Knowing-Doing Connection Examined

Knowing-Doing Connection Examined June 29, 2012

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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  • John M.

    Interesting post. Anyone who has struggled with addictive/compulsive behavior can verify the truth in these words. Our self-justification, rationalizing, and denial all serve to “explain” and defend our destructive behavior as long as we are trying to manage it on our own. It’s not until one enters recovery and becomes part of a bonded, like-minded group that encourages behavioral change, challenges irrational behavior, and provides support and accountability in an atmosphere that is safe, understanding and supportive that they are able to face their irrationality and insanity and are able to begin making positive behavioral changes. And, yes, that is what the church should look like. Sadly, many churches are more like the Lion’s Club while AA and the recovery movement looks more like the church [should] in this area.

  • Peter

    Interesting. Just finished “Till We Have Faces.” Not sure how many times I’ve read it or listened to it. Beautiful book with a beautiful but difficult message relevant to this article. “The goodness of God leads us to repentance.” What is that saying about “the unexamined life?” My personal experience is relevant to another recent post about silence/meditation, etc. – I believe that it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to me and has helped me re-interpret many significant experiences of my life. Thankfully, He’s loving and gentle with me.

  • More and more I’m being made to see that the “facts” I believe have nothing to do with how faithfully I follow Christ.

    Maybe the mark of a mature follower of Christ is the extent that one can peacefully admit that he/she doesn’t know anything but walking according to the way of life, death, and resurrection WITH Christ.

  • This sounds a lot like the premise of Jamie Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom,” which in some ways is a philosophical expansion of Alexander Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World.” “I think, therefore I am” doesn’t cut it; instead, “I desire, therefore I am.” We are creatures of love, not merely of thought.

  • Thank you for these insightful comments, and for the book recommendations for readers, Peter & Anthony! John M and Nate W, imho, you have both honed in on the crux of our human condition. We’re stuck without a community that loves us and through love enables us to see ourselves, truly, and to be transformed behaviorally to love others! We so naturally seek groups which confirm us in our brokenness. We need love to compel us into communities which work together through the healing and transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

    For those interested, the 1 Corinthians chapter to which I referred above was 1 Corinthians 8. The close parentheses mark after the “8” in the post above made the chapter reference into a cool guy in shades! ha! Now, we know ” 8 ) ” gives us an emoticon on patheos!

    I offer apologies for my inability to check with this post, earlier. I came home after a week away to widespread power outages in Maryland which affected us, too. (We started our generator which keeps our own & neighbors’ food from spoiling in the fridge & freezer, & enables internet access, but oh, it’s steamy weather!)

  • Bev Mitchell

    Ann and Peter – yes the Holy Spirit is central to all of his.


    “There is strong tension within humans between moral thinking/reasoning and moral action, and within the church between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.”

    This is a good argument for the necessity of the Holy Spirit. We often skip over him in many ways, to our loss. If we want our orthopraxy to line up better with our orthodoxy, then we must turn regularly to the power source of orthopraxy. All other power sources are too weak. 

    I’m currently reading “The Righteous Mind”. I wonder where Haidt would say the Holy Spirit finds purchase on our intuition/intellect?

  • Dan Arnold

    Ann F-R, I’ve been following this series at a distance, so to speak, especially with the fires here in your old haunts. In all of your analysis, I’m left feeling a bit discouraged. The fact that we are biologically preconditioned to by-pass dis-confirming evidence leaves me wondering, how do we persuade people or can we persuade people that what they are doing is wrong? We can talk about the Holy Spirit, but I think we all have seen cases where believers seem to be closed to her prompting. I do know I like how Nathan approached David through the use of a story that got around his defenses. What are your thoughts?

    Shalom uvrecha,