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Why The Other Side Won’t Listen to Reason

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At some point during your first year as a human being, the adults throw a real curveball at you. They expect you to start understanding what right and wrong mean.

These lessons come in the form of mysterious reactions that follow certain things you do. After you pull all the books from the bottom shelf onto the floor, quite a feat for a one year-old, they scold you for some reason. When you pee in the correct place, they praise you.

It’s completely baffling, but over time you get a sense that adults are extremely preoccupied with classifying actions into two broad categories: okay and not okay, or good and bad.

You quickly gather this is how the world works. And there is some logic behind what’s rewarded and what’s punished: “bad” actions are usually (but not always) ones that hurt, annoy or inconvenience other people, and “good” actions usually (not always) help in some way, or at least don’t hurt anyone.

This classification system is so strongly emphasized by the adults that you develop a keen sense of it yourself. You see rights and wrongs everywhere, particularly where you stand to gain or lose something personally: in the fair distribution of treats, in acknowledgement for chores done, in which cartoon characters deserve to be happy (or in a police wagon) at the end of the episode. 

Seemingly everything is morally relevant. There are right and wrong ways to speak, play, fidget, ask for things, touch people, and express your feelings. The rules are endlessly detailed and idiosyncratic. There are right and wrong places to sit or stand, things to wear, things to stare at, even expressions to have on your face. Some acts are okay in one place and very bad somewhere else. The adults insist that navigating this sprawling bureaucracy is simple: just be good.

You make use of this system. You argue your case to your parents when your sibling takes something of yours, or plays with a coveted toy too long—if you feel slighted, there must be wrongdoing, and you say so, perhaps listing reasons why you’re right. You petition teachers to take action against other kids who are being greedy, annoying, or mean, and you defend yourself when you’re the one being accused.

There’s Something Fishy About the Way We Judge

By adulthood, morality has become such an intuitive part of our thinking that we barely realize when we’re making a moral judgment.

Hundreds or thousands of times a day we assess the character of another person. We feel we know enough to commend or condemn (usually condemn) a person from the way they park, a word they chose to use in their comment, the state of their front lawn, how they stand in a queue, what they laugh at, where and when they look at their mobile phones, how long they take to get to the point of their anecdote, or any of ten thousand other morally salient micro-actions.

Our moral sense works with great speed and force. Every news article—even the headline alone—gives us a strong, immediate, and seemingly unmistakable sense of which are the good and bad parties involved. Virtually every time we feel annoyed, we reflexively assert some wrongdoing on the part of another human being, even if it’s someone we’ve never seen. If service is slow, some employee is being lazy or inconsiderate. If traffic is crawling it’s because the city always schedules construction work at such stupid times. If an item’s price is unexpectedly high, some greedy CEO is getting paid too much.

There’s something fishy about all this moralizing. We treat our moral feelings and judgments as though they’re truly all-important; seemingly, nothing deserves as much energy and attention as determining the right and wrong of everything done and said in the human world, and lamenting that world’s failure to meet our idea of what’s right. (For endless examples, just check Twitter.) Yet for all their importance, we’re extremely flippant with our moral judgments. We make them all day long, with ease and even a kind of pleasure, and very little second-guessing. Maddeningly, other people have almost perfectly opposite positions on the same moral issues—drug policy, immigration, pornography, whether mayo belongs in guacamole—and they cast their judgments with the all the same ease and certitude.

You’d think that if determining right and wrong were truly what’s important to us, we’d be far more careful about making judgments. We’d want to gather a lot of information before saying anything.

We’d seek opposing viewpoints and try to understand them. We’d offer people the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. We’d be very wary of our initial emotions around the topic, and very interested in how our personal interests might be skewing our conclusions. We’d refrain from making conclusions at all if we didn’t need to.

In other words, we’d employ the same reserved, dispassionate, self-scrutinizing ethic we use to examine questions about anything else: physics, history, biology, engineering, business, or any other arena of understanding where premature conclusions can create a big problem. We’d have a keen, ongoing interest in learning how we might be wrong.

But we’re not like this at all. We make moral conclusions freely, immediately, and without self-scrutiny, recruiting as much emotional tilt as possible. We dismiss counterpoints reflexively, as though it’s dangerous to even consider changing our minds. We only rarely admit that an issue is too opaque or complex to be sure what to think.

Why are we so smart and careful when it comes to figuring things out in most areas of inquiry, and so dumb and impulsive when it comes to moral questions, which are supposedly the most important ones to get right?

Why We’re So Stubborn

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sheds a lot of light on our confused moral psychology in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.

It’s a fascinating read, but the main punchline is that our moral sensitivity didn’t evolve in order to make us good at determining right and wrong. It evolved to help us survive and thrive in highly social environments.

Our moral feelings are quick and reactive because they developed to aid us in real-time social interactions, not in careful, solitary periods of reflection. These feelings are often conflicting and illogical because they adapted to meet a number of different social goals:

  • Our desire to protect the vulnerable, and our hatred for cruelty and carelessness, adapted to motivate us to keep children safe at all costs, and keep potentially dangerous people away
  • Our resentment for cheating and unfairness adapted to help us avoid getting exploited by the rest of our group
  • Our respect for loyalty, and our fear of betrayal, evolved to help us form coalitions, and identify disloyal people before they make trouble
  • Our attitudes towards authority, and those who subvert it, conferred an advantage at positioning ourselves within social hierarchies
  • Our moralizing around cleanliness and the sanctity of bodies, sex, and bodily functions, adapted to help us avoid infection and disease

It’s no wonder our moral intuitions are so strong, quick and often thoughtless. They are essentially survival reflexes, conditioned by our upbringing and our instincts.

Our moral reasoning—our capacity to explain why something is right or wrong—comes only after our emotional intuitions, if at all, and is tuned for persuading others of our value to the tribe, not for helping us find the most sensible moral stances.

Haidt describes our moral reasoning as working much like a press secretary or company spokesperson—its purpose is to justify positions and actions already taken, using any explanation that sounds passably good in the moment, true or not.

Note that none of the above social goals require our moral feelings to be fair or logically sound, and in fact, that can be disadvantageous—a tribe that viewed all outsiders as predators likely would have protected its children better than a tribe that was most concerned with never falsely accusing someone of being dangerous.

In other words, our moral intuitions are strongly tuned to make us groupish and tribal, not even-handed and insightful. And our moral reasoning is tuned more for soliciting approval from others than for actually discovering moral truths.

This explains why we’re so susceptible to rhetoric, prejudice, selective hearing, and fake news. It also explains why it’s strangely pleasurable to take hard moral stands, no matter how poor or nonexistent the reasoning behind them—hard stands, declared publicly, reliably generate a small flood of praise and approval from the tribe that shares those positions.

You can see what a powder keg this moral psychology is liable to create in an increasingly global, internet-connected society, composed of people from many different backgrounds, all of whom enjoy getting Retweeted, Liked, and Favorited.

It’s why, when it comes to politics, the other side simply doesn’t listen to reason. Of course, all of us are on someone’s other side.

***

Photo by mpho mojapelo

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Nitya April 23, 2018 at 2:54 am

Another great essay David. I’m interested in your **Morlising around cleanliness**. Pushed to its logical conclusions, this type of moralising and respective quest for purity is the root cause of much of the misery in the world. All things in perspective, methinks.

We now know that there’s such thing as being too clean, and we need a little dirt to kick start our immune system. So too in actual life, and if we need to soften some attitudes it’s probably along this line of reasoning.

Vilx- April 23, 2018 at 8:20 am

I wonder about this one though… from what I gather (but I’m not a historian) just a couple hundred years ago, people weren’t really that hot on cleanliness. Bathing was done, sure, but relatively rarely. Examples that come to mind include:
– In the early days of the germ theory, one of the first discoveries made was that WASHING HANDS before helping in childbirth significantly reduced infections in the process. Yet it was a good while before doctors were convinced enough to start doing it…
– A quote from Wikipedia on the History of Perfume: “During the Renaissance period, perfumes were used primarily by royalty and the wealthy to mask body odors resulting from the sanitary practices of the day.”
– Many verbal accounts from rural areas that the sauna (the primary place for bathing back in the day) was used, like once a week. Mind you, it was also a fairly big undertaking since it took a good many hours to heat up.
– Many plagues spread throughout the large Western cities precisely because of poor sanitation

So… I kinda think that this is really a more recent development which has more to do with culture than evolution. Similarly, I’m not so sure about all of the others.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:54 am

As far as I understand it, there was much less sanitation technology available to people (running water, sewer systems, etc) but simultaneously a much greater emphasis on purity/sanctity from the church. Cleanliness can mean a lot of different things than an absence of dirt grime — it can refer to virginity, pure thoughts and intentions, etc

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:23 am

One thing that got Jonathan Haidt interested in studying moral psychology was the bizarre emphasis on cleanliness in the Bible. He found much less discussion about the right and wrong of killing/stealing than about the right and wrong ways to handle corpses and natural bodily functions. Our fixation on cleanliness/purity is very interesting clue about the origins of moral psychology. How can it be “wrong” for something to be dirty? Well I suppose it really mattered in cultures vulnerable to disease who didn’t yet understand that pathogens are behind it, not vengeful gods.

Kenneth April 23, 2018 at 3:07 am

Yeah, but the other side is dead wrong!

I can’t change what Washington does, and like the other sheep, just dutifully cast my vote every 2 years. It really doesn’t matter which side of the fence you are on. The elected officials have their own agendas, and perhaps are secretly laughing at all of us as they enjoy a beer together. Something like 95 percent of incumbents are reelected every time they choose to run again, no matter what kind of horrible happenings are going on in Washington.

The best defense to not losing your mind is to avoid watching the news. There’s much more important things to do with your time, like making a living, managing your finances and health and parenting and having fun with friends. Who cares what the idiots are up to today.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:26 am

I think not losing our minds should be the number one moral consideration, because once we’re galvanized and hateful, we’re liable to cause much more harm. I don’t think it’s true that ordinary people have no influence on political goings-on, but I do think the effect of voting among other activities is greatly overemphasized (primarily by the people receiving votes by the million).

Curtis M Michaels April 23, 2018 at 4:16 am

I’m sharing this with friends, it’s a real thought tugger! Thanks David! I have posited for some time now that good and bad are nothing more than opinions, no matter how tempting it is to treat them as facts.

Now, on a serious note.

Guacamole with Mayonnaise is just fine if I’m not the one eating it.

Thanks and keep up the brilliant work sir!

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:27 am

Thanks Curtis. It’s so interesting that your live-and-let-live philosophy about guacamole is probably not the norm. There does seem to be something morally salient about the “proper” way to make a dish. Just try arguing about grilled cheese on Reddit…

Valerio April 23, 2018 at 4:49 am

Good post, well put as always.
I have a couple of friends who are very vocal about their political views and often will resort to their inner circle of friends to vent their frustrations and assert their point of view.
I have views similar to theirs yet I am very aware that politics and society issues at large are often very complicated and there is no clear cut “solution”.
After a while I just stopped answering/debating as I really hate being “used” to validate other people’s ideas.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:35 am

Once you start to see the role of social approval in these kinds of arguments, they seem all the more pointless. Nobody is learning anything or even interested, it’s just a game of emotional expression.

Accidental FIRE April 23, 2018 at 5:14 am

Great post. Tribalism has gone amok in America. It’s disgusting. Everyone, and everything, is first identified by what tribe it’s in, then and only then will most people choose to acknowledge it or not.

Interesting perspective from that book as to the roots of it. I’m not sure how it can be changed, but it must be changed indeed or we’re all doomed.

Valerio April 23, 2018 at 8:09 am

I think David Brooks at the NYT wrote a great piece about how the political debate in the US is getting more and more toxic:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/opinion/anti-trump-opposition.html

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:39 am

The US is an interesting case. Obviously humans have been operating like this for a long time, but the polarization in the US right now is unbelievable. Social media has certainly exacerbated it, because if the hyper-efficient way people can be rewarded for taking hard stands, and the way it allows us to interact without seeing each other’s faces. It’s really hard to picture how this will improve, but clearly there is a lot of attention suddenly on both the negative effects of social media and the unprecedented polarization that’s happening — I hope it means this sort of moral psychology will become more widely discussed. I have found Haidt’s book extremely helpful in navigating the news and political discussions.

Christopher Eaker April 23, 2018 at 7:17 am

Whoever makes guacamole with mayonnaise is an obvious moral failure. :)

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:39 am

Agreed

Judi Walthour April 23, 2018 at 8:18 am

Thanks David for another helpful article! I’m looking forward to reading the book you referenced. I always appreciate your words of wisdom and insight.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:40 am

It’s a wonderful read. He has a TED talk or two that summarizes some of its points.

Vilx- April 23, 2018 at 8:29 am

And yet I wonder… humans do indeed seem to be very tribal creatures, for one reason or another. Tribes are formed around many concepts – some biological (like skin color or gender/sex), others around concepts (politics, guacamole, etc). The modern tendency seems to be to try and resist this; to break down the tribes and tribalism in oneself; to all belong to the one giant “humanity” tribe. But can it be done? Should it be done? Feels awfully lot like going uphill against the current.

Could it be not possible to do it in a different way? Embrace tribalism, but make it work. Yes, everyone is a part of some tribe(s), but that doesn’t mean that the other tribes are wrong and need to be fought. Just like there are many families living in the world, and each little family is like a small tribe too, but they don’t fight against all the others – they coexist peacefully. Well, mostly. Why can’t this be done on a larger scale as well?

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:43 am

I think it is going up against the current, but so is much of what makes society good. It is quite an achievement that we have laws respecting personal freedom of expression, etc, and all of that is uphill.

I think you are right that we need to at least accommodate the reality of tribalism in our psychology, and we might eventually find systems that do that better than the large-scale liberal democracies we currently have (which, in spite of everything, still seem to be the best model for the most people that we’ve tried).

K Macgregor April 23, 2018 at 8:57 am

Good article. In reading about this stuff before I found most interesting the different moral frameworks of people on the right/left side of the spectrum. People on the right side are concerned with all of the moral categories but particularly, loyalty, respect for authority and purity/sanctity are especially important. For people on the left side, those three are not even recognized as moral issues. For them, morality is about fairness and about harming/caring for others. Cleanliness or respect for authority are separate, non-moral issues. This opened my eyes to understanding why people on the other side of the spectrum believe certain things that I just can’t fathom – and how my arguments to them would never have made sense. For example, people on the left will try to convince people on the right that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality by pointing out that it harms no one, and if you are straight, you need never think about it again. But for people on the right, they are completely missing half the picture, which is that they see it as gross, and if something is gross, that makes it morally wrong. Instead, maybe they need to make a counterargument focused on purity/sanctity – for example, perhaps you could make a ‘purity’ argument around purity of intentions, being true to yourself, being sincere and not concealing or sullying your natural state of being.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:47 am

That aspect of the book was a big eye-opener for me too, and Haidt himself said he went from left-leaner to centrist after conducting this research. He said conservatives take all five of those moral foundations into account, while liberals tend to ignore the last three because they conflict too directly with personal liberty.

I have become much more open to hearing conservative points of view since reading that book, and I think that’s a good thing. However, I’m not convinced that five moral foundations is better than two — if anything it seems to lead to more confused and illogical views. But like you say, just understanding that many people take purity/sanctity and loyalty/authority very seriously can help us communicate across political lines.

K MacGregor April 23, 2018 at 2:46 pm

Yes, while I don’t think those 3 moral pillars are particularly helpful in achieving better outcomes in today’s society, and my own leanings didn’t change with that knowledge, it helps me to understand that they’re not just being stubbornly irrational and refusing to see facts – they have additional considerations in their equations that just don’t enter into mine.

Autumn April 23, 2018 at 9:14 am

Hi David. Great article. It reminds me of a book I read years back called ‘Mistakes Were Made – But not by Me’, by Carol Tavris. The book goes in to detail about how connected our beliefs and opinions are to our sense of self and how threatened we can feel, once those beliefs are endangered, and how far some people will go in order to ‘remain right’. Great eye-opening read.
Thanks for an, as always, insightful article.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:48 am

Ah that’s the second time this week I heard that title. I will check it out, thank you.

Drew April 23, 2018 at 9:43 am

“We only rarely admit that an issue is too opaque or complex to be sure what to think.”

Yes! So we take our morals and values from other people and groups. So dangerous.

“our moral intuitions are strongly tuned to make us groupish and tribal, not even-handed and insightful.”

Agreed, and that is why people are so strongly aligned with identity politics. Take them out of their group and not only are they exposed and vulnerable, they don’t know what to think anymore! A scary place to be in life.

David Cain April 23, 2018 at 9:51 am

I’m hopeful that the recent explosion of identity politics on the left, and the consternation it is causing, will help us see the bigger picture here–that groupishness/tribalism at a certain point is no longer at all about the issue, but about the sense of belonging and safety it gives us to have a strong belief.

Abhijeet Kumar April 23, 2018 at 12:37 pm

Beautifully written. More than having an opinion on this, just reading it is insightful.

David Cain April 25, 2018 at 9:37 am

You would probably enjoy Haidt’s work!

Annie April 23, 2018 at 1:29 pm

My husband and I were discussing this a few days ago and especially how so few people are really willing to stop and simply consider another person’s point of view and their reasoning for it. They waste a lot of time shouting each other down instead of listening. I’m sure you are familiar with the saying that god gave us two ears but only one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we speak. I have been trying to be a better listener and it has opened my eyes to how impatient, judgmental and self-righteous I can be sometimes.

But I do have to say, mayo in guacamole?…no, just NO! ;)

David Cain April 25, 2018 at 9:38 am

Bahaha I knew the guacamole comment would raise hackles

Ameen April 24, 2018 at 9:48 am

I appreciate and agree with the idea and your message of not being quick to judge others and placing them in the cartoon world of black and white. But there is another extreme side of the coin that is even a bigger issue, which is that a lot of people are overly passive. This is especially dangerous with interpersonal interactions where if you don’t have a strong self of identity and don’t trust your own ability to swiftly make judgments on people and situations, you’re setting yourself up to get violated in some way.

A common example of where being too passive is a huge problem is how people respond to what they perceive as authority figures or someone they think is more competent than they are to act and make decisions.

There is a movie on Netflix by Derren Brown called The Push, where it explores the degree to which so many people in society can be easily persuaded to comply to do pretty much anything because of their inability to take a firm stance on what they know is right or wrong in instances where it’s very clear what right or wrong is.

I think the best way going forward is not to jump to conclusions when faced with or observing events or people, but it’s also important to simultaneously trust your own judgment enough to identify red flags from people and situations when you see them and address them and respond accordingly or at least inquire further.

David Cain April 25, 2018 at 9:43 am

I agree that the passivity impulse is also a problem, another relic of our survival instincts. I don’t think the two problems are opposites exactly. Morality is certainly important, and we can refrain from living purely from our moral reflexes without becoming morally passive or uninvolved. It just means that being fair with our moral judgments takes a lot more work than we’re accustomed to.

Little Miss Fire April 26, 2018 at 9:13 am

WOW such a wonderful article! It really is a thought provoker. Sometimes I worry we have all gone so far there is no way to turn back.

KG April 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm

Great discussion!! What we believe to be true is what we experience.

meenakshi jha April 28, 2018 at 9:20 pm

its a great article

Lisa May 5, 2018 at 3:44 pm

The most important passage to me was “Our moral reasoning—our capacity to explain why something is right or wrong—comes only after our emotional intuitions, if at all, and is tuned for persuading others of our value to the tribe, not for helping us find the most sensible moral stances.” It’s the lens through which we should try to view another’s actions and take on the world. Often it is simply that fear of being exposed as less valuable to the tribe that drives people to act and speak in seemingly irresponsible or unbelievable ways.

Md Nayeem May 8, 2018 at 4:36 am

Wise persons always judge others with a cool observation by standing opposite place in a while to give better feedback. All human are stubborn in less or more, some can make moral reasoning right or wrong to self or others. We just need to judge others by thinking others position.

C-Marie May 15, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Amazing!!! That we are created by God in His image and likeness, with a conscience that nudges us towards His ways on a consistent basis, that God is to be our moral compass in all ways as Jesus Christ taught, that all of that is not in this article as far as I can tell. God bless, C-Marie

AnnaH May 19, 2018 at 10:43 am

This may be of interest in this discussion:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error

It has given me some food for thought.

Shane McLean May 19, 2018 at 1:34 pm

Another great post David. Whatever side of a moral issue everyone falls on, I think a lot of humans have lost the ability to listen to the other side and debate without name calling. One side is right the other side is wrong at that;s that. I feel mainstream broadcast media only fans these flames to the determent of all of us.

Keep up the great work.

Lewis May 20, 2018 at 7:04 am

I enjoyed your article David. Thanks for sharing!

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