Morality and Body

By Ann F-R:

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion explores how human morality develops and affects our daily choices and interactions. In ch. 3, Elephants Rule, Haidt further developed his metaphor of body and mind as an elephant and rider, which illustrated the first principle of the social intuitionist model: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” We prefer to imagine that our thoughts can be higher & purer than our own actions, and better than everyone else’s thoughts, too.  To our dismay, we learn that our moral thinking more naturally serves as an argumentative defense lawyer for our elephants, not as a sincere guide in search of truth.

Numerous studies reveal how physical milieu & our senses affect our moral reasoning, or “how our automatic self-righteousness works”. (p.54). Seemingly innocuous changes to environment – having interviewees wash their hands before a survey, a whiff of “fart spray” in the air, or the presence of hand sanitizer nearby – change people’s moral judgments. These small changes are called “affective primes”, and weight judgments and reaction times. Essentially, our bodily intuitive processes (the elephant) evaluate instantaneously, and then reasoning kicks in to justify the elephant’s evaluation.  Furthermore, affinity groups have been found to be “affective primes” – social groups and political groups. “Most people turn out to have negative implicit associations with many social groups, such as black people, immigrants, obese people, and the elderly.” (p.57) (We can check our attitudes online:  the Implicit Association Test.) Snap evaluations of attractiveness, competence & likeability influence voting. The “[Lady] Macbeth Effect” seems especially pertinent to John 8:2-11:

Do we have personal testimony and that of scripture regarding actual paths taken and their subsequent effects on moral actions, decisions and thinking? Consider the indwelling Holy Spirit’s affects on our natural choices. Biblical exemplars could include Proverbs 1 (note vv. 22-33) and Matthew 16:13-23 with Matt. 26:51-56 (cf. John 18:10).

Subjects who are asked to wash their hands…become more moralistic about…moral purity…  ..immorality makes people want to get clean. People who are asked to recall their own moral transgressions, or merely to copy by hand an account of someone else’s moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often, and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves.  (p.61)

Do this insight studies shed light on the Pharisees’ & Jesus’ actions in John 8?

Infants of 6 months “are watching how people behave toward other people, and they are developing a preference for those who are nice rather than those who are mean.” (p.64) Neuroscientist Damasio showed that losing connections to emotion-processing areas of the brain compromises “moral competence”. (Psychopaths’ brain scans differ from normal scans; their emotive centers don’t react when presented with horrific images.) Studies conducted by philosopher Joshua Greene using fMRI scans confirm these results. The relative strength of emotional processing activity in the normal brain “predicted the average moral judgment.” (p.66) People are more apt to judge that flipping a switch which kills one person instead of five people is acceptable, while the horror of personally shoving the person with a bare-handed push is not. Greene correlated the intensity of activity within the emotion-processing areas to people’s choices. It seems that the further we remove our bodies’ activity from the immediate cause of death, the easier it is to harm others.

Shall we reconsider the moral implications of criminal & capital punishment, modern warfare and its weaponry?

While the elephant (automatic processes) takes precedence in moral reasoning, it does not mean that the rider (controlled processes such as reasoning) cannot influence the elephant. Haidt points out that we are social elephants, and friendly/unfriendly human interactions affect our leanings.

When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. (p.68)

AFR:  The effects on moral thinking of family, friends, social groups (including race, gender, age-related, religious and political, e.g.) and communities weave into our reasoning processes in complex patterns. Should our faith create & sustain an alternative framing of reality which offers a new perspective to understand life, relationships and community?  “[Social psychologist] Zajonc said that thinking could work independently of feeling in theory, but in practice affective reactions are so fast and compelling that they act like blinders on a horse: they ‘reduce the universe of alternatives’ available to later thinking.” (p.56) Psychological studies have obvious limitations, not the least of which is their inability, thus far, to account for each person’s history of prior actions, behavioral choices and how they may affect which options are visible to the elephantine judgment-maker. Contemporary cultural standards provide lenses, too, through which the majority of people evaluate situations.

Do we have personal testimony and that of scripture regarding actual paths taken and their subsequent effects on moral actions, decisions and thinking? Consider the indwelling Holy Spirit’s affects on our natural choices. Biblical exemplars could include Proverbs 1 (note vv. 22-33) and Matthew 16:13-23 with Matt. 26:51-56 (cf. John 18:10).

 

 

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    While I agree with Haidt’s analysis and conclusion, my elephant is leaning away from him and I believe there are several reason’s for this.

    I mentioned this on another thread this morning before I read this, but there are different ways of framing this up. The way I have heard it framed up in the past is that people would say that the human mind is set up to be excellent at pattern matching. As we go through our lives we develop patterns about the way the world works, and we typically do not think through all the issues each and every time, instead we employ the patterns that we learn.

    Another perspective on this is that I think that he is using gross averages and trends in the population. I would like to see the effects of consciousness training on the way people perceive and react. I contend, my elephant or my pattern based on experience, that people can be trained to be more rational and recognize when their elephant is running loose, so that the rider can know to take action. Awareness of the problem is a critical step in being able to solve it.

    Which brings up another view, I believe that this could be framed up, and it has been, as people being natural scientists, particularly when we are very young. We make an hypothesis, gather data for and against the hypothesis with a natural bias to accept data that support our hypothesis, and then usually do not make it to the point of generating a new alternative hypothesis if we feel we have accounted for most of the variation. Individuals will indeed have different levels of innate satisfaction with how much data is necessary for them to make a judgement on future events.

    People are born this way, they are little scientists. But they lose it as the elephant grows….

    But, there are disciplines where people receive training to bring this decision making process into the conscious world. Science, engineering, business training, most college pursuits.

    But does theology training provide this?

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Hi, DRT. The rationalist understanding of human development has been what all of humanity is the most comfortable believing. However, the studies haven’t borne it out that this model sufficiently or even closely resembles the reality – either in psych or neurological studies. It becomes particularly obvious among the less educated & in non-western settings. Education may merely provide us with more smoke to blow which cloaks the inadequacy of the model. You do admit that your elephant wants to lean away from these findings, and I think most of us feel that same inclination. This is where the rider might have input, if we don’t allow our physical unease & discomfort to dispute the truth: Haidt points out that we are social elephants, and friendly/unfriendly human interactions affect our leanings.

    The church is the place where we should be confessing our brokenness, and it should be the safest place to confront our inclinations to self-justify ourselves and any order of which we are among the beneficiaries. DRT, one question I have for you is why – being Christian – you believe that your elephant can be trained to act by academic studies (even theology)? If we could do this on our own strength & smarts, why and where would we need to deny ourselves, be crucified with Christ and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be transformed & conformed to the Lord?

    You’re correct that the rationalist model works well in the physical world. Children are small scientists in the physical world, experimenting w/ what works or doesn’t, what matches reality or doesn’t. Even infants, evidently, evidence surprise when shown illusions that physical objects pass through one another. However, the model fails in the social world. We would much, much rather maintain our human connections to our social group than deal with clear facts contrary to our group’s agenda.

    FWIW, my training & work in the fields of economics & finance also thoroughly dispute rationalism, which was/is the foundational assumption of neoclassical economics. It’s the fundamental flaw & error that Alan Greenspan had to admit to Congress when the financial markets imploded. Believing in a false or flawed version of reality has dire consequences to individuals and to society. Haidt sees that in his field of psychology, too, where a paradigm was supported far beyond its plausibility, until the challenges became too numerous to refute. (He told a story of an early challenger who was excoriated & attacked by psychologists & other scientists for pointing out biological problems with the rationalist foundation.)

    Haidt looks at the studies quite extensively in earlier chapters, and then shows how newer studies challenge rationalism. Newer models are proposed (including his) to explain the processes underlying human moral judgements, better. If this chapter already made your elephant lean, the next one will make it squirm & dance! :D

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    By the way, this section above described the Macbeth Effect which seems to me to provide some insight about Jesus’ actions when facing the men who wanted the adulterous woman stoned in John 8:

    Subjects who are asked to wash their hands…become more moralistic about…moral purity… ..immorality makes people want to get clean. People who are asked to recall their own moral transgressions, or merely to copy by hand an account of someone else’s moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often, and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves. (p.61)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Ann F-R, thanks for interacting.

    I really need to get this book, perhaps today……

    I don’t believe that what I was proposing is a rationalist model. I am saying that we form patterns, that vary greatly in their ability to predict, and then intuitively apply those patterns to situations. Perhaps I need to read the book.

    We would probably have a good old time sitting around and talking about the strange and unusual things that happen in the financial world. I have been involved with it in some shape or form for, gee whiz, much more than a decade now, particularly working with Marketing departments to develop financial products for consumers. People are not rational in their decisions, not even close.

    And that is part of the reason that I feel education helps with being able to get the elephant under control. Though I do suspect that we are talking about two very different kinds of education. I don’t believe learning facts, figures, systems or theologies, for that matter, substantively impact the decision making process. As you said, they are likely to add additional fuel to the fire of justifying ones position. It seems to get all consuming for some folks.

    But what I am talking about is in learning how to think to facilitate rationality. At the risk of me saying too much, let me give an example. I have been working for a particular financial services company (company A) that is particularly good at making objective decisions. This company purchased another financial services company (company B), and the decision making processes could not be further apart. A is objective almost to a fault, B is much more traditional. The people in B have plenty of knowledge, but they do not know how to think. Comp A brought me in to teach Comp B how to think, but, well, it reminds me of what an old boss of mine used to say. Do not try to teach a pig to dance because it will frustrate you and annoy the pig. Let’s say they were annoyed. They got rid of me as soon as they could, but they still pay me, they just don’t want me to go there and help them. I guess it could be much worse.

    So, I believe it is this thinking skill, and decision making skill, and perceptiveness skill, and humility skill, that is the learning that I am talking about. That’s why I question which college pursuits develop it and which do not.

    This is background. I will discuss elephant training in relation to Jesus in another reply.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    On to training the elephant. Your question has really made me think and I will repeat it here

    why – being Christian – you believe that your elephant can be trained to act by academic studies (even theology)? If we could do this on our own strength & smarts, why and where would we need to deny ourselves, be crucified with Christ and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be transformed & conformed to the Lord?

    Let me ask this. If we were taught to deny ourselves, to make ourselves subservient to others, and not necessarily in the name of Christ, would we be better off for it? Let me clarify “we be better off”. I am not talking about being better off in the sense of getting closer to salvation or anything like that. I am talking about being better off in the world, and the “we” that I am talking about, is humanity. Would we be better off?

    I think the answer to this is a resounding yes. This is consistent with many of the great religious traditions. Buddhism, many parts of Hinduism, Confucianism, and certainly Christianity. I don’t believe there is some sort of knowledge of this world that is unique to Jesus, he is largely in line with many others.

    But that does not mean that people actually follow his advice or the advice of other groups that teach a similar message. They don’t. I can personally vouch that when you teach that message in most places of the world they want to get rid of you! But it does work.

    So I believe that this type of attitude and training leads to an orientation that is a better orientation, and that the world generally does not understand this type of orientation. It requires a new way to think of the world and your role in the world. How do you make decisions if your paradigm has changed to be that” I am not really important?” I contend that it does.

    Having said all of that, I am a Christian too and not some gnostic or power of positive thinking person trying to get the secret knowledge. I believe the primary thing Jesus did was direct us to the truth by showing that he indeed is the rightful ruler of the world. None of the other religions can even come close to claiming that. They still have to rationalize their view but Christianity does not. I find it reassuring that his teachings reinforce the teachings of many other religions and things that I have found to be beneficial. All we need to do is nuance wrath and question ECT.

    So what (I believe) I am saying is that people can change their elephants, but to get the most elephant change possible would require being a Christian. But, training in the right orientation is beneficial regardless of it not being the best.

    BTW, I find Haidt’s findings tremendously useful, and like Paul in his letter to Timothy, I think that being useful is high praise.

    I am concerned that I may this may give a wrong impression to some. I would love folks to critique my thoughts.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Basically, believing that our elephants are mostly or firstly controlled by the riders is a rationalist assumption, DRT. Haidt agrees that the rider can influence the elephant, but mostly that influence occurs after the fact of the elephant’s response. If I understand what he has discovered correctly, Haidt would agree that we may be able to check or bridle the elephant’s response, to slow down the elephant enough to insert thoughtfulness into the process, but that check is not found within the primary, automatic processes of our brains. So, how might we curb our elephants?

    The patterns you’re writing about have different purposes when they’re in the physical world & in the social world. We learn in the physical world that pain results from trying to ignore gravity’s effects. The pattern is set by the laws of physics, as it were. The social world is significantly more complex. If a dictator is kind to or protective of our group, while ruthless, vicious and murderous toward other groups, we will naturally tend not to point out the evil or the moral hypocrisy, in order to protect ourselves and our groups. (e.g., Saddam Hussein protected Sunni and Christian minorities in Iraq, and oppressed the Kurds and the Shi’a)

    Interacting w/ Haidt’s book and then reading about your business experiences w/ companies A & B brought me to imagine how Haidt would respond. Setting a goal to teach company B “how to think” would counter-productive from Haidt’s perspective. (That was your experience, too.) It’s a set up that presupposes superiority and higher knowledge by company A, which immediately causes company B elephants to lean away from you because “A” is perceived as hostile to their team. We err in trying to reason with elephants’ inclinations. Rather, his social intuitionist model of moral judgment would affirm that we might have more success becoming friends, listening, and asking questions to bring to the surface how & why they follow certain paths, before trying to affect changes to their processes. (cf. the second post, here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/05/25/the-righteous-mind/ )

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Note: in post 6, above, I left out a “be” in the last paragraph: “…would be counter-productive from Haidt’s perspective.”

    re your 5, DRT, I believe you genuinely had the goal of serving company B in teaching them how to think and make objective decisions. Unfortunately, their (elephants’) perceptions of your presence, actions and words were that you (or you, as a representative of company A) were hostile. Those perceptions – evident in the outcome – are a major hurdle to overcome. There will certainly be situations where, no matter how friendly or faithful we are in our interactions, or how much of a fellow team player we demonstrate ourselves to be, we will not be empowered to affect changes because there are embedded unethical behaviors and rationalizations in the structures, themselves. We will definitely face entrenched refusal to face truth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true that, as you said, people can change their elephants, but to get the most elephant change possible would require being a Christian. If we are known to be loving bearers of grace and truth, some other elephants will respond (prevenient grace!) before they know exactly to what they’re responding.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Ann F-R, I believe that I understand and am totally on board with the rider not really influencing the elephant much when the elephant wants to act. I think what I am saying is that we really do need to try and train the elephant to help the situation out before we run into the situation. Once it is on us the elephant will do what the elephant must do.

    This is a strange example, but I think it makes the point. In one of the movies out there about controlling your dreams, they make the point that you need to make the act of checking whether or not you are dreaming a conscious act in your awake life before you will remember to do it, more or less, unconsciously in your dream life. I think what they proposed for this, not that it is relevant in specific, is to check that text says the same thing each time you read it and look away. They say in the dream it does not.

    Perhaps this is also my experience with meditation in Buddhism that has led me to this place. There, many seemingly automatic process are brought under control through conscious thought and training. They even specifically train to remain in control through the process of dying, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is an amazing thing to read.

    These contemplative practices really do work. That is what I am talking about, training the elephant to react the way you want it to react before it is in a situation where it will rear or run away or jump up and down at the sight of a mouse (are they really afraid of mice?).

    And you are exactly right about being set up for failure in my last assignment, no amount of making buddies would help, they were threatened so much that they had to figure out how to get me to go. I seem to get assignments like that from time to time, in 1997 I got one where they made me a temp division head to make sure a certain project got complete on time with the President of this Fortune 500 company telling me to do whatever it takes to make the deadline, and then I had to go back to my old job. My boss called me in her office and said “I hope you know that you are going to be the sacrificial animal on this no matter if it succeeds or not…..” Sure enough….

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Oh yes, it has been good talking with you. I changed the oil in the tractor, changed the front differential fluids, tilled the un-planted parts of one garden, and am about the go bush hogging in the back field. Wonderful work to do while thinking about these things on a nice cool day.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Since we are the only two talking, I also have a practice that I think helps keep the relative size of the elephant down. I make it a practice to regularly change things in my life. At least once a week change something that is automatic to something new. I think this has many benefits including helping with neural plasticity, but it also helps to train the elephant, or, I believe, may even make the elephant smaller. Less purely reflex automatic reactions, and development of a better rider to help control the elephant. Practice makes perfect.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    DRT, I’ve appreciated the interaction, too, and I hope it’s also been helpful to lurkers who haven’t commented! In the post for the next chapter, we’ll get more into methods where we can make the elephant more visible and accountable. First, though, we’ll meet some more info about ourselves that will probably make us even more uncomfortable than we are, right now. I wrote notes as I read to highlight how squirmy some of the info makes us feel. Stay tuned! :) Being aware of our elephants’ propensity to lean away from recognizing these aspects of our moral thinking processes takes precedence before we can figure out how to handle the leaning.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X