Hearts and Minds

Much as I disliked Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Righteous Mind overall, I’m quite interested in many of the basic propositions that this strain of cognitive science and social psychology are proposing about mind, consciousness, agency, responsibility and will. Most often what frustrates me most is not how unsettling the scholars writing in this vein are but how much they domesticate their arguments or avoid thinking through the implications of their findings.

When we read The Righteous Mind together at Swarthmore, for example, one of my chief objections to Haidt’s own analysis is that he simply asserts that what he and others have called WEIRD psychosocial dispositions (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) at some point emerged in recent human history (as the acronym suggests) and have never been common or universal at any point since, including now. Haidt essentially leverages that claim into an argument that “conservative” dispositions are the real universal, which I don’t think he even remotely proves, and then gets even more into the weeds by suggesting that people with WEIRD-inflected moral dispositions would accomplish more of their social and political objectives if only they acted somewhat less WEIRD. The argument achieves maximum convolution in Haidt when he seems to suggest that he prefers WEIRD outcomes, because he’s largely stripped away the ground on which he or anyone else could argue for that preference as something other than the byproduct of a cognitive disposition. Why are those outcomes preferable? If they are preferable in terms of some kind of fitness, that they produce either better individual or species-level outcomes in terms of reproduction and survival, presumably that will take care of itself over time. If they are preferable because of some other normative rationale, then where are we getting the capacity for reason that allows us to recognize that? Is it WEIRD to think of WEIRD, in fact? Is The Righteous Mind itself just a product of WEIRD cognitive dispositions? (E.g., the proposition that one should write a book which is based on research which argues that the writing of books based on research should persuade us to sometimes make moral arguments that do not derive their force from the writing of books based on research.)


Many newer cognitivist, evolutionary-psychological and memetics-themed arguments get themselves into the same swamp. Is memetics itself just a meme? What kind of meme reproduces itself more readily by revealing its own character? Is “science” or “rationality” just a fitness landscape for memes? Daniel Kahneman at least leaves room for “thinking slow”, which is potentially the space inhabited by science, but the general thrust of scholarly work in these domains makes it harder and harder to account for “thinking slow”, for a self-aware, self-reflective form of consciousness that is capable of accurately or truthfully understanding some of its own conditions of being.

But it isn’t just cognitive science that is making that space harder and harder to inhabit. Various forms of postmodern and postructuralist thought have arrived at some similar rebukes to various forms of Cartesian thinking via some different routes. So here we are: the autonomous self driven by a rational mind with its own distinctive individual character and drives is at the very least a post-1600 invention. This to my mind need not mean that the full package of legal, institutional and psychological structures bound up in that invention are either fake impositions on top of some other “real” kind of consciousness or sociality, nor that this invention is always to be understood as and limited to a Eurocentric imposition. “Invention” is a useful concept here: technologies do not drift free of the circumstances of their creation and dissemination but they can be powerfully reworked and reinterpreted as they spread to other places and other circumstances.

Still, if you believe the new findings of cognitivists, we may be at the real end of that way of thinking about the nature of personhood and identity, and thus maybe at the cusp of experiencing our sense of selfhood differently as well. I think this is where I really find the new cognitivists lacking in imagination, to the point that I end up thinking that they don’t really believe what their own research supposedly shows. If they’re right (and this might apply to some flavors of poststructuralist conceptions of subjectivity and personhood, too), then most of our social structures are profoundly misaligned with how our minds, bodies and socialities actually work. What I find most queasy about a lot of contemporary political and social discourse in the US in this respect is how unevenly we invoke psychologically or cognitively inflected understandings of responsibility, morality, and capacity. Often we seem to invoke them when they suit our existing political and social commitments or prejudices and forget them when they don’t. About which Haidt, Kahneman and others would doubtless say, “Of course, that’s our point”–except that if you believe that’s true, then that would apply to their own research and the arguments they make about its implications, that cognitivism is itself evidence of “moral intuitions”.


Think for example about the strange mix of foundational assertions that now often govern the way we talk about the guilt or innocence of individuals who are accused of crimes or of acting immorally. There’s always been some room for debating both nature and nurture in public disputes over criminality and immorality in the US in the 19th and 20th Century, but the mix now is strikingly different. If you take much of the new work in cognitive science seriously, its implications for criminal justice systems ought to be breathtakingly broad and comprehensive. It’s not clear that anyone is ever guilty in the sense that our current systems assume that we can be, e.g., that as rational individuals, we have chosen to do something wrong and should be held accountable. It’s equally unclear whether we can ever be expected to accurately witness a crime, nor that we are ever capable of accurately judging the guilt or innocence of individuals accused of crimes without being subject both to cognitive bias and to large-scale structural structures of power.

But even among the true believers in the new cognitive science, claims this sweeping are made at best fitfully, and equally many of us in other contexts deploy cognitive views of guilt, responsibility and evidence only when they reinforce political or social ideologies that we support. Many of us (including myself) argue for the diminished (or even absent) responsibility of at least some individuals for behaving criminally or unethically when we believe that they are otherwise the victims of structural oppression or that they are suffering from the aftermath of traumatic experience. But some of us then (including myself) argue for the undiminished personal-individual-rational responsibility of individuals who possess structural power, regardless of whether they have cognitive conditions that might seem to diminish responsibility or have suffered from some form of social or experiential trauma.

Our existing maps of power don’t overlay very well in some cases onto what the evidence of the new cognitive science might try to tell us, or even sometimes into other vocabularies that try to escape a Cartesian vision of the rational, self-ruling individual. A lot of cultural anthropology describes bounded, local forms of reason or subjectivity and argues against expecting human beings operating within those bounds to work within some other form of reason. We try to localize or provincialize any form of reason, all modes of subjectivity, but then we often don’t treat the social worlds of the powerful as yet another locality, we don’t try for an emic understanding of how particular social worlds of power see and imagine the world, but instead actually treat many social actors in those worlds as if they are the Cartesian, universal subjects that they claim to be, and thus hold them responsible for what they do as if they could have seen and done better from some point of near-universal scrutiny of the rational and moral landscape of human possibility.


From whatever perspective–cognitive science, poststructuralism, cultural anthropology, and more–we keep reanimating the Cartesian subject and the social and political structures that were made in its name even when we otherwise believe that minds, selves, consciousness and subjectivity don’t work that way and ought not to work that way. I think at least to some extent this is because we either cannot really imagine the social and political structures that our alternative understandings imply (and thus resort to metaphors: rhizomes, etc.) or because we can imagine them quite well and are terrified by them.

The new cognitivism or evolutionary psychology, if we took it wholly seriously, would either have to tolerate a much broader range of behaviors now commonly defined as crimes and ethical violations as being natural (because where could norms that argue against nature possibly come from, save perhaps from some countervailing cognitive or evolutionary operation) or alternatively would have to approach crime and ethical misbehavior through diagnosis rather than democracy.

The degree to which poststructuralism of various kinds averts its anticipatory gaze when actually confronted by institutionalizations of fragmented, partial or intersectional subjectivity (as opposed to pastward re-readings of subjects and systems now safely dead or antiquated) is well-established. We hover perpetually on the edge of provincializing Europe or seeing the particularity of whiteness because to actually do it is to established the boundedness, partiality and fragility of subjects that we otherwise rely upon to be totalizing and masterful even in our imagination of how that center might eventually be dispersed or dissolved.

I’m convinced that the sovereign liberal individual with a capacity (however limited) for a sort of Cartesian rationalism was and remains an invention of a very particular time and place and thus was and remains something of a fiction. What I’m not convinced of is whether any of the very different projects that either know or believe in alternative ways of imagining personhood and mind really want what they say they want.

This entry was posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Hearts and Minds

  1. Raph Koster says:

    I suspect that when taken to logical conclusions, many of these trains of thought lead to what seem like monstrous places, in contemporary thought, and therefore simply do not get voiced.

    But nature is often rather monstrous, by our ethical lights.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, but that leads us back into the maze that Haidt constructs but does not navigate. Why should we have ever built moral and social systems that lead us to regard what we are as monstrous? Unless there really is something, however partial or fragmented, to Cartesian theories of mind and personhood and to Enlightenment ideas about reason and justice?

  3. Raph Koster says:

    Well, to draw upon a different vein of modern scientific thought, I tend to look at it through the lens of what complexity science is saying about complex webs. It’s an analogy and nothing more, but it can be helpful to think of these as brains or organisms, wherein each node is equivalent to a cell. Just as we have no real thoughts about paring our fingernails, so do societies spare little thought for wasted individual lives. Things like the entire Enlightenment can almost be thought of as just a passing thought. Wars are just how these larger scale entities “think.”

    Again, it’s an analogy; there’s no claim towards “thought processes” for a city, or sentience for Gaia. But it does relate back to the quasi-mechanistic thoughts of an evopsych person, discussing the ways in which we are mostly unaware sacks of fluid, hostages to impulses we mostly rationalize.

    There is something, then, to both Cartesian theories of mind and to the Enlightenment — they make our existence as a skin cell to be sloughed off somewhat more tolerable, and enable us to perhaps have a better time of it while here (hi ho, to Epicureanism we go). It may even be that these things are ‘thoughts’ that actually help the larger entity that frankly, we probably can’t comprehend any more than our fingernail understands the rest of us.

    Thinking about humanity more than humans, about whether to privilege our existence or the system’s, and so on, lead to classic moral dilemmas, of course. Our ethical systems by and large have historically arrived at hodge-podge answers to those dilemmas, but with a gradual broad consensus developing that a broad consensus itself is the ultimate end. Complexity science would term that a phase transition. I know at least one who worries that if we actually get there, it’ll be the moment when we collectively realize that we never had free will in the first place, and actually lose our illusion of consciousness.

    I prefer to think that maybe our fingers occasionally mourn our pared fingernails, and still imagine themselves sentient but fulfilling an important role in the polity that is our body. It gives a little bit of comfort. 🙂

  4. Raph Koster says:

    Another way to put it: progressing through these levels of understanding, and yes, including the one where we realize what we really are, is just the process of the larger entity figuring itself out, and growing up.

  5. CarlD says:

    I want it. Freedom is the recognition of necessity.

  6. lemmy caution says:

    I really like his article the “emotional dog and the rational tail”:


    His book “The Righteous Mind” is annoying.

    Pinker’s theory in his violence book is that enlightened moral attitudes radiate from the university to europe/blue-states to red-states to third-world countries. It is a reassuringly pro-WEIRD theory . It also has the benefit that it doesn’t really require a lot of rationality. A little bit of it in the right place is good enough. Everybody else just falls in line like dominoes.

  7. Alonzo says:

    One of the most common ways of thinking of morality has been as something based on a foundation of religion. This has naturally led many to think that without religion people will inevitably fall into general immorality. “If there is no God, everything is permitted” and all that. But as a matter of observed fact, this is simply false. Danes are not conspicuously less moral than Alabamans. Some kind of error has been made, a mix-up between conceptualized foundations and the the actualities of life.

    I suspect there is similar error at work here. Is our way of life really built on a foundation of universal Cartesian individual subject/object WEIRDness, some Modern Dispensation that everything rests on top of, so that any significant change in that foundation must have sweeping implications? Or could we dispense with that Dispensation while keeping most of the way of life, as the irreligious Danes retain so much of what was handed down to them from their pious forebears?

    The purpose of foundations, in the conceptual sense, is usually to provide justification. When you have no need for justification you can abandon them. I think most of the elements of the Modern Dispensation are past the need for justification, they have what something more valuable, constituency. Take individual rights, for example. Once it may have seemed important to say that they were endowed by the Creator, or followed from Reason. But now that they are firmly established (where they are firmly established) there is little need for that, and hardly anyone cares. People keep hold on them, or fight to expand them, because they cherish them, or let them go because they don’t. Regardless of their historicity, fictionality, ideological impurity, or whatever.

    One of the critiques of the Modern Dispensation — one I often find agreeable — focuses of a thin/thick distinction. You can see a (bad) example of this in Haidt — conservative morality is thicker (it uses more of his types!) than liberal morality, and this makes it better, somehow. Applied to rights, one can complain about how thin and abstract they are, cold and inhuman, compared to the thick and robust and living bonds that exist in some or other traditional society. But what this kind of critique will overlook is that though it may apply to modern thinking it does not apply to modern living, to modern peoples, who deploy and negotiate thin abstractions within the context of lives that are as thick as any others, as dense with meaning and phenomenological richness as any others. The modern way of living is robust, tightly networked and highly varied, and any assaults to its ideas, in all their tempting delicacy, will have a hard time having much effect on it. (This observation is commonplace among leftists, though they speak of Capitalism.) A few brain scans and experiments on undergraduates may have Free Will quivering in its boots, but the American legal system is made of far tougher stuff.

    I do think science will reshape what it means to be human in terrifying ways, but not on the intellectual field of battle but on the technological one, from the outside in.

Comments are closed.