Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jonathan Haidt

Continues to frustrate me. My repeated claims to be a fan are probably starting to look a bit hollow, but, I am a fan! Really!

I chose not to mention something from the book that was actually relevant to the discussion Trevor and I recently had. Haidt told this story about reading Peter Singer's book, "Practical Ethics"; he was intellectually convinced that he should stop eating meat produced in factory farms, but instead of changing his behaviour he just felt a little guilty each time he bought meat. After a time he saw some video from a factory farm and was so disgusted that he actually did stop eating meat, at least until the emotional impact of the film wore off a few weeks later after which time he continued eating meat. His point was that emotion plays a huge role in morality. This is an important point, but his conclusion seems to be that this somehow justified his reaction (stop for a while then carry on). I always thought morality was about constraining our behaviour, not rationalising what we do anyway.

I bring this up now because I'm just reading an essay of his on the topic where he butchers a famous (in philosophy terms) quote of David Hume's

This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason, "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them."

One way to interpret this is that we rationalize the things we do after the fact. But another is that we should apply reason to stuff we care about. These are not the same thing!

Two scientists apply the dictum to their work.

Scientist A feels passionately that homeopathy is better medicine than drugs that go through double blind testing etc. So he spends his life trying to make this particular case in as convincingly reasonable way possible.

Scientist B passionately wants to find a cure for malaria and so devotes much time to studying mosquitoes and not fruit flies, which he would enjoy far more.

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