza. In her tweet announcing the resignation, Klein did two notable things – again, in the context of this discussion – which is not bad for 140 characters. In the end, she states that the leadership of Free Gaza has changed since she signed up. This is a clear misstatement of fact, since the controversy surrounds a person who is – one thinks Klein would have to know – a cofounder of the organization. Just before that misstatement, Klein obviously felt compelled to affirm that she still supports the mission of Free Gaza. What we get, then, from Klein, is a resignation without any condemnation or even characterization of the events leading to it, a misstatement of the conditions leading to the resignation, and a defensive assertion that despite the resignation her beliefs are unaltered.

I am prepared to reason against Klein’s beliefs, and I do not think that a set of poorly defended beliefs that shrink before the reasons against them are properly described, merely because they are inarticulate and stubbornly unalterable, as intuition. Intuition deserves better.


Enhanced by Zemanta

5 thoughts on “Reason and Rationalization

  1. I did some (limited, but sufficient) digging on Mr Abunimah (see appendix):
    He is a more dangerous character than Ms Berlin, who is a bit senile, making her unmasking easier, I think.

    As for reasoning against Ms Klein’s beliefs: I guess you shouldn’t spend your time on that. With all the publicity, she is still a lightweight jet set glitterati, shallow as most of that crowd.

    1. Good link, with lots of other good links. I take your point: Abunimah is more influential, not to mention much younger, with years of influence ahead of him. I don’t think he is hard to unmask. He does it himself. It does require, it seems, a great deal of pointing, though, and shouting, “Look at the mask!”

  2. I guess you know that Ali Abunimah also distanced himself from Gilad Atzmon. IMO, there are several reasons for his conduct, including 2 major ones: 1) I have no doubt that he views himself as genuinely free of bigotry 2) since his overall goal is one state – i.e. doing away with the Jewish state – and since he has no good explanation (i.e. reason/ing) why the world’s one and only Jewish state is so objectionable and “racist” and wot not (as his “intuition” tells him), he wants to pre-empt accusations of antisemitism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *