Thursday, February 02, 2017

Haidt versus Rand

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is a leading researcher and writer on what could be described as the scientific view of human nature --- a view, in other words, based on research and experimentation rather than armchair speculation and/or wishful thinking. If Haidt's views on human psychology, motivation, reason and morality are largely right, than Rand's views must be largely wrong. As it turns out, Rand's epistemological, moral, and political views all rest, at least in part, on her views on human nature; so that if she's wrong about human nature, she must also be wrong, at least in part, on human knowledge, ethics, and political theory.

Recently Sam Harris made a curious wager. He offered to pay $10,000 to anyone who could disprove his arguments about morality. Haidt decided to make a counter-wager. He bet $10,000 that Harris would not change his mind. And then he went on to explain why he made the bet. What Haidt wrote provides an excellent brief on what is wrong with the view of reason and morality which both Harris and Rand share.

While Rand and Harris differ on many details in their respective philosophies, on the broad outlines, they're not so very different. They are both atheists who believe that an "objective" morality based on "reason" (or "science") is possible. And they are both extremely confident that their speculations on morality are true and correct. Haidt, better informed than either Rand or Harris on the underlying psychology behind reason and morality, has a very different view:

In the 1980s and 1990s, social psychologists began documenting the awesome power of “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias.” People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated. Also in the 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions. When emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae. 
In the 2000s, in my own area of research—moral judgment—it became clear that people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later. The intuitive dog wags its rational tail, which explains why it is so difficult to change anyone’s mind on a moral issue by refuting every reason they offer. To sum it all up, David Hume was right in 1739 when he wrote that reason was “the slave of the passions,” rather than the divine master, or charioteer, as Plato had believed.

It is important to note that Haidt's conclusions are based on extensive research and psychological experiments. To be sure, this does not prove that Haidt is entirely or even mostly correct. This is a very complex subject and further experiments and new discoveries may lead to a revision of Haidt's theories. It would be irrational, however, to dismiss Haidt's conclusions on the basis of the type of speculative or lawyerly reasonings favored by Rand and her apologists. One such argument is to contend that Haidt's "attack" on reason undercuts all human knowledge, including Haidt's own claims about human psychology, reasoning, and morality. If "reason" is "faulty" or riddled with biases, how can Haidt justify his own views? But this charge misfires on several fronts.

In the first place, Haidt does not attack reason. He merely demonstrates its limits when it comes to ethical rationalizations:

I’m not saying that we can’t reason quite well about many unemotional situations where we really want to know the right answer, such as whether it is better to drive or take the train to the airport, given current traffic conditions. But when we look at conscious verbal reasoning as an evolutionary adaptation, it begins to look more like a tool for helping people argue, persuade, and guard their reputations than a tool shaped by selection pressures for finding objective truth. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber synthesized the large bodies of research on reasoning in cognitive and social psychology like this: “The function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” When self-interest, partisan identity, or strong emotions are involved, reasoning turns into a lawyer, using all its powers to reach the desired conclusion.

Although "reason" may not always lead to truth, it would be wrong to infer that knowledge is therefore impossible. While individual reason may often find itself distorted by emotion, self-interest, and other biases, its possible to develop mechanisms which allow reason to overcome such difficulties. As Haidt explains:

Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.

In short, Haidt reaches something very close to Popper's hypothetico-deductive method of knowledge. While human beings are rarely any good at noticing errors in their own reasonings, sometimes they're pretty shrewd at noticing errors in other people's reasonings (and experiments, observations, etc.). Thus through the testing and criticism of theories, human beings can reach a higher level of rationality than the speculative, lawyerly type of reasoning championed by Rand. 

Rand's approach to rationality is therefore deeply flawed. Her view that knowledge rests on "proper" concept formation is eccentric and delusional. Concepts are just meanings used to formulate assertions about matters of fact. How such concepts are "formed" is thoroughly irrelevant. It's how they're used in theories that are important, and the only way to judge the theories is by testing and criticizing them. Trying to judge a theory about matters of fact by speculating whether the concepts used to express that theory were properly formed would be an extraordinarily difficult and useless exercise.

If Haidt's view of moral judgment is correct, Rand's Objectivist Ethics is largely irrelevant. It's merely a tool for helping Rand's followers argue, persuade, and rationalize their behavior. It has very little to do with actual conduct --- something that would be noticed more if people paid closer attention to how followers of Rand act, rather than to merely how they cavil.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...



Who decides if their arguments have been disproven?

Gordon Burkowski said...

"Who decides if their arguments have been disproven?"

In the scientific community, the answer is: anyone who exactly replicates an experiment and doesn't get the predicted result.

As Nyquist says of Haidt, “While individual reason may often find itself distorted by emotion, self-interest, and other biases, it’s possible to develop mechanisms which allow reason to overcome such difficulties.” The best example of such a mechanism: the adversarial court system – and trial by jury. The result isn’t always the one we wanted: everyone understands that. But we’ve come to realize that it’s the best that we can do.

Lloyd Flack said...

I'll disagree here. I think the inquisitorial court system is overall better than the adversarial one. And advocates of the adversarial system are usually not well informed about the inquisitorial system.

Anonymous said...


Wilbur Glen Voliva offered $5000 to anyone who could prove the Earth was round.

Nobody ever collected because he was the sole judge of what constituted "proof".

When people make offers like that the money should be put in escrow.

And impartial third parties should make the awards.

Anonymous said...

So, what about the idea that is in one's own best interest to be as rational as possible?

That about Harris' expressed passion for reason (as off http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-pleasure-of-changing-my-mind )?

gregnyquist said...

So, what about the idea that is in one's own best interest to be as rational as possible?

That about Harris' expressed passion for reason (as off http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-pleasure-of-changing-my-mind )?


Maybe Harris does have a passion for reason, and maybe he is as rational as possible, yet after reading the post linked above, I have doubts. Whatever passion Harris may have for reason, he clearly has an even greater passion for what the French call amor-propre. From the emotional tenor of his post, it seems that Haidt's criticisms got under Harris' skin. Harris, I would assume, takes pride in his own rationality, and doesn't appreciate having this rationality called into question by a scholar and scientific researcher of Haidt's stature. And so in his post he engages in scorn-tinged "lawyerly" reasoning, where the characteristics of "spin" dominate over the passionate yet humble pursuit of the truth. One palpable sign that an intellectual is engaged in rationalization and spin is that he will tend to go after his challenger's weakest argument. Harris doesn't disappoint us on this score. Haidt found Harris's writing cocksure and dogmatic --- which didn't strike him as all that scientific. Rather unwisely, Haidt tried to quantify this finding by doing keyword searches of Harris' books for certainty terms. This may be an ill-advised approach on Haidt's part, but it doesn't mean Haidt's overall view of Harris (as being a dogmatic rationalizer) is wrong. And sure enough, we find Harris next indulging in blatantly fallacious reasoning. Against Haidt's contention that "we engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies," Harris responds sarcastically by saying he must be very closed indeed, because he found criticisms from his friend Dan Dennett "totally unpersuasive." But here Harris is guilty of a non sequitur. Merely because we are more open to criticism from friends and colleagues doesn't mean we accept every such criticism essayed against us: what Haidt is suggesting is that we give such criticism a fair hearing, not that we always agree with it. Harris has shown himself, in this case, not to be as rational as presumes --- which is to say, he's guilty of the very self-delusion that Haidt originally warned us about. Harris is a special pleader with an agenda, not the fully rational searcher for the truth he pretends to be.

Anonymous said...

Since it has not been answered yet: What about the idea that is in one's own best interest to be as rational as possible?

Anonymous said...

Well, cripes, other Anonymous, what ABOUT the idea? What about the idea of getting to the point if you have an argument to make, and not just leave questions hanging in the air.

Anonymous said...


Hey anonymous #1 & #2------

Stop using my name.

I'm the original anonymous!!!

Anonymous said...

>> What about the idea of getting to the point if you have an argument to make,

It is a marvolous idea, indeed. Just so happens, that I do not like to argument towards a position that i do not know (I wouldn't even know if to agree or disagree otherwise). Internet discussions have taught me to never take anything for granted, so as off now, I am just curious about that detail with no pointy bits attached.


>> and not just leave questions hanging in the air.

So maybe some context might help: The questions arose to me from the two bits

"Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people [...] once emotions or self-interest are activated." (From the 1st Haidt-Quote)

and

"While individual reason may often find itself distorted by emotion, self-interest, and other biases, its possible to develop mechanisms which allow reason to overcome such difficulties." (Greg Nyquist)

While herein emotion and self-interestare depicted as antagonizing reason, "[w]hen emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae." (Haidt)
Which seems to imply: Once we are left with pure reason alone, it tanks in efficiency. I dare speculate that the same is true for lack of self-interest: Without any stakes, there would seem to be no reason to employ reason in the first place.
You may call this my (not exactly hidden) point, and now I would very much like to know if this is in accordance with or against human nature.

Anonymous said...

That is, I should point out, a very different question than whether it's in "one's own best interest to be as rational as possible". After all, if you ask an Objectivist, they will tell you "of course it is!"

This ARCHN blog has long maintained a stance more along the lines of: "it is impossible for people to be entirely logical every moment of their lives, and in many cases, non-rational methods of decision-making (such as intuition) are sufficient to the task". That's not a quote, just a paraphrase. There have been many references to studies of the human mind that suggest that people are often not particularly rational, even when they think they are being quite rational. If you believe these studies to be accurate and well-researched, that would indicate that such is indeed human nature.

Lloyd Flack said...

Also it has maintained that in some matters, mostly those involving people, attempts at logical analysis can require too much simplification.

Gordon Burkowski said...

Haidt writes: “People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to 'debias' people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated.”

That seems true enough – at any point in time. However, it's a fact that those emotions and those perceptions of self-interest do change. Just took a look at the remarkable shift in attitudes towards homosexuality over the last few decades.

So the real question is: how do you change those emotions and perceptions of self-interest if you don't like the ones you're seeing? Obviously, you can stir up existing but countervailing emotions and areas of self-interest. Or you can take the more difficult, long-term approach of presenting new arguments. This doesn't work right away – but one can advance lots of evidence to show that such arguments do start to have effects over the long haul. To cite just one example, look at the Fabian Society in Great Britain.

In short, do the “rational people” whom Scott Adams seems to dismiss have any power or influence? The answer: not today or tomorrow. But eventually? Of course.

gregnyquist said...

What about the idea that is in one's own best interest to be as rational as possible?

The answer to this question partly depends on what one means by "to be rational." Scrupulously follow logic, in all situations or domains? Scrupulously follow Popper's (or someone else's) scientific methodology? Utilize probabilistic reasoning? The fact is, the majority of people don't use such methods in everyday life, and yet they've somehow or other managed to survive, prosper, and reproduce.

Perhaps a more accurate way to phrase is that people require a certain amount of "functional" rationality to survive and secure their well-being. (By "functional" I mean they make use of methods of thinking which might not be scrupulously "logical" or deliberative or even conscious, but nonetheless are roughly in accord with experience.) However, beyond that, and in regard to questions that don't have any imminent bearing on survivability or well-being, no rationality at all may be required, and may in fact, at least for certain persons, be inimical (read Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" for an example of this).

Anonymous said...


Vilfredo Pareto defined what he meant by rational.

He called it "logico-experimental".

Anonymous said...

That's great, but Pareto isn't here asking the questions, is he?

gregnyquist said...

Vilfredo Pareto defined what he meant by rational.

He called it "logico-experimental".


Pareto's "logico-experimental" method is merely what Pareto took to be the science of his age (circa 1900). Would people be better off if they were as scientific as possible? It's not obvious this would be true. Many decisions people make involve estimations of fact that aren't very clear cut, that don't enable experimentation via isolation of variables, and/or demand quick decisions based on rapid estimates. Whether you're making decisions about career choices, whom to marry, what stocks to buy, etc., you can't follow scientific method -- it's just too cumbersome.

Another consideration to keep in mind: given that becoming a scientist and mastering scientific method takes a lot of time. It would be a waste of time and resources to train everyone to be a scientist (many are probably not intelligent enough, or are too emotional, in any case). The fact is, with the division of labor, not everyone needs to be strictly rational and/or scientific to benefit from rationality. We all benefit from the rationality of scientists and inventors, regardless of how "rational" we may be in our personal lives. It is simply not true, as many rationalists blithely assume, that non-rationality or even irrationality is, in all cases, dangerous or bad. It just depends on how widespread that non-rationality is and what forms it takes. Some forms are largely harmless. Take someone like the actress Shirley MacLaine. She has lived a long and successful life, despite believing in some rather strange (and non-experimental, non-rational) things. Now if everyone were like Shirley MacLaine, that would probably be very bad. But if everyone were like Sam Harris or Vilfredo Pareto, that probably wouldn't be good either. Rationality is critical for scientific endeavors; but it may easily turn into something harmful when applied to other domains of experiences, like the arts or religion or even morality. Pareto himself believed that a rational, "scientific" understanding of society, which he favored, would be harmful if too many people in society accepted it; and he several times remarked that if he thought there were any chance for his sociological writings to become widespread and influential, he would have suppressed them.

Anonymous said...

I'm ambitious.

I want to be scientific like Pareto----

and Greg Nyquist!

Anonymous said...

I have read Ayn Rand Contra & I am mostly in agreement with Mr. Nyquist's analysis.

Anybody who follows Pareto can't go far wrong!

My only reservation is the shotgun marriage between Pareto & "cognitive science".

The latter, it seems to me, is a theory of hereditary "brain wiring".

But how does brain wiring explain comparative anthropology?

Human societies show a wide variety of customs.

Specifically how would cognitive science explain the differences between Athens and Sparta?

The Athenians were "foxes", rich in the Combination residue.

The Spartans were 'lions" rich in the Aggregate Persistence residue.

Would it not be more plausible to explain the differences by environment?

The Spartans were surrounded by rebellious helots.

The had to develop a tough militaristic ethos to retain their cultural identity.

Athens was a seaport with many foreign contacts.

It was cosmopolitan and naturally open to new ideas.

Anonymous said...

"But how does brain wiring explain comparative anthropology?"

It doesn't have to.

Our brains may have some hard-wired traits, but they are also adaptable to different situations, and so two humans who may possess the same wiring may have wildly different cultural identities, just as two computers may have identical gear but be loaded with different software. This isn't an either/or proposition.

Anonymous said...



My point though is that Spartans (& Athenians) are made not born

Anonymous said...

And my point is that's not a particularly revolutionary observation.

ungtss said...

What about the idea that is in one's own best interest to be as rational as possible?

The answer to this question partly depends on what one means by "to be rational." Scrupulously follow logic, in all situations or domains? Scrupulously follow Popper's (or someone else's) scientific methodology? Utilize probabilistic reasoning? The fact is, the majority of people don't use such methods in everyday life, and yet they've somehow or other managed to survive, prosper, and reproduce.

Perhaps a more accurate way to phrase is that people require a certain amount of "functional" rationality to survive and secure their well-being. (By "functional" I mean they make use of methods of thinking which might not be scrupulously "logical" or deliberative or even conscious, but nonetheless are roughly in accord with experience.) However, beyond that, and in regard to questions that don't have any imminent bearing on survivability or well-being, no rationality at all may be required, and may in fact, at least for certain persons, be inimical (read Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" for an example of this).


this is non-sequitur and circular reasoning.

first the non-sequitur: the question here is whether it would be in our best interest to be as logical as possible. in response you say that only a certain amount of logic is required in order to survive. but "best interest" and "survival" are not the same. in fact our "best interests" involve more than mere survival, so the fact that survival only requires a certain degree of logic does not support a conclusion that greater logic will not bring greater happiness. you've changed the question to manufacture the illusion of an argument.

second, the circular reasoning: you reference a fictional play written over 100 years ago as "evidence" that greater logic does not lead to greater happiness. but in citing that play, you're assuming that the play itself exhibits logical coherence, and effectively carries its argument that happiness requires illusion. which is, of course, the question.

Rationality is critical for scientific endeavors; but it may easily turn into something harmful when applied to other domains of experiences, like the arts or religion or even morality

How can you determine that rationality is harmful to art, religion, or morality, without using the measuring sicks of rationality to determine what "harm" is?

gregnyquist said...

the question here is whether it would be in our best interest to be as logical as possible. in response you say that only a certain amount of logic is required in order to survive. but "best interest" and "survival" are not the same. in fact our "best interests" involve more than mere survival

This is a rather bad misreading. I wrote "people require a certain amount of 'functional' rationality to survive and secure their well-being." So I did not "in fact" equate "mere survival" with "best interests." My position is not all that far from Rand's, although I reject her conviction that survival is the "standard" of morality, and her implicit assumption that, at least in terms of morality, everyone's the same (i.e., the same standard applies to everyone).


second, the circular reasoning: you reference a fictional play written over 100 years ago as "evidence" that greater logic does not lead to greater happiness. but in citing that play, you're assuming that the play itself exhibits logical coherence, and effectively carries its argument that happiness requires illusion. which is, of course, the question.

This is rather convoluted and involves any number of misreadings/failures to understand. I referenced The Wild Duck, as an illustration, not as "evidence" in the strict sense of the word. We then are treated to a rather strained "stolen concept" argument that falsely assumes my argument constitutes an attack on logic, which, untgss declares, is at odds with the logical coherence of the play. It's ironic when a defender of logic demonstrates so little ability to reason logically. I'm not attacking logic or rationality. I'm merely pointing out that it is not at all clear, as a point of fact, that all human beings would secure greater well-being (i.e., be happier) if they were more rational. There is evidence, for example, that religious people tend to be happier than the non-religious. Indeed, I'm not aware of any evidence that links "being more rational" with happiness. (Now of course I'm assuming that it is one's best interest to be happy. That assumption could be challenged, primarily on evidentiary grounds. But making it does not involve circular reasoning or non sequiturs.)

It's important to understand that rationality and logic are tools of cognition. They're useful for testing knowledge claims, and building a scientific view of the world of fact. But while gaining a fund of knowledge may be useful for securing material well-being, it's not clear that increasing knowledge beyond basic survival and comfort needs always and in every case makes everyone more happy. To repeat what I've said before: you need enough knowledge to survive and attain a certain level of comfort. While this sort of survival does not ensure one's best interest, it can be seen as a necessary precondition to pursuing one's best interests (since you can't pursue your best interests if you're dead), and in that sense is critical. But once you've secured your survival and other basic comforts, how you pursue your "best interests" beyond this is not necessarily confined to the domain of strict rationality and "logic."

Adrian Olmedo said...

At no time did this blog refute any of Rand's ideas, rather I have reinforced my opinion in favor of Objectivism, and came looking for serious criticism.

By the way: "Although" reason "can not always lead to truth, it would be wrong to infer that knowledge is therefore impossible."

Ayn Rand also thinks the same, the reason is not automatic and I add that therefore we fall into biases easily, for that reason.