Ethical Realism

November 2, 2011

Review of The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail

Filed under: ethics,philosophy,review — JW Gray @ 7:16 am
Tags: , ,

Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, wrote the essay “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail” where he introduces his “social intuitionist model” of moral judgment and discusses four reasons to doubt the causal importance of reason for moral judgments. The social intuitionist model proposes that moral judgments are created from various factors including intuition and emotion, and only rarely due to a reasoning process. “Rationalist models” supposedly claim that that moral judgments are mainly created by a reasoning process.

First, I will discuss the rationalist and social intuitionist models. Second, I will discuss Haidt’s objections to the causal importance of reason. Third, I will discuss how Haidt’s social intuitionist model relates to ethical philosophy. How exactly Haidt’s social intuitionist model relates to ethical philosophy is not entirely clear. I have heard someone suggest that his hypothesis is evidence that there are no “moral facts” and morality is some sort of confusion. I am not convinced that his hypothesis is evidence of that.

1. Rationalist Models

Although Haidt wants to give us reason to question “rationalist models” he only discusses one specific rationalist model—one developed by Lawrence Kohlberg (4). Even so, he says very little about Kohlberg’s theory and its unlikely that advocates of Kohlberg would be satisfied with how little Haidt said about the hypothesis. He says Kohlberg argues that we make moral judgments because of moral reason, but whether or not Kohlberg thinks we always make moral judgments from a reasoning process is unclear (but it seems unlikely).

It should also be stressed that Kohlberg’s main interest was the development of our ability to reason about morality and he theorized about various stages of moral development. I don’t know that he had a detailed “rationalist model” about how moral judgments are formed in general. If anything, he had an optimistic assumption concerning the fact that reasoning could cause or motivate moral judgments. Haidt questions this assumption when he says, “It is undeniable that people engage in moral reasoning. But does the evidence really show that such reasoning is the cause of moral judgment, rather than the consequence” (5)? The fact that someone has a moral judgment and can justify that judgment using reasoning doesn’t mean that the reasoning was the cause of the judgment.

2. Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model

Haidt’s social intuitionist model claims that we get moral intuitions from a combination of nature and nurture (primarily our biology and social interaction with others). Most of our moral judgments are caused by these intuitions (and emotional reactions) rather than from reasoning, and most reasoning is used to justify our moral beliefs “post hoc” to justify pre-existing conclusions rather than to reach conclusions (7). Justifications are usually used to change other people’s intuitions rather than to change our own, but Haidt admits that its possible that some people could be capable of reasoning on their own to change their own intuitions (7-8).

Haidt understands that intuitions are effortless and immediate; and that we are not consciously aware of the process that causes our intuitions when we have them (6). He contrasts intuition with “reasoning,” which he understands to be intentional, conscious, and to require steps.

Haidt hypothesizes that reasoned persuasion “works not by providing logically compelling arguments, but by triggering new affectively valenced intuitions in the listener” (7).

Five clarifications

I would like to make five clarifications:

First, Haidt’s definitions and assumptions involving reasoning and intuition are controversial. For example, philosophers have argued that intuition is a form of “noninferential reasoning” that can be conscious (require contemplation) and require effort. The fact that “37492+73618=111110” seems self-evident and intuitive, but knowing this is not immediate or effortless for everyone. At the same time it is difficult to explain how to justify the belief that “37492+73618=10000” using an argument. It is difficult to know how our consciousness could justify such a judgment or prove it’s true, even though we are certain that it’s true.

Second, intuition is an important form of justification in philosophy and philosophers are very aware of the fact that intuition is required in almost all arguments and reasoning. In philosophy perhaps the only “rationalistic model” that would deny the importance of intuition is infinitism—the view that we need to deductively argue to justify our beliefs, and every belief must be deductively justified in this way. That leads to an infinite chain of beliefs that must be justified on an on forever. I can argue that “I know drinking too much alcohol can kill people because of the scientific evidence” but then we need to justify the fact that scientific evidence is capable of justifying beliefs. We can justify the fact that scientific evidence is a form of justification by noting how well its worked in the past, but then we need to justify the fact that we know the laws of nature will stay the same. And so on.

Third, Haidt’s hypothesis concerns what causes moral judgments rather than what rationally justifies them. Haidt’s hypothesis doesn’t say it’s impossible to rationally justify moral judgments or that we can know moral facts. Haidt’s hypothesis concerns moral psychology rather than moral philosophy or moral epistemology. Haidt states that the social intuitionist model “is not a normative or prescriptive claim, about how moral judgments ought to be made.” Haidt does not discuss the difference between “good reasoning” and “bad reasoning” in detail but he seems to agree that some forms of reasoning are better than others when he discusses mechanisms of bias—“Kuhn found that most people have difficulty understanding what evidence is, and when pressed to give evidence in support of their theories they generally give anecdotes or illustrative examples instead” and “Pyszczynski and Greenberg proposed a… comprehensive ‘biased hypothesis testing’ model, in which self-serving motives bias each stage of the hypothesis testing sequence, including the selection of initial hypotheses, the generation of inferences, the search for evidence, the evaluation of evidence, and the amount of evidence needed before one is willing to make an inference” (11).

Fourth, Haidt makes it clear that intuition isn’t just an irrational emotional response and can be informative when he says, “Rather than following the ancient Greeks in worshiping reason, we should instead look for the roots of human intelligence, rationality, and virtue in what the mind does best: perception, intuition, and other mental operations that are quick, effortless, and generally quite accurate” (11-12).

Fifth, Haidt seems to agree that moral reasoning might be able create moral judgments in certain cases. He states, “People may at times reason their way to a judgment by sheer force of logic, overriding their initial intuition. In such cases reasoning truly is causal, and cannot be said to be the ‘slave of the passions’” (5) and “[t]he reasoning process in moral judgment may be capable of working objectively under very limited circumstances: when the person has adequate time and processing capacity, a motivation to be accurate, no a priori judgment to defend or justify, and when no relatedness or coherence motivations are triggered” (12).

One objection:

Haidt wants to say that reason is less important for morality than many people think, but reasoning could be an important way of creating many of our intuitions, and/or intuitions could be caused by unconscious reasoning processes. He relates intuition to perception and when I see that I have hands I believe it—and it seems foolish to think otherwise, which suggests that my perception is reasonable (and might be somehow caused by an unconscious reasoning process).

3. Four Reasons to Doubt the Causal Importance of Reason

Haidt wants to stress the fact that moral reasoning is not as causally important as many people think. He provides four kinds of evidence that seem to support (or are at least compatible with) his claim that moral reason doesn’t usually cause moral judgments.

1. The Dual Process Problem: There Is a Ubiquitous and Understudied Intuitive Process at Work.

Haidt tells us that there is strong evidence found in social and cognitive psychology that people who make judgments or solve problems often use more than two processing systems (often called “dual process models”) that can come up with different conclusions. Moreover, moral judgment and reasoning works in much the same way (8). He thinks one process—the normal one—is intuition, but another one is reason.

Haidt then tells us that the evidence suggests that “attitude formation is better described as a set of automatic processes than as a process of deliberation and reflection about the traits of a person. People form first impressions at first sight, and the impressions that they form from observing a ‘thin slice’ of behavior (as little as 5 seconds) are almost identical to the impressions they form from much longer and more leisurely observation and deliberation” (ibid.). This evidence seems to support Haidt’s claim that judgments are often reached through intuition rather than through reasoning.

Haid assures us that the evidence doesn’t conflict with his “social intuitionist model” because it takes intuition to be normal and he thinks moral reasoning is only required when we have conflicting intuitions or want to persuade others (9-10). Nonetheless, it’s not clear that the evidence conflicts with “rationalist models” of moral judgment either. I see no reason to think Kohlberg’s moral psychology would require us to reject the possibility of “dual process models” or moral intuition.

2. The Motivated Reasoning Problem: The Reasoning Process Is More like a Lawyer Defending a Client than a Judge or Scientist Seeking Truth

Haidt tells us that evidence suggests (a) that people are more likely to agree with friends than strangers who give arguments and that we have a motivation to agree with friends to get along with them better, (b) we are motivated to reason to defend certain core beliefs we hold to avoid cognitive dissonance, and (c) people are usually more interested to win arguments and persuade others than to use it to discover the truth (10-11).

Haidt assures us that this evidence doesn’t conflict with his “social intuitionist model” because he embraces the fact that we fall victim to emotions, biases, and fallacies. Again, rationalist models also seem compatible with the evidence presented because it’s quite possible that moral reasoning can often be effective despite the fact that its not always effective (because we often suffer from bias and logical fallacies).

Haidt dismisses Greek philosophy when he says, “Rather than following the ancient Greeks in worshiping reason, we should instead look for the roots of human intelligence, rationality, and virtue in what the mind does best: perception, intuition, and other mental operations that are quick, effortless, and generally quite accurate,” but I think the Greeks were mainly interested in “good reasoning” rather than knowing how people usually reason (poorly)—and the Greeks were quite aware about the importance of perception and intuition (10-11). Consider how Socrates wanted to find a better way to reason instead of the fallacious way the sophists presented arguments, and how Aristotle discussed the importance of being virtuous automatically without requiring deliberation before every action.

3. The Post-hoc Problem: the Reasoning Process Readily Constructs Justifications of Intuitive Judgments, Causing the Illusion of Objective Reasoning

Haidt tells us that there is evidence that people often create post-hoc justifications or explanations for their beliefs that have nothing to do with a reasoning process. “Additional illustrations of post-hoc causal reasoning can be found in studies in which hypnosis and subliminal presentation were used to make people perform actions. When asked to explain their actions or choices, people readily made up reasons that sounded plausible but were false” (12). He believes that such post-hoc reasoning is also used to justify and explain our moral judgments (12-13). In such cases its likely that moral judgments cause the reasoning process than the other way around (13).

Haidt assures us that the evidence doesn’t conflict with his “social intuitionist model” because he posits that moral reasoning is usually used to persuade others rather than to seek the truth (or reach reasonable conclusions for oneself). Once more, the evidence doesn’t seem to conflict with “rationalist models” either. I would be shocked if rationalists thought that reasoning was only used to find the truth rather than to be used for persuasion—a plausible motivation for the common use of logical fallacies and rationalizations.

4. The Action Problem: Moral Action Covaries with Moral Emotion More than with Moral Reasoning

Haidt tells us that the evidence suggests that there is a correlation between moral reasoning and moral action, but there is an even stronger correlation between moral action and intelligence (14). He then suggests that intelligence could be the cause of both moral reasoning and moral action by helping us attain self-control and inhibiting our emotions and impulses.

The evidence presented here clearly does not suggest that moral reasoning doesn’t cause moral beliefs or action. Instead, Haidt is merely telling us why the evidence doesn’t prove his theory wrong. The strongest evidence that moral reason causes moral judgment is a correlation, but correlations aren’t sufficient to indicate causation.

We must keep in mind that Haidt admits that moral reason might cause moral judgments in rare situations.

4. How Haidt’s Hypothesis Relates to Ethical Philosophy

I will discuss two ways Haidt’s hypothesis relates to ethical philosophy:

First, we want to know how we can know anything about morality. If we can’t know anything about morality, then we have a serious problem. Haidt suggests that intuition is good for the most part, but sometimes reasoning is important as well. Our moral reasoning is plagued by bias, but peer review and discussions with friends can help correct many of our cognitive errors. If we can learn anything about morality, then moral reasoning with others (and especially with friends) seems like the best way to do it.

Second, someone has suggested that Haidt’s hypothesis proves that moral facts don’t exist. However, (a) Haidt admits that moral reason might be causally effective and rational at least in rare occasions, (b) Haidt’s hypothesis is not proven to be true, (c) nearly every moral philosopher admits that we are often victims of various biases and fallacies, and (d) his hypotheses of moral judgment isn’t so different from how he views reasoning in general. It is true that our reasoning process is flawed no matter what topic we are discussing, but that doesn’t seem to suggest that scientific or epistemic facts don’t exist. If Haidt’s theory is taken to be proof that moral facts don’t exist, then I would expect that it would also be proof that no facts exist. That conclusion seems implausible.


Haidt’s hypothesis is plausible for the most part, but I do have some reservations. However, Haidt does not seem to be fair to the opposing rationalists. For example, it is unclear what the “rationalist model” consists of or if anyone even endorses it; and he is strangely dismissive of ancient Greek philosophy despite saying very little that would probably shock them.



  1. It seems to me that Everyone-Is-A-Secret-Apologist type arguments are incorrect. First, if these arguments are true, why does the Secret Apologist want us to believe everyone is a secret apologist? He wouldn’t argue for it if it were merely true and not in some sense an ego defense. More importantly, some people make a serious study of getting to the truth and setting aside their previous loyalties. Being correct is a skill.

    And here’s some recommended reading, though not on exactly the same subject:

    Comment by kamikaze579 — November 3, 2011 @ 12:01 am | Reply

  2. The funny thing is, 37492+73618 = 111110 actually!

    Comment by Nightvid Cole — November 6, 2011 @ 12:34 am | Reply

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