Knowing-Doing Connection Examined

This post is by Ann F-R, and it concerns Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, a book exposing how minds work — or how minds don’t work — and how irrational forces are often at work in our decisions, leading us to justify more than to think.

In Scot’s Weekly Meanderings on June 16th, he posted a link to an article which stated, “the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence.” Haidt concurs. “The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children. From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior.” (p.88, my emph.)

When I was carpooling teenagers to high school in CO, we had a conversation that ended with a united guffaw when I told them that our education paradigm is founded upon the idea that “giving you good information leads you to do what’s right, and to make the right choices.” They clearly recognized that simply knowing what they should do wasn’t sufficient to make them do it. Another memory surfaced of overhearing a mother send her toddler on a time out for misbehavior:  “Sit there, and think about being good.” Do we believe that if we, as adults, “think about being good”, that good behavior will follow? When we err or sin, do our thoughts center on not doing the same thing, again? The studies show, instead, that our thoughts focus on rationalizing and excusing our actions.

Consider ourselves, our families and churches, can you think of examples where reasoning gets in the way of honoring God in behavior and speech? How does the “rationalist delusion” affect our daily decisions? Is it easier to see such examples in others than to perceive the same patterns in ourselves?

There are studies which have shown how contrarily we act to the “good” we know. For instance, academic books on ethics “which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy. In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification).” (p. 88)

Could the same problem that beleaguers ethicists also beleaguer religious leaders? Are human leaders in any field of endeavor exempt from misusing expertise itself, and then subsequently rationalizing the poor behavior? It seems to be true that the greater our human power or expertise in any area, the more tempted we are to misappropriate power.

Are the leaders and teachers in our churches and seminaries today subject to the same weaknesses as the Pharisees, lawyers, scribes and Sadducees whom Jesus warned?  What practical ideas or scriptural models can be found which offer checks to our natural self-interest?

The person skilled at reasoning naturally uses it to advance self-interest, not truth or corrective actions; “most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.”  (p.89) Confirmation bias buttresses intuitions, selectively choosing facts or truth. “each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds… We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.” (p.90)

Does the next paragraph sound like the start of a description of “church”? How might this research highlight our understanding of salvation and mission? Or, church polity?

“But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. if our goal is to produce good behavior, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism.”” (p.90)

Haidt’s warning: “…the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist. I urged instead a more intuitionist approach to morality and moral education, one that is more humble about the abilities of individuals, and more attuned to the contexts and social systems that enable people to think and act well.” (pp.91-92)

There is strong tension within humans between moral thinking/reasoning and moral action, and within the church between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Consider the splits that have occurred within denominations, recently, or historically in the universal Church. (cf., Romans 14 or 1 Cor. 8) Do these studies and Haidt’s work offer insights which parallel Scripture?

For another scriptural connection, we might discuss what I would identify as an inclusio between James 2:10 and 3:2, in which “faith” and “works” are framed by a common verb (πταίω, to cause to stumble, err, or sin) with “whole law”, then “whole body”.




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