Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jonathan Haidt

Humility as a Democratic Virtue

In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

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In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

Professor Gray, a self-professed atheist, criticizes his fellow atheist Dawkins for knowing “practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion.” His attack on religion “has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxley … blush scarlet with embarrassment.” But beyond that is Dawkins’s “tone of indulgent superiority.” He “shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings.” In comparison with Blaise Pascal, a man of relentless intellectual energy, “Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.” Dawkins is, according to Gray, a dogmatist whom he contrasts with Charles Darwin, who understood science was “a method of inquiry that enabled [Darwin] to edge tentatively and humbly toward truth.”

On this matter of humility, I’m reminded of what Benjamin Franklin, near the end of his life, said. Although having some concerns about the Constitution, Franklin sacrificed them for what he called “the public good.” In urging a unanimous vote approving the Constitution, he made this marvelous appeal: “On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility…”

Humility, it turns out, is quite an important, if underrated, democratic virtue.

Our system of government is based on the belief that no one has all the answers and so no one gets all of the power. Since none of us has the whole of truth, the question is how we can construct our lives in a way that moves us a bit closer to it. Part of the answer requires us to escape our political, philosophical and theological silos, at least now and then, in order to gain the perspective of others to help us see things to which we may be blind. Humility presupposes that there is collective wisdom and that we have something to learn from others, including from those with whom we might have fairly deep disagreements.

To be sure, I don’t expect mass conversions from one political faith to another. Rachel Maddow isn’t going to adopt the philosophy of Rush Limbaugh. Nor do I believe that the truth is always at the mid-point between opposing points of view. As a political/philosophical conservative and a Christian, I have made certain fundamental judgments about life, human nature, and reality. But what humility can do is create the conditions to better understand the values and premises that shape other people’s narrative, their worldview, their “script.”

A person who has made this point particularly well is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. One of his gifts is the ability to explain the assumptions and belief systems of people who hold very different views. That doesn’t eliminate the differences; but what it can do is to help us better appreciate the factors that lead people to arrive at very different places and therefore keep us from demonizing one another. (For those who care about such things, partisan antipathy has risen quite dramatically in the last two decades. We’re more inclined than in the past to believe that our political opponents aren’t just wrong but malicious.)

Here’s another observation made by Professor Haidt worth considering: We often “sacralize” issues and even reason itself, to the point that it can become an obstacle to discerning truth. How? Because like lawyers preparing a legal brief, we employ reason to confirm bias. “The only cure for the confirmation bias,” Haidt says, “is other people. So if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” In recounting his own professional experience, he says, “we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other’s confirmation biases, and truth emerges.” Professor Haidt goes on to say, “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

Humility properly understood, then, leaves us open to having our views scrutinized, refined, and enlarged. Call it the anti-Richard Dawkins approach to things: doubting our own infallibility, a bit of charity in our judgment toward others, a willingness to consider other points of view. These traits are easier to admire in others than to embrace ourselves. But they are ingredients of a healthy democratic culture and, based on those whom I most respect, elements to more fulfilling lives.

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Living in “Ideological Silos”

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

Among the other findings:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Most of us live in some version of an “ideological silo,” and it makes perfect sense that we do. The deepest friendships, after all, are based not only on common interests but on seeing common truths. Many seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way.

At the same time it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. For one thing, it can insulate us from the strongest arguments that challenge, or might refine and therefore improve, our stance on certain matters. If someone with standing in your life, whose good faith is unquestioned, takes issue with you on a subject having to do with politics or theology, you’re more likely to hear them out, or at least engage with them in a serious rather than dismissive fashion, than if you’re challenged by a stranger.

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A new Pew Research Center survey finds that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

Among the other findings:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Most of us live in some version of an “ideological silo,” and it makes perfect sense that we do. The deepest friendships, after all, are based not only on common interests but on seeing common truths. Many seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way.

At the same time it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. For one thing, it can insulate us from the strongest arguments that challenge, or might refine and therefore improve, our stance on certain matters. If someone with standing in your life, whose good faith is unquestioned, takes issue with you on a subject having to do with politics or theology, you’re more likely to hear them out, or at least engage with them in a serious rather than dismissive fashion, than if you’re challenged by a stranger.

According to Professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias,” the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.”

In addition, creating “ideological silos” makes it much easier to caricature those with whom we disagree. There’s a strong temptation–stronger than most of us like to admit–to personalize political and theological differences; to assume that those who hold views at odds with mine are suffering from character flaws rather than simply intellectual ones.

One example of how things can be done the right way is the relationship between New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. They first met in 1984, after Wright read a book by Borg that impressed him but with which he had some disagreements. A friendship grew, even as Borg became one of America’s most popular liberal voices on theology while Wright became perhaps the most prominent standard-bearer for the traditional stance. Borg was a member of the Jesus Seminar; Wright was an outspoken critic. In The Meaning of Jesus, Borg and Wright presented their very different visions of Jesus. While they didn’t reach agreement on many matters, they did eliminate misunderstandings. Neither misrepresented the other. They operated on the assumption that admirable people can have deep and honest disagreements. And in the process they helped people, in their words, “grapple with points of view they might otherwise have dismissed without serious thought.”

In our unusually ideological age, that’s a fairly impressive achievement.

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Challenging Sacred Assumptions

Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

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Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

I thought of these conversations after watching this interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Professor Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, argues that reasoning is “post-hoc and justificatory.” Reasoning is not good at finding the truth, according to Haidt. He argued that “conscious verbal reasoning is really good at confirming.” We’re like good lawyers or press secretaries; we seek out information to reinforce our existing opinions and try to justify everything. Once we sacralize something, we become blind to counter-evidence.

I know precisely what Haidt is talking about. It’s extremely easy to spot the weak arguments, hypocrisy, and double standards of those with whom I disagree; it’s much harder to see them in myself. And many of us, having arrived at comfortable, settled positions, go out in search of evidence to support our arguments. That is quite a different thing than assessing evidence in order to arrive at an opinion. What most of us do, to one degree or another, is self-segregate. We search for studies and data that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. And we tend to ignore the strongest arguments against our position.

This is a complicated matter. Our underlying views are not necessarily sub-rational; they are often grounded in moral intuitions and attitudes that are entirely legitimate. What we do in political debates is to extend what we take to be true – and in the process, we reach for evidence that conforms to what Edmund Burke referred to, in an uncritical way, as our prejudices.

We channel facts in a way that reinforces views that are based on something different than – something deeper than – mere empirical evidence. None of us, then, are completely open-minded; and we’re all understandably reluctant to alter deeply-held views. The question, really, is given all this, how open are we to persuasion, to new evidence, and to holding up our views to refinement and revision? How do we react when our arguments seem to be falling apart? And what steps can we take to ensure that we don’t insulate ourselves to the point that we are indifferent to facts that challenge our worldview?

According to Haidt, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias” – and the only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” We’re not very good at challenging our own beliefs – but we’re quite good at challenging the beliefs of others. Our task is (to borrow from William Saletan’s review of Haidt’s book) “to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways.”

That makes great sense to me. There’s a natural tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place for intellectual fellowship, just as there is for religious fellowship.

Still, it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. It becomes much too easy to caricature those with whom we disagree. (In those rare, self-aware moments, and sometimes with a gentle assist from others, it becomes obvious when I’m guilty of this.)

In the White House in particular, where you have access to more information than is available to most people and are surrounded by some of the leading experts in the country, it’s tempting to think that you and your colleagues are all-wise and your critics are all-foolish. And before long you can find yourself in an intellectual cul-de-sac. That’s a dangerous place to be. We need at least a few people in our orbit who have standing in our lives and who are willing to challenge what we claim and how we claim it. That is, I think, an important, even essential, element when striving for intellectual honesty.

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