The Political Animal

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.


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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a Single Conversation


The following is a partial transcript of a “discussion” on Democracy Now between Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin and Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada. In this brief exchange we see all of the essential characteristics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tobin makes the point that regardless of any opinion regarding the settlements, peace can be had. Legal settlements can be sacrificed for peace just as illegal might be. Abunimah fails here, as everywhere else, to be an honest interlocutor. Rather than respond to that idea, he dismisses it as a “talking point.” And even if it were? What about the idea behind it? However, Abunimah is not a man of ideas, but of postcolonial jargon. His rhetoric in a single brief conversation represents in nature the actions of the Palestinian and greater Arab world going back to 1947: refusal to engage and accept, a rejection of reasoned discourse just like rejection of a Jewish state. He slings historically and conceptually false lablels like slurs and stones: “settler colonialism,” “apartheid,” “indigenous Palestinian people.” In his final dishonesty, he snows the sympathetic mind with reference to “Jim Crow tyranny,” as if two peoples in conflict over land and competing nationhoods are the equivalent of discrimination within a single nation.

But, ah! That’s the point. Abunimah’s unspecified solution in equality to his manufactured inequality is an unarticulated but implicit single nation – which isn’t Israel. Tobin, less driven and riven by hate and mental hackery, is too smart for him, and does not leave the inference unexpressed. Then Abunimah is reduced to scurrying into all the corners of his dishonesty to deny the implications of language.

Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Read.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to a statement made by Israeli President Shimon Peres. He spoke out Tuesday against settlements in the West Bank. He said, quote, “Israeli settlement in territories densely populated by an Arab population could bring about a threatening demographic change; that is, it could endanger the Jewish majority in Israel. It is doubtful that a Jewish State without a Jewish majority can remain Jewish.” Jonathan Tobin, can you comment on what Israeli President Shimon Peres said?

JONATHAN TOBIN: That’s a position that many Israelis hold. But it shouldn’t be conflated with the question of their legality. The problem here is that people like the people from The Electronic Intifada don’t really recognize legitimacy of Jewish life anywhere in the country, including inside the Green Line, including the settlement Tel Aviv. The problem here is that it’s not a question of whether they’re legal or not, because if the Palestinians wish to make peace, if they wish to compromise, if they wish to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, they can do so, and Israel has approved it will withdraw from territory, if offered peace. The problem is, the Palestinians won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, the legitimacy of Jewish life anywhere in that country. That’s why this is—the talk of war crimes, the talk of it’s criminal—Jews are not foreigners in the land of Israel.

The problem is, the Palestinians don’t wish to share. What we have here is a question of disputed territory. Both sides have rights. All the rights are not on the sides of the Palestinians. Jews have rights, too. If the Palestinians wish to have peace, if they wish to have the Palestinian—independent Palestinian state that they were offered three times and rejected three times in the last 12 years, they have to start dealing with the reality that the Jews aren’t going away. And if they do, they’ll find that Israel is willing to withdraw from most of the settlements, whether they—whether they consider them legal or not. Let’s not conflate these two issues. Peace is possible if the Palestinians are willing to make peace. It’s not possible if they focus on fantasies about throwing the Jews out. Even the Obama administration, which has been the most sympathetic to the Palestinian of any in recent—in any recent light, understood that many of the settlements are going to stay. That’s what the talk about territorial swaps was about last year. So, to focus on the illegality of things, of places that everyone knows are going to stay Israeli, and where Jews have the right to live, is just a fantasy that breeds more terrorism and more rejection of peace, which is what we get from The Electronic Intifada.


AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah.

ALI ABUNIMAH: I mean, yeah, I see that Mr. Tobin studied the talking points very well this morning. Of course, let’s bring things back to basics. This isn’t a question of Jews. Jews have lived in Palestine since before the Zionist settler colony was imposed on Palestine. It’s not a question of Jews living there. It’s a question of settler colonialism, of apartheid, of the assertion that Jews have a right to superior rights than the indigenous Palestinian people and have a right to just bulldoze— literally bulldoze—their way onto Palestinian land and steal it for their own benefit. Frankly, I mean, I’m not surprised Mr. Tobin doesn’t care a jot about international law—

JONATHAN TOBIN: Jews are the indigenous people there, too. Jews are not foreigners.

ALI ABUNIMAH: —but you would think—you would think that Commentary, a conservative publication, would care at least about private property rights and the fact that vast tracts of these Jewish-only settler colonies are built on private Palestinian land, stolen by force by Israel’s Jewish sectarian militia known as theIDF.

Now, back to Shimon Peres’s statement, which was your original question, of course, his statement calling Palestinian babies a so-called demographic threat really reveals the Jim Crow-like racism at the core of this Zionist ideology that views the mere existence of Palestinian babies in their own native land as a threat to Israel. How can Palestinians ever possibly recognize or give legitimacy to an entity which views their mere reproduction as human beings as a mortal threat? It’s time for Mr. Tobin and all the fans of this apartheid, racist, Jim Crow tyranny to make good on their claimed liberal and progressive values and oppose Israeli apartheid and accept the inevitable, which is, just like in the Jim Crow South, just like in apartheid South Africa, one day there is going to be equal rights for everyone between the river and the sea, and all of this nonsense that Mr. Tobin is trying to sell us will be absolutely forgotten.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to the U.S. response to the commission’s report. The Obama administration criticized the findings of the report. Speaking Monday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, quote, “The U.S. position on settlements is clear. Obviously, we’ve seen the reports that an Israeli Government appointed panel has recommended legalizing dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts.” Jonathan Tobin, can you respond to that?

JONATHAN TOBIN: Well, of course the administration isn’t going to—hasn’t recognized that position. It opposes it. But it also tacitly agrees to the fact that the Jews aren’t going away. I mean, what we heard from my colleague on the show was the Palestinian fantasy that some day Israel is going to be destroyed. All the calumnies, all the slanders about apartheid—

ALI ABUNIMAH: I never said that. I didn’t use those words.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Yes, yes. That’s what—

ALI ABUNIMAH: I said that the system of racism and apartheid is going to be ended.

JONATHAN TOBIN: That is exactly what you are talking about.

ALI ABUNIMAH: And that will happen.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is not an apartheid state. It is the only—

ALI ABUNIMAH: But don’t substitute your words with mine.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is a state where Arabs have equal rights, serve in the parliament. And that—that is exactly what they are talking about. They’re talking about the destruction of Israel, and which is why this whole discussion—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Your words, sir. And it’s your fantasy.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is your meaning. Don’t try to—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Your fantasy is the destruction of Israel.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Don’t try to—don’t try to lie your way out of it.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Was Jim Crow the destruction of Alabama and Mississippi?

JONATHAN TOBIN: You are fantasizing about the end of the Jewish state.

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