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Emotions vs. reason: Jonathan Haidt

I hope I'm not upsetting anyone's expectations, but I have just finished a book that has raised some interesting issues in an area we seem to frequently end up discussing.  So I thought we could take a hiatus from the Potluck format for at least this one week to look at what the book has to say.


In 2012 Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who obtained his BA in philosophy, published the book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  In this book he presents a metaphor about morality in terms of an elephant (emotions) and a rider (reason).  He goes on to state that Plato argued that the rider (reason) should control and guide the elephant, that Hume said the rider evolved to serve the elephant and that Jefferson offered the conciliatory view that the rider and the elephant should work in concert.  Troubled by the disparity of views, Haidt conducted his own studies, as well as referring to other studies, and reached the conclusion that "intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second".  In other words our first reaction to an event or phenomena is intuitive/emotional and, then, we provide the rationality that supports that initial reaction.  However, as Haidt continued to study the process, he began to realize that the dichotomy of emotions vs. reason was a false dichotomy.  He posited that emotions were simply another type of information processing, one that evolution had predisposed our ancestors to possess during the period prior to the formation and maturation of the prefrontal cortex, our more "reflective" brain component.  Thus, when the rider began to emerge, it had more of a functional purpose than a "truth" purpose.  That is, it was designed more for winning friends and influencing people than providing us with some valid assertion about our reaction to some event.  We felt some way about an event and we wanted others to feel the same way.  Hence, morality evolved more for social cohesion than as an event evaluation.


Haidt had much more to say and I enthusiastically recommend the book, but for today I want to focus on the above.  What do you think: should the rider control the elephant as Plato suggested or is the rider present to serve the elephant ala Hume?  Are emotions another type of information processing rather than an opposition to rationality?  If intuitions/emotions come first and reasoning second, what does this suggest about the human cognitive process? 


I'm sure we can find many other issues embedded in Haidt's presentation, but we only have two hours or so.  Let's see what we can make of this in that time.  See you Sunday.

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  • Denis Murray S.

    wonderful book; good choice. I very much prefer preset topic

    April 20, 2013

  • David A.

    maybe reason and emotion both need to be heard and they need to negotiate solutions among themselves.

    April 19, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    To understand something you need intuition but not necessarily emotion. But there are similarities between emotion and intuition as in emotional inpulse and conceptual rupture. They are both parts of human mental processing, and often partitioned in the Western tradition. They are interactive.

    April 19, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Wish I could come. Out of town.

    April 19, 2013

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