quickly: ethics and cynics

As promised, a quick response to the preliminary argument in Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.

Haidt’s argument is that people use reason to defend what they already believe. They’re not swayed by reasoned argument; instead, they’re swayed by rhetoric that addresses their “moral intuitions.”

When Haidt talks about moral intuitions, he’s sometimes just talking about underlying principles. For example, if I’m persuaded by displays of valor, it’s because I have certain ideas about what valor is and does. I may never have put those ideas into words, but they’re implicit in my reactions, and somebody observing me could deduce them.

Haidt’s not interested in that, however. His rhetoric exposes him. He’s discouraging people from putting their faith in rational debates. His own implicit message is that since nobody else cares about what is reasonable, neither should you — stick to your guns.

If, however, you care more about your status than your principles, then Haidt implies that you should move in the direction of popular moral sentiments. Haidt goes the way of so many rhetoricians. He starts by trying to persuade people, and ends up persuading himself, which is much easier. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Haidt’s book tries to be two incompatible things: a rhetorical manual and an ethical treatise. Rhetoricians are necessarily conservative, because their starting point is what people already think and say. (Not that radical thinkers don’t use rhetoric, but they don’t write books on the history of rhetoric.) Ethicists — good ones, anyway — are necessarily radical, because they’re trying to improve our common lot. They should endorse principles that are hard to put into practice; otherwise, what is gained?

Wherever there is conflict, there are bound to be rationalizations substituting for reason. I’ve encountered it, and I’ve participated in it. But you can’t leap from there to the conclusion that people never listen to reason, because there are endless examples proving that they do. It might be human nature to be stubborn to a degree that used to be advantageous, milennia ago, and is now irrational.

But Nietzsche, himself a great ethicist, put it very well: in that case, man is something that must be overcome.