Friday, November 30, 2012

Why won't you change your mind?

Did we really have a summer??

Academy B & B Graduate Room
I watched an episode of Lang & O'Leary Exchange on CBC last night. An item they discussed was the threat of a strike among elementary school teachers in Ontario. (I use the word discussed loosely; it was actually a quarrel between the two on their diametrically opposed views on unions. O'Leary stood by his conviction that unions are evil and should be banned; Lang defended their efficacy on the basis that there is no other way to prevent worker exploitation other than a banding together along with the power to withdraw labour.)
            Clearly, neither of them was likely to change his/her mind. The “righteous mind” is seldom swayed by reasonable arguments.
            Which takes me to a useful tool for rethinking how we arrive at moral stances and how these stances—so often set in stone, apparently—do and don't change. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt tackles a very tough but highly relevant subject. I'm barely into it, but I'm already sensing that I've gone about my attempts at moral suasion (when they've arisen) in a fruitless and wrong-headed way.
            Think of us as having two parts. One is intuition/emotion (the affective domain, if you will) and the other is reason (the cognitive domain). Historically, according too Haidt, reason has been given too much credit as being the birthplace of our moral positioning. In other words, we've assumed that having been given the facts, we apply them and arrive at logical, rational positions.
            According to Haidt, current research shows that moral positions are gained in the affective domain and cognition (reasoning) has the primary task of justifying the position by rallying whatever favourable evidence can be conjured or found. Only seldom is change in initial positions observable as a consequence of reasoned argument.
            Here's a typical Haidt scenario. A researcher gathers 30 students in a room and asks them to make a judgement on the following situation: a family's pet dog is hit by a car and killed. In order to avoid being wasteful, they cook and eat the dog. What do you think of that? Most respondents assert quite strongly that it is both wrong and revolting. When the logic that a) we eat animals all the time, b) that the dog is dead and c) will feel no pain nor indignity and d) that there is no law against eating dogs, the respondents don't typically change their position, but instead, try to justify it with reasons like, “Well, it's an indignity to the pet.” Some will simply say, “I don't know why it's wrong; it just is.”
            The revulsion against eating dog, let alone pet dogs, is deeply engrained in our affective beings. We cannot be rational about an act like the one portrayed in the test.
            It's not surprising that some of us are politically conservative for life and others are equally social-democratic. The underlying orientation is not generally won through rational analysis of the two positions; most of us can can trace back to the beginnings of our “leaning” where we're likely to find a parent and/or teachers who leaned the same way so that our stance politically is all bound up with emotional attachments and revulsions dating back to early days.
            Most men lean left or right in concert with their fathers, unless they hate them, in which case they may obstinately demonstrate their feelings by leaning the other way . . . in defiance.
            The quarrels about the presence or exclusion of gays in churches have by now become classic in the story of the Christian Church. On the one side—the “liberal” side—a litany of reasons for treating gays evenhandedly has had virtually no effect on the “conservative” side's stance that a gay lifestyle cannot be scripturally supported, is therefore sin and has no place in the communion of Christians. According to Haidt's view, I would say that this deviation of moral stances cannot be resolved no matter how many and forcefully the reasons on either side are trumpeted. The division is embedded in the affective domains, the centres of emotion and intuition, i.e. the relatively stable moral predispositions of the people involved.
            The quarreling around contentious issues is a clamouring for reasons in support of an exceedingly stable position.
            Accepting Haidt's contention that “intuition precedes reason” should help us mitigate the rancorous divisions we live with, both religious and political. At the political level, governing parties should take initiative in fostering affective relationships among all legislators; it's through relationship and relationship alone that good governance might finally become a reality. Imagine a question period that is amiable and courteous, an opposition working at the same problems as the government and a government happy for their help because they have developed the appropriate intuitive and emotional trust of each other’s intentions.
♫Wouldn't it be nice♫
            Regarding the quarrel in churches over the inclusion or exclusion of people living a gay lifestyle, suffice it to say that the end result of the arguing won't lead to unity if Haidt is right. That's been amply demonstrated already. It hasn't been that long since gays were given tacit permission to be openly gay. As time passes, the liberal viewpoint will eventually dominate given that youth are growing up in an environment of greater tolerance of non-conventional sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, there remain two alternatives: church members and congregations can separate ties and regroup with those who share the same moral stance on the subject, or members and congregations could agree to disagree on the particular matter and focus on those things on which they share intuitive and emotional common ground.
            That, too, would be nice.
            Meanwhile, I suggest you don't waste your time with Lang and O'Leary Exchange if it's enlightenment you're looking for. Intuition precedes reason, remember.

1 comment:

  1. Emailed comment received:
    My Dad's mantra was "We have the truth, and therefore cannot compromise". I guess if you accept the premise, there is some kind of convoluted logic there. I'm right, you're wrong. Easy.