Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Johnathan Haidt’s “The Rationalist Delusion” Delusion

January 28 2018

“The irrational separates us, the rational unites us.”

— Bertrand Russell paraphrasing Aristotle

“I have very low standards.”

— Johnathan Haidt

One of the most vile things an academic can do is to observe the popular but wrong opinion and then repeat it back to the populace with an air of authority. The professor is not supposed to be the mouthpiece for fools, he’s supposed to be a source of wisdom, and especially when that wisdom is unpopular, for it is precisely then that his authority would matter most.

Which brings us to Johnathan Haidt and his ridiculous attack on reason in a Rutgers University lecture titled “The Rationalist Delusion in Moral Psychology” (see YouTube). In this lecture, Haidt self-righteously paints a picture of the allegedly hypocritical “New Atheists”. He starts with the example of Richard Dawkins, who called his book “The God Delusion” while (Haidt claims) not realizing that his own belief in reason was also a delusion.

Haidt claims that the “delusion” is thus:

  1. A false conception: The belief in a reliable faculty of reasoning, capable of operating effectively and impartially even when self-interest, reputational concerns, and intergroup conflict pull toward a particular conclusion[1]
  2. Unconquerable by reason.
  3. In something that has no existence in fact.

From the start, to the even slightly trained eye there is a shocking audaciousness here that might, in a more reasonable world, be considered as blatantly insane as a crackpot who’d give a long lecture on why 1x1=2. But crazy academics are far more dangerous to society than crazy actors – the whimsical follies of an actor are readily dismissed even by the weak-minded, but the academic breed of charlatan has much more cultural clout.

The problem with Haidt’s pretended worldview (I seriously doubt that he himself actually believes it), of course, is that the very case that he is making against reason, depends on reason. However many allegedly empirical studies he piles up that allegedly point to the fundamental unreliability of reason, depend on reasoning. However many books or experts he lines up to testify for his view, their testimonies would for their veracity have to depend on reason. And indeed, whether you buy his line or not, depends on your own reason – he is making arguments, after all.

This, of course, is an elementary and obvious point, it is just like saying “1x1=1”. What is Haidt’s motive? Why be so ridiculous? Haidt is very clear on that point. Immediately after the foregoing, Haidt proceeds in proclaiming that moral philosophy must be wrested from the philosophers (which he admits to always having had a dislike of) and put into the hands of psychologists (himself). What a grandiose vision! Haidt as the next Moses, bringing down to the masses the moral commandments given to him by his “research.” Where did he get this research? By observing the behavior of the masses and putting his own spin on it (by his own words he can’t avoid this bias). Indeed, it is by pandering to the masses that Haidt (presumably) hopes to gain the power he seeks; he who controls morality, controls the world. One wonders whether Haidt a secret admirer of Marx.

It is true that philosophers err (few err as badly as Haidt). It is also true that philosophers have often served their own biases (few are as biased as Haidt). But whether or not the psychologists should govern morality is, inescapably, a philosophical question. Whatever methods Haidt wants to put forth as the proper tools of analysis in this domain, evaluating whether these are appropriate is a philosophical question. So Haidt is suffering not only from delusions of grandeur but also from the specialist’s disease: when all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Haidt’s “hammer” is psychology, and he wishes he could use it to strike down moral philosophy and claim it for his own.

Haidt disingenuously and briefly mentions the salient issue precisely so that he can pretend to have addressed it, but then blatantly ignores it: The philosopher’s ideal that we can become better reasoners, and that even if the masses are not, they should strive to bring themselves up to that ideal. He does declare that philosophers tend to be better reasoners, but draws no lesson from that point. For Haidt, reason just isn’t very valuable (indeed, he very much practices what he preaches on this point).

Haidt claims there have been studies demonstrating that we can’t actually become better reasoners. But with teachers as bad as Haidt, who in fact do not value reason, why should we expect any different result?[2] Even if it were true that some people are incorrigible, that would not mean that rationality is not a virtue, that it’s not better to be more rational. It would be sad or tragic that some members of humanity couldn’t really mature appropriately and thus become rational, but it wouldn’t mean that rationality is a myth.

Haidt belittles what he calls “monism”, the striving to reduce explanations to basic or fundamental causes or principles. He mockingly claims that, in the Academy, if you do reduce things to basic principles then you “win a prize.” Apparently he believes that “monism” is bad, for no particular reason. He just fancies this belief. He wouldn’t be able to have evidence and argument for his view here, because that would imply that evidence and argument (i.e. reason) is precisely the fundamental, which would contradict his own attack on “monism.”

Haidt gushes over the fact that we are moral creatures, dividing the world into good and evil. He claims that ability to rally as groups around a common moral code is what gave us our ability to flourish. He then hypocritically disparages those who promote reason as the moral code to rally around. Why is morality good when it’s arbitrary and bad when it’s well-considered? Well, he can’t answer that, for doing so requires that he rationally consider what he’s saying.

Haidt, fuming over something a pro-reason philosopher had said about him, says “I don’t get mad, I get even with the data” and then proceeds to show us a graph of “anger words” and “certainty words” in various authors’ books. Conveniently for his thesis (remember, he’s just been telling us about how we only use data to rationalize pre-existing beliefs), he happened to find that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins use more “anger” and “certainty” words than Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. Brimming with self-satisfaction, he mocks them: “Their claim to be so open minded and non-dogmatic is not doing so well.” This is a ridiculously stupid argument, but it works magic on the masses that are his target audience.

No authentic advocate of reason believes that to be rational is to be a non-normative passionless non-committal robot. Nor is it rational to excise Haidt’s prescribed words from your vocabulary. But Haidt and his acolytes have this silly caricature of “rational” in mind, so when they detect passion in an advocate of reason, they declare “Aha! You’re showing emotion! You must not be so rational after all! Gotcha!”

Haidt claims that scientists (who he wishes to portray as standing for rationality, even while he himself had admitted that it’s philosophers who score high on that virtue) don’t talk like scientists Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, even while he’s observing an example of scientists talking like that. Really what he’s saying is that he, the wannabe Moses of our era, doesn’t want them to talk like that, and he’s forcing the data to fit his desired conclusion. And it’s no wonder why: he wants that special prohibition that would prevent anyone from calling him on it.

  1. No advocate of reason anywhere claims that the individual faculty of reason is perfectly reliable all the time, that it is ever completely immune from bias, or that it ideally operates independently from emotion or “intuition”, as if “rational” meant “perfect” or “robotic.”

    What we claim is that by allowing reason to be “in the driver’s seat”, to be the ultimate governor of the mind, opens up the possibility of finding truth. Mankind was able to land a man on the moon precisely because those who worked on that project embraced a discipline of subordinating emotion and “intuition” to reason (“subordinating” does not mean “ignoring” – very often emotion/”intuition” can give us important clues which reason then follows up on), and so opening up the possibility of finding the many difficult truths this project demanded. Did that mean that every one of their calculations was always perfect, or that they made no unnoticed mistakes? Of course not. But no bunch of undisciplined emotionalists would ever have been able to achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon. We count ourselves lucky when this sort of person (which Haidt works hard to enable) doesn’t destroy civilization.

  2. In a post-lecture question someone asked Haidt this very question. His reply was telling: on his view, being a good reasoner means you can produce arguments for “both sides”, even when one side is just plain wrong. It makes sense that Haidt would say this: on his view, reason is merely a slave to whatever agenda is put in front of it. So when it balks at giving good arguments for bogus ideas, it’s not being a very obedient “slave”, and thus, when someone doesn’t learn this abjectly submissive view of reason, Haidt blames the victim of his bad teaching. But really, the problem is Haidt’s own bogus conception of reason: the real aim of authentic reason is not to be a slave to the passions, but to find truth.