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Bob Burkett

Bob Burkett is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a former Editor of the Irish Rover. He is currently a fellow at the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia, and can be reached at rburkett@alumni.nd.edu.

Ideology and Irrationality

By | August 30, 2013

Participation in the public square is no doubt facilitated by one’s experiences at the family dinner table. It is here that a spirit of communitas is fostered within the rigid, systematic body of the laws of American etiquette.

Of particular importance when a guest is present, etiquette provides invaluable instruction, from which fork to use (work from the outside in!) to the proper positioning of body parts (sit up straight and no elbows on the table!) to certain limitations on the subject matter of conversation (do not discuss politics or religion at the dinner table!). As elementary American rules of etiquette, it is taboo to disregard them.EP

The rule limiting what can be discussed has always been puzzling to me. Yes, common sense tells us that broaching deeply personal topics can yield ugly disagreements, but surely two humans—the pinnacle of earthly creation, the rational beings—can gain genuine insights into each other’s religious and political motivations without getting too upset.

And yet discussions like this, time and again, become emotionally charged shouting matches, revealing confirmation biases, deaf ears and closed minds. Seldom does better understanding result from such arguments, and in many cases their end result is a firmer reinforcement of one’s own predispositions.

What is it about religion and politics that so often turns normally civil people into firebrands?

Neuropsychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind—a book about the formation of individuals’ political ideologies—that divergent beliefs develop from fundamentally different moral conceptions of the world. These “moral matrices” shape our worldview and in turn lead us to make intuitive judgments, often coupled with strong emotions, about the world around us. This is why political issues like abortion can engender such passionate argument on both ends; each opposing “side” has an intuitively- and morally-grounded predisposition toward their own position.

One might raise the important objection that this point dismisses or diminishes that chief distinguishing feature of human nature: the capacity to engage in rational reflection. After all, our form of government is one firmly grounded in rationality; surely reason plays an important role in the formation of political ideology.

Haidt does not deny this. He does, however, assert that our reason is co-opted by subrational intuitions and cannot be divorced from those intuitions. Reason, therefore, is useful only insofar as it is employed to justify the a priori assumptions intuitively entrenched in citizens’ minds. The reasons developed by both conservatives and liberals on the topic of gay marriage are largely based in intuitive notions about the nature of social norms—the former group upholding the traditional male-female complimentary of the marriage bond and the latter group interpreting traditional marriage as the exclusion of a specific class of people through a largely arbitrary restriction.

Haidt quotes another writer regarding the post-hoc formation of justificatory principles as saying,

“We have strong feelings that tell us in clear and uncertain terms that some things simply cannot be done and that other things simply must be done. But it is not obvious how to make sense of these feelings and so we, with the help of some especially creative philosophers, make up a rationally appealing story [about rights].”

All of this is not to say that morality and practical reason are merely convenient fictions that subjectively provide a basis for the formation of political opinions. Rationality, if engaged properly, is an important instrument for the analysis of problems and their solutions. Similarly, objective morality does exist in the midst of all of this, but it is evident that these a priori moral foundations are somehow transmitted to citizens via their upbringing, by their parents and their specific cultural milieu, as one of Michael Bradley’s articles has mentioned.

It is to say, however, that the treatment of reason as a catholicon for modern political and social ills is a tenuous treatment at best.

A recent New York Times poll illustrates nicely how Catholics employ “reason” to size up and dismiss the Church’s formal teachings.

The poll revealed a striking distance between the creed of the Church and what Catholics actually believe:

36% of Catholics thought that abortion should be “generally available.”

62% of Catholics support the legalization of gay marriage, the highest of any Christian church.

53 and 49%, respectively, of Catholics also considered the Catholic Church and US Bishops, respectively, to be out of touch with the average Catholic.

46% of Catholics claim that the Pope is not infallible when declaring formally on matters of faith and morals.

78% of Catholics prefer their own conscience to the teachings of the popes when those two authorities conflict.

Finally, 83% of Catholics believe that one can be a “good” Catholic while thinking false the Church’s teachings on birth control, abortion and/or divorce.

The sheer multitude of Catholics who individually part ways with the Church on basic social, political and moral issues is indicative of the difficulty people have intuitively grasping the teachings of the Church. While an in-depth nature vs. nurture debate regarding the formation of individual political beliefs might be worth further exploration, for the time being it should suffice to say that the Church plays an increasingly diminished role in shaping the cultural surroundings of the American people in the modern world. No doubt a number of sources have superseded and/or undermined the role of the Church in shaping individuals; mass media emphasizes the recent sex abuse scandal of the Church, secularization perpetuates the compartmentalization of faith from other facets of life, and the current climate of political polarization forces people to both extremes of the ideological spectrum.

If these greater forces are indeed shaping the intuitive acceptance of supposedly rational political beliefs—thus making them hardly rational at all—then perhaps the norms and social institutions falling victim to deconstruction are not so “irrational” after all.

Haidt notes in the final analysis of his book that the empirical evidence he has gathered provides strong support for a conservative understanding of human nature:

“Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prime to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapter 8 and 11).

Based on my own research I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims.”

The fact that social institutions like the family and the Catholic Church have existed for thousands of years should be taken as a greater sign of legitimacy—a sign of history’s wisdom—than a contemporary majority support for positions that’s based almost entirely on the ever-malleable intuitions of a generation.

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  • http://everydayasceticism.com Dylan Pahman

    “The fact that social institutions like the family and the Catholic Church have existed for thousands of years should be taken as a greater sign of legitimacy….”

    I was tracking with you for a bit there, but how is the above not an argumentum ad antiquitatem?

    I could see this easily inviting objections like “slavery was an institution that existed for thousands of years, but no one today would call it ‘a sign of history’s wisdom.'” Therefore, institution X, Y, or Z that has been around so long may be just as foolish and immoral.

    Antiquity, of course, does not make something automatically wrong either, but saying something is (or is more likely to be) wise because it is old has no greater force than saying something is (or is more likely to be) wise because it garners “a contemporary majority support.” Indeed, they both appeal to majority support: both perspectives rest upon the question: “How can so many people be wrong?” In the former, it is people through the ages. In the latter, it is people in the present day. Sadly, majorities of all times and places are capable of being very wrong, indeed.

  • Bob Burkett

    Thanks for your comment, Dylan. Perhaps the concluding phrase could have been better worded than “legitimacy.” The word choice here was not trying to imply that tradition is always the preferred alternative to any type of rational questioning of the accepted order. Rather, I was merely intending to ground tradition in a greater sense of epistemic validity in order to reverse the contemporary paradigm in which tradition is subordinated to reason. Rational deconstruction of traditional norms is upheld as the contemporary status quo, in which reason is always considered an improvement to traditional structures. I was hoping to argue, that, as it stands today – the status quo should be a shift back to an erring on the traditional institutions still existing within the culture, subject to rational discourse but not as easily overlooked or discarded as the culture today would have them be. Of course, these are still subject to change and I cannot refute the fact that slavery itself was once held amongst the traditional institutions, but I cannot help but feel as though traditions existing through today deserve more than the cursory glance they receive.