December 5, 2020

Musings in Moral Theology (2)

Johnson County Courthouse, Franklin Indiana

Musings in Moral Theology (2)

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.

• Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

• • •

The first principle Jonathan Haidt sets forth in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is:

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

Haidt urges us to recognize that there are two kinds of cognition that we access when making moral judgments: (1) intuition, and (2) reasoning.

As for the first, thousands of “tiny flashes” of judgment “flit through [our] consciousness” every day. These are “automatic” processes that lead us to make “effortless” judgments and decisions, and in fact, they run the human mind and have for millions and millions of years. The process of reasoning that we value so highly and put so much stock in, in fact is more of a servant to this intuitive process.

The metaphor Haidt uses to describe these two forms of cognition and how they function is that of the elephant and the rider. Over the course of human evolution, the elephant (intuition) took on a rider (reason) because the rider did something useful for the elephant. The elephant is still in charge and leads the way, but now it has the rider to come up with rationales for the decisions it makes. He once wrote an article called, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.”

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future (because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads) and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present. It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters. And, most important, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm. (p. 55)

Jonathan Haidt says that independently reasoned judgment is rare. Moral reasoning is not something people do in order to discover the truth. Humans just aren’t wired to dispassionately examine all the evidence and then come to rational conclusions when making moral judgments: “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments.” (p.55)

The rider goes where the elephant goes and then explains/justifies why he went there.

But there is more — a social angle to this. Making moral judgments is not an individualistic endeavor. Haidt calls his theory the “social intuitionist model of moral judgment,”

Moral talk serves a variety of strategic purposes such as managing your reputation, building alliances, and recruiting bystanders to support your side in the disputes that are so common in daily life. (p. 55)

Our moral arguments feel right to us because they align with our intuitions and help us feel accepted and properly aligned within our group. This is the “righteous mind,” and the natural response when someone comes at us with another point of view is to go immediately into defense/combat mode.

However — and this is important — what Jonathan Haidt is not saying is that the elephant is so relentless that it cannot be redirected onto other paths. Intuition is not destiny. We can change or modify our positions. We can allow ourselves to reflect upon our own automatic responses and allow reason to persuade us to see things a bit differently. We can also make space for people who are gifted “elephant whisperers” to help us see things from other perspectives so that we can begin to grasp and feel other moral intuitions.

And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (p. 58)


  1. Burro [Mule] says

    Dr. Haidt’s arguments very much remind me of this Youtube video by neurologist VS Ramachandran. He had a patient whose corpus callosum had to be severed, resulting in a split brain syndrome. Communicating with the non-dominant side of the man’s brain, Dr. Ramachandran found that although the man’s dominant side believed in God, the non-dominant side of his brain did not.

    It appears Jung’s Shadow is a real, measurable entity.

    What was even more illuminating was a discussion of this video on a Creation Science website ( [Sorry – two links in a post send you to moderation Purgatory] where they attempt to euchre the implications into their voluntaristic soteriology.

    • I don’t have time to dive fully in this right now, but I’m curious…do the creationists end up denying God’s creation in favor of a spiritual/supernatural answer? I’m always intrigued when there seems to be a hard line against nature in favor of a supernatural explanation; see also psychology and ‘spirits’.

  2. This is why it is WORK to know ourselves. It is the life’s journey for those who are willing to take it. It involves pain, endurance and will. It is the process that Jesus described of taking the log out of our own eye. It’s so much easier to sit in the shadow and judge the world than to let the light filter in and see what we’re made of. Much the same as love it is totally worth it if we are willing to engage. Many have already said that the fate of humanity rests on this very process and that if we as a whole continue to shrink from it, what with nuclear technology, we has a race will continue to point the finger until we have no one left to point at. This is the critical issue of humanity. We don’t find Christ without finding our hidden selves in him. When Jesus said he was “the way” he was not talking about Catholicism, Protestantism, Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, he was talking about the full and conscious opening of the Human spirit to the God spirit. It is a continual death and rebirth; some big, many small.

    • Chris, yes. Though Haidt is not religious, he studies religion and his favorite quote from Jesus that I have read is the one about taking the log out of our own eye.

      Ultimately, I think he is advocating moral humility. Taking the position of the listener rather than always speaking. Taking the place of the learner rather than always trying to teach others. Taking the position of allowing doubt rather than thinking I must stand in the place of certainty all the time. Being courteous enough to others to let them speak, giving them dignity and realizing that none of us has a monopoly on the truth.

      It heartens me to hear someone non-religious recognizing the problem of self-righteousness and a judgmental spirit in humanity as a whole, and not just in a screed against some religious hypocrites.

      • Though they would never characterize themselves that way, it seems more and more that the psychologists and the scientists are the new “religious”. They see the true need, or the reality of things as they are, in a way that many in the church have lost touch with. They are catching the depth and the mystery while so many of us are fixed on video screens and fireworks. They are tending make connections while the tribalism of the church continues to foster separation and a defensive posture. I find myself going to those worldly disciplines for spiritual nourishment on a regular basis.

        • Burro [Mule] says

          Maybe you can help me with this.

          WHY do you, Chris S, and others here keep railing against “tribalism”? Deep in your heart, do you REALLY want a homogenized one-world mega-tribe? Do you REALLY think it will end the tribal propensity to violence? Detribalized humans run around all their life trying to put together ad-hoc tribes. The markers are everywhere, and they are marketed to us with great attention to our desire to belong.

          We evolved in tribes, and we are happiest when we participate. We are also very good at hierarchies.

          Or is this just another distant echo of the Great War, from which Europe (and America) is still suffering a kind of PTSD.

          Tribalism does not necessarily lead to separation and violence. Read the encyclical I linked to yesterday, especially paragraph 15.

          Unity in diversity, the model of the most Holy Trinity. Human efforts cannot achieve it.

          • Tribes, ok.
            Tribalism, not ok.

            Tribalism is the very thing Haidt is writing against: the self-righteous defense/justification of our way vs. others to a thousand unhealthy degrees.

            • Mule, your response also may reveal where you are vs. where others are here among the commenters on Haidt’s “moral foundations” measurement (see tomorrow’s post).

              • Burro [Mule] says

                I “read ahead”, so I know pretty much where I am. I’m high in caring, but my basic reaction to lapses of fairness is “Deal with it”. I can handle a lot of inequality, even when I’m on the receiving end of it.

                I was gobsmacked by Haidt’s admission that the key conservative insight was “order is hard to achieve, fragile, and easily lost.” I wish he had included a key liberal insight of equal power.

                • That is indeed a profound and important insight, which is why I can never fully abandon my conservative roots and perspective. I like to think that I have added to it important progressive elements, but it will take me some time to formulate them into such a succinct and fundamental axiom.

                • Liberal insight: Sometimes the appearance of order, even a long-lasting and traditional appearance of it, in fact masks deep and systemic disorder.

            • –> “Tribes, ok.
              Tribalism, not ok.”

              Exactly how I see it, and I believe this is what Jesus teaches, too.

              • Burro [Mule] says

                Explain the difference, please.

                I have the same impatience when people lecture me about the difference between “Muslims” and “terrorists”, as if two days after I register Democrat a pair of special glasses will arrive in the mail that will enable me to tell the difference.

                I KNOW that the number of committed jihadists in any given Muslim population is vanishingly small, but it is not zero, like it is in the same number of Amish, Opus Dei members, or Jewish feminists. What bothers me is the insistence that I pretend that they aren’t there somewhere, and that they are just as likely to be somewhere else.

                So yeah, I guess I just admitted that I’m OK with racial profiling.

                • Tribe – a group of people drawn together for whatever reason. I think Jesus is okay with groups of people being drawn together.
                  Tribalism – the BELIEFS of group of people that lead them to draw lines in the sand, plant flags on their hills for THEIR truth. I don’t think Jesus is okay with Tribalism.

                  • Or maybe better stated…

                    I don’t think Jesus wants us to be DEFINED by our Tribe. Defining ourselves by our Tribe becomes Tribalism. (Maybe…?)

                    • Still thinking outloud here…

                      Saying that I’m a Caucasian is okay. I’m part of that Tribe.
                      Saying that I’m a Caucasian and YOU’RE NOT is not okay. That’s Tribalism.

                    • Saying that I’m Italian is okay; I’m part of that tribe (sort of). Saying that you are not fully human because you are not Italian, part of my tribe, is not okay. That’s tribalism.

                    • Klasie Kraalogies says

                      Agreed with Rick and Robert. Well stated.

                      Tribe is a description – and can even change. Tribalism is an action, and implies a whole host of negative association, starting with hate and derision.

                • Tribes that adhere to tribalism are unable to acknowledge the full humanity of the members of other tribes. Indeed, such tribes do not even have a working definition of what it means to be human, because defining humanity is not important to them; the only thing that matters to a tribe is who is inside, and who/what is outside. For tribes to have any working definition of humanity that recognizes the value of human being, the tribe must look beyond its own boundary to relationships outside in a wider network or society; without this, it’s impossible to accept or even begin to understand the universal humanity of the human family.

                  • Headless Unicorn Guy says

                    In most tribal languages, the word for the tribe usually translates as “The People” and those for any other tribe as “The Other” or “Enemy”.

                    (And I’ve got Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” on my headphones as I post this.)

            • The Church is a tribe.
              Jews and Gentiles are tribaLISM.

              Ergo, to me at least, it’s pretty anti-christian to be all about tribalism.

              Isn’t one of the points of the Noah story and before that the Adam story that we are all one big family tree?

              • Burro [Mule] says

                The Church is NOT a Tribe. It is the body of Christ. The Rus are, or were, a tribe, as were, or are, the Yupik, but their Churches are in communion.

                • But, how open are Rus churches to having (and accommodating to) Yupik members, and vice versa? I think a true mark of *ekklesia* is that it should transcend *ethne*.

                  • Burro [Mule] says

                    Friction between the ethnic churches is not unknown, but ‘phyletism’, the identification of the (ethnic) church with the ethné has been officially condemned. Orthodoxy doesn’t have a Pope as a locus of unity, nor a Confession, nor a ‘born again’ experience, but the communion is real.

                    • I’m not talking about ethnic churches claiming to be the sole/true representatives of their ethne (is that what you were saying?), but rather congregations that blithely cater to their ethne to the denigration/exclusion of all others. That’s the problem I’m seeing these days, in any number of places.

                    • How would such an ethnic church welcome into their midst the refugee or stranger? And if they could not, how could they be Christian?

                    • Oops. Should have googled phyletism, then replied. :-/

                    • Dana Ames says


                      The history of Orthodoxy in Alaska is instructive, and follows the pattern of previous Orthodox missionary activity in Bulgaria, Serbia, etc. in previous centuries. See the work of Fr Michael Oleksa, himself descended from “Creole” ancestors (Native Alaskan + Russian).

                      The Russian missionaries to the Alaskan Native peoples regarded them as fully human beings. They built village schools for all the children, Native and Russian – did not send the Native children away to residential “Native only” schools. They did not forbid the Native languages; on the contrary, gifted priests and monks translated the Orthodox Liturgy and prayers into several Native languages, and this was completed within a very few decades. They identified promising Native young men and raised money for their training in Russia for the priesthood. As far as I know, the difficulties the Alaskan Natives had with the Russians came at the hands of the fur trade bosses, not the monks or priests.

                      I know a woman who lived among the Yupik for more than 5 years. She describes the full enculturation of Orthodoxy in her experience among them, to the point that Protestants she knew there believed that making the sign of the cross was Yupik, not Orthodox! Most of the Orthodox churches in Alaska are descended from the Russian tradition, and most of them are served by Native priests. I’d say that’s pretty accommodating. Russian visitors would be completely welcome in any of those churches.


            • Donalbain says

              I’m in lots of tribes. Tribalism would not allow that.

              • This. To avoid tribalism, member of tribes must be able to stand outside their native or adopted tribe and establish fully human relationships with member of other tribes who they also meet outside the boundaries. Only thus can the humanity of others be perceived, and only thus can our own be realized. That’s why the church, the Body of Christ, calls people outside their native or adopted tribes to form fully human relationship beyond the humanly limiting boundaries of tribes. The humanity of Christ can only be known by us when we recognize it in those not like us or our tribe(s).

          • I think Mike said it. It’s the ism of the thing. I like being with like minded people who you might call my tribe. In fact I would admit to a very strong preference for being with them. I’m not out looking for new friends. It makes me feel good to be with them, it makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel complementary and in tune. Frankly, I think it’s the healthiest and best way to live. Having said that, when I begin to think that my group has a corner on truth and reality then the ismness filters in and the clarity necessary for sound judgment is compromised. I will make potentially erroneous judgments against others with no view to the facts, or very little view to them, simply to keep my standing in the group or keep my paperwork in order. The paradox is that I can’t live without the group but I must be a tribe of one. My judgments must be honed and sliced with a razor, the arduous task of self critique, before I can fully accept them as my own. The strongest functioning member of any group is the fully individuated person who is always ready to step outside if called upon. Tribalism’s greatest attribute is loyalty to the group that is its greatest handicap.

            • I think Richard Rohr has most recently popularized the term tribalism but it could simply be read as old fashioned group haughtiness. Groupthink at the expense of the individual mind. My main point was not about tribalism per se but that I think the Holy Spirit is moving outside the group in a way that would fluster a lot of people if they began to realize it. Those who thought they had sole possession of the untamed and untamable Spirit.

      • –> “Taking the place of the learner rather than always trying to teach others.”

        I think the best teachers are the ones who humbly teach from the angle of “here’s what I’m learning.” One of the joys I have in leading both a men’s group and an adult Sunday school class is how much I learn about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, myself and others during the process of pulling a lesson together. I also run each of those as very “conversational” in order to learn from those who attend.

        • Christiane says

          I think the best teachers are the ones who help others to see things differently. That is the kind of teaching that changes lives. And opens doors in the mind that were needing permission to be opened. A teacher can help bring forth from a student that which was there within the student all the time.

          Like that saying: the Holy Spirit points only to Christ . . . . . the best kind of teacher-faciliator-parent points a young person towards the light, but any authentic journey towards the light can only be undertaken by that person freely . . . . .
          but IF the person journeys in response to what resonates within, they may be able to someday become for another ‘a teacher’ who points towards the light and opens the door of the cage so that their journey may begin freely

      • So beautifully said!

  3. Ronald Avra says

    Just checking in to acknowledge that I am present and reading the posts. My mind is in a bit of shell shock this morning and I’m having to work to follow the discussions.

    • —> “My mind is in a bit of shell shock this morning…”

      Don’t need to know the details, but praying for you, Ronald.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Musing in moral theology:
    “When ‘What is Right’ has been thoroughly deconstructed, ‘What I Want’ will still remain.”
    — attr to C.S.Lewis

  5. Iain Lovejoy says

    What I don’t see here is any attention to the way intuitive judgements are made in the first place. They do not appear fully formed and causeless out of the ether, but are compounded from little and partial understandings which can suddenly mesh to form a conclusion. The “elephant and rider” metaphor distorts the picture because our thoughts and judgements are what forms the “elephant” in the first place. Experts in any field can and do form intuitive judgements as to the correct conclusion or likely problems and dangers without apparent and analysable conscious reasoning, but they do so not through some mysterious primitive consciousness unconnected to the rational mind, but because of years of accumulated experience, judgement and reasoning about their subject. The “rider” of rational mental process informs the elephant too.

    • The ability to recognize patterns or reworkings of patterns from earlier experience, and the ability to focus, and not get distracted by the noise that comes with the salient information.

  6. Klasie Kraalogies says

    This is pretty much what Daniel Kahneman writes about in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. It is not just in moral reasoning/judgement. It is everywhere. He called it System 1 (intuitive) and System 2 (Rational). It might be instructive to rrad him as well as a light feom a different source on these matters.