Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Benefits Of Consideration

A lot of stuff has been swirling round my head lately regarding morality and empathy; the usual things that start wandering through my brain-pan late at night. I wasn't really sure how to start off, though, until I came across this from David Brooks:
Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don't have to decide if it's disgusting. You just know. You don't have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, "The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest." (...)

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.
Hilzoy, who is an expert in the field, rather than just a curious bystander like me, deconstructs this pretty quickly, basically by pointing out that claiming the ability to make emotional moral decisions "challenges the bookish way" is exactly the same argument as claiming Venus Williams "challenges" the laws of motion; just because someone can (or in Brooks case, thinks they can) understand instinctively doesn't mean it is useless to attempt to codify it.

My problem with this is somewhat different (which is not to say Hilzoy's point isn't extremely well-taken). Actually, I have two problems. One of them links to what's been rattling around my brain, which probably deserves a post to itself. My first issue, though, is this: trying to argue that atheists who are overly reliant on their own reasoning are challenged by the idea that one can reason emotionally is about the most stupid thing I've read all year. It is certainly true that plenty of atheists assume that their own ability to reason is sufficient to "go it alone" in the world, and more on that in the follow-up post, but a person who utilises "emotional" responses (by which Brooks appears to mean "unthinking" responses) is doing exactly the the same thing minus contemplation. It's no less based on an individual's faith in themselves, it's simply that Brooks apparently believes self-belief is more warranted if it is based on one's gut, rather than one's head.

The whole point of reasoning one's response to a situation or problem is that it's supposed to make it less likely that you're just following biological programming or tawdry self-interest. It doesn't always work out that way, obviously, but deliberately removing the process entirely just guarantees there's going to be a fuck up. We are by nature selfish creatures, a fact which you don't need to be an atheist to recognise. To Brooks, though, thinking is the problem. Reason leads to arrogance, whereas apparently doing the first thing that occurs to you is a much more sensible plan.

Apparently, there are still parts of the American Right that can't get past the "truthiness" bullshit (copyright Stephen Colbert) that's been plaguing them, and us, for such a horribly long time.

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