Book Club: The Edge of Reason 5, the challenge of psychology

Let us continue our in-depths discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, a book that aims, in a sense, at striking a balance between the Scylla of scientistic rationalism and the Charybdis of anti-rational relativism. Chapter 5 concerns what Julian calls “the challenge of psychology,” the idea that since much of our thinking is unconscious, we are not really rational beings, as much as rationalizing ones.

The chapter begins with a short introduction to the famous trolley dilemma, introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot as a tool to bring out our moral intuitions. I will not summarize the thought experiment, since it is well known. Baggini says that it is obvious that when many people “go consequentialist” in one version of the dilemma, and “Kantian” in another, this is because different psychological intuitions, not any explicit moral reasoning, are at play. Which immediately brings him to Daniel Kahneman’s famous distinction between “System 1” and “System 2” reasoning: the version of the dilemma that involves a more personal interaction with others is likely to trigger our emotional responses (System 1), while the impersonal version activates our thinking in terms of large numbers and consequences (System 2).

The problem, of course, is that it may be difficult, philosophically speaking, to make sense of one’s diverging reactions to the different situations posed by the trolley dilemma: “if asked why we should not push the person, we don’t say, ‘I don’t know, it just feels wrong.’ Rather, we come up with various rational justifications, such as the idea that it is wrong to use a person as a means to an end — even when this is just what we were prepared to do in the lever case.”

Kahneman himself seems pretty pessimistic about the sort of inference about human reasoning that we should make from his research: “when asked if his 45 years of study had changed the way that he makes decisions, [Kahneman] had to reply, ‘They haven’t really, very little, because System 1, the intuitive system, the fast thinking, is really quite immune to change. Most of us just go to our graves with the same perceptual system we were born with.’”

Setting aside that even the interviewer had a hard time taking Kahneman’s words at face value, Baggini says “not so fast,” so to speak. He points out that System 1 is an “enemy of reason” only if we conceptualize reason as identical to formal logic, which he has been at pains to argue, in the previous five chapters, is far too narrow a conception.

Julian maintains that the sort of “gut feelings” we sometimes have, especially, but not only, when it comes to moral situations, are in fact the result of quick heuristics embedded into System 1: “Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts, and the key is that they wouldn’t have evolved if they didn’t work more often than not. The problem is that they are so deep rooted that we often find ourselves using them even when we don’t need a quick, snappy solution but cool, calm reasoning.”

Julian seems to hint, in the passage above, that these System 1-based heuristics are the result of biologically rooted instincts, and surely in part that is the case. But I don’t see why they cannot also be the outcome of accumulated experiences, and more likely a deeply intertwined combination of both.

Baggini goes on to suggest that it isn’t at all obvious — as utilitarians, or Kantian deontologists, would argue — that moral questions ought to be analyzed solely on the basis of “cold” (i.e., impartial) reason. The most obvious case, he maintains, is that of parental love. As parents we are partial to our children, and given a choice between intervening on behalf of our child or on behalf of a stranger’s child, we do not hesitate and choose the former. And rightly so, says Julian, as the world wouldn’t likely be a better place if everyone treated their kids as random members of the population. That, of course, generates a tension between “local” ethics (i.e., our personal moral decisions) and “universal” ethics (what we should do when we think of humanity at large). Welcome to the human condition, where sound judgment (which, remember, for Baggini is what defines reason in the broadest terms) is a necessary component of our existence. And where Systems 1 and 2 constantly interplay.

Julian then moves to the perilous territory of “gendered” reason: what if it turns out that people of different genders think in significantly, if not radically, different ways, ways that are deeply rooted in their gender identity? Should we then not talk about reason(s), in the plural, instead of the singular term, and concept, we inherited from the Enlightenment?

He reports a strange conversation he had with the French philosopher Luce Irigaray, who has been influenced by the Lacanian school of psychotherapy, and who thinks of gender differences in a somewhat radical fashion: “When I interviewed her, I suggested that [her position] means that in a sense I was not meeting her at all, since we could not share the same understanding. She agreed. ‘In this moment we seem to be in the same place, inhabiting the same space, the same time, the same country, the same culture, the same language. In a way it is only an illusion.’”

Julian labels this an “extreme” position, “frankly not supported by the best evidence of psychology.” I’m slightly more blunt: it’s nonsense on stilts.

He elaborates along lines that seem eminently sound to me: “Feminist philosophy, for instance, is not separate from all other philosophy. A feminist critique of epistemology (theory of knowledge) has its force because it suggests there is something epistemology is missing because of distortions rooted in gender, distortions it seeks to remedy. Such a critique would lack any power if it amounted to the claim that there is male epistemology and female epistemology, and each of the two should mind their own business.” Exactly, though the latter is, indeed, the position of some radical feminists and gender studies scholars.

Baggini goes on to analyze the gender gap within the philosophical profession, ascribing it to the intellectual culture within, in terms of the assumption that discussions have to be value-neutral (while feminism, most obviously, isn’t), and especially that academic philosophy is characterized by the encouragement of a confrontational approach toward colleagues, which makes a number of women feel very uncomfortable.

All of this certainly does play a role (and indeed, I’ve seen it with my own eyes), but I would like to remind people that a comparable gender gap exists within plenty of other fields where there is no such (special) culture of confrontation, and where there are no approaches to technical matters that depart from value neutrality: mathematics, chemistry, physics and engineering come to mind. So I dispute the idea that the gender gap in philosophy is peculiar to the field, or that the profession itself should undergo some kind of radical change in order to resolve the problem. The problem is going to be resolved in the same way in which it is being addressed in other fields: by encouraging young girls to embrace areas that have been seen as traditionally “male,” on the simple ground that there is no reason at all why they shouldn’t succeed in them. And of course by an explicitly fair treatment of women undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty at different ranks. Something, incidentally, that philosophy as a profession is very aware of and has been implementing for years through the efforts of the American Philosophical Association.

So what does psychology tell us about human reason? Baggini suggests a revision of Plato’s famous analogy between the human mind and a chariot led by two horses: “we would do better not to think of the human soul as comprising two wildly different horses and a controlling charioteer, but as being one single equine which draws on all sorts of cognitive tools, from the conscious, systemic and deliberative to the automatic, unconscious and affective.” It’s more a mule than a thoroughbred, he says. The image may be less ennobling, but it is “better to be a many-skilled mule than one-trick pony.”


Categories: Book Club, Epistemology, Logic

160 replies

  1. One last thing: A utilitarian ethic requires that one be disinterested. This is another sense in which it is rationalistic. One’s duty is to do that which one, disinterestedly, determines will maximize the good. It is not to do that which one is moved to do by one’s sympathy. The latter would be a sentimentalist account.


  2. Dan,

    Moore’s Ideal Utilitarianism simply says that our duty is to maximize the good, which is treated as an undefinable primitive.

    This is exactly what is wrong with much of philosophical discourse on ethics: it treats the subject within compartmentalised frameworks. To say that the claim: “our duty is to maximize the good” is an “undefinable primitive” is to quite literally make it nihilistic and empty of meaningful content. The only meaning such a phrase could have is how it relates to other things.

    Robin and myself are asking the question: why do utilitarians advance the axiom “our duty is to maximize the good” and what do these concepts actually mean? Our conclusion is that it is emotivist, that it amounts to people advocating particular moral axioms based on their own value system.

    Not asking that question, and regarding the axiom as an “undefinable primitive” within a compartmentalised framework, might be aligned with what happens in classrooms taught by philosophy professors, but if they do that then they cut themselves off from the real world and from actual human ethics (which is a real feature of the real world, not merely an abstract discussion in a self-contained compartment of conceptual space).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bunsen Burner:

    In my view, the gender disparity is because men and women have different interests, something that is due in part to acculturation, which itself is due in part to biological/physiological differences. Men and women also have very different life-arcs. It would be very weird, in my view, if there weren’t such disparities.

    There are any number of disciplines in which women are overrepresented and men are underrepresented.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pushpin is as good as poetry. This proposition strikes me as an appeal to the authority of the pushpin lover’s emotions. It is hard to think of pushpin as a mere appetite after all. If love of pushpin is a mere incidental, an irrelevancy to academic philosophy, when emotions, motives, are not irrelevant to life, then philosophy is irrelevant. The scholastic tradition is not dead.

    I always thought Socrates/Plato were highly regarded as philosophy. The notion that knowledge is virtue (or prerequisite to lower virtues?) should be kept in mind, no? You can’t know do the good unless you know the good. Nobody knows that a fat man will stop the train. I mean, you can say it, but only a fool will kill someone who isn’t going to die anyway just because somebody claims this dude is heavy enough to stop a train. It’s sort of a double bind. If you do the sensible thing and deny the premise, then you’re cheating by not playing the game. If you take it seriously, and your unarticulated judgment keeps you from murdering someone for a maybe, then you lose the game. The only way you can win is by pretending to be irrational enough to really believe you know the murder victim will save other peoples’ lives.

    The problem of course is that is actually preposterous, an absence of reasonable judgment. If you want to generalize the lesson of the fat man and the train switch, I think it should be, Socrates/Plato was right: There is an epistemic criterion. A consequence of that is simple, but vast. The effects of acts of commission can be difficult enough to predict (the problem with consequentialism, right?) But by and large predicting the consequences of acts of omission are like proving negatives. It’s like taking care of your own children first because you’re the one who knows them best. I think it’s the people who push the fat man off the bridge who’ve lost their judgment. And the philosophers who declare them the rational ones who are incoherent, forgetting real ethics need knowledge, not arbitrary premises.


  5. Well said on Emotivism Daniel. The lesson I think is that if there is a term like this one that seems special that you haven’t been in the practice of using, then don’t just presume that the commonly understood root of the word holds in a given discipline — it might not. Furthermore you should generally be able to use terms that we’re all familiar with to get your point across. Wittgenstein’s “ordinary language” position could help our discussions out in general.


  6. Coel:

    Okay, you keep talking about what you and Robin are interested in. And we’ll keep talking about what philosophical ethics is actually about and what actually gets taught to millions of college students worldwide; what doctors and nurses are taught, as a requirement for licensing; etc. You know, all those people who don’t live in the real world.


  7. Dan,

    Nature determines that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are fundamental imperatives of all organisms and thus are rationally understood as being intrinsically good. The utilitarian recognizes this and thus, a rational ethic is one in which what is intrinsically good is that which is obligatory.

    And that right there is a leap from an “is” to an “ought”, from “we do pursue pleasure and avoid pain” to “we are obliged to” or “we ought to” pursue pleasure and avoid pain.

    It’s a non-sequitur. And, worse, it’s unclear what it even means. What does “we are obliged to pursue pleasure” mean? Obliged in what way? And regarding it as an “undefined primitive” doesn’t help, it just makes the whole scheme literally vacuous.


  8. An addendum and illustration of the “is” to “ought” leap at the base of utilitarianism.

    Natural selection is all about leaving more descendants, and thus animals (including humans) tend to be programmed with a desire to leave descendants. Just as we do seek pleasure and avoid pain, most of us do tend to act to leave descendants.

    Does it follow that we are obliged to have descendants, and that those who choose not to are being unethical? No, it doesn’t. That’s a completely fallacious leap; and it’s the same fallacy as the leap between “humans do act to maximise pleasure” and “humans are morally obliged” to do so.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Given that this is a discussion about a suggestion that we should modify what we mean by rationality then I am not sure why we are talking about utilitarianism at all, never mind forbidden to move outside that framework.

    I am not a utilitarian and not planning to become one at any time soon. Same with deontology.

    So if these kinds of positions cause problems that require us to change what we mean by rationality then what is that to me? That is not my problem.

    I have no assumption that there is somehow an objectively right answer to moral questions and so these problems don’t exist for me. I am able to reason consistently about all of these “problems” that seem to cause so much trouble for the others. And because I am upfront about my emotional commitments instead of hiding them away and pretending they don’t exist, it reduces their power to mislead me and I am able to lay out the full reasoning and don’t have to keep thinking up reasons why people are not allowed to ask questions about missing steps.

    So if you are going to convince me that we have to change what we mean by ‘rationality’ then it would have to be an argument that could be made without even mentioning these positions.

    For the people who assert my position is not rational then I can only roll my eyes in their general direction.


  10. Massimo: “I also guarantee you that every time I’ve been on a search committee people have bent over backwards to hire a woman, a minority, or even better a minority woman.”

    This is why, ten years ago, I urged one of my granddaughters to aim to be the first female President, as she (besides being bright and beautiful) was of mixed race (Caucasian/Latino). She turns 36 in 2020, so will be eligible, but I doubt she will be ready, as she’s currently raising her three children. However, as there are more and more mixed marriages, there will be less pressure of the kind you mention on search committees.


  11. Massimo,
    Thanks for the moderation. I should know better. I get frustrated when people try to nag me into conversations I’ve already said I’ve no further interest in. But noticing such nagging is my own choice, after all.

    I do think the comment thread has grown unnecessarily complicated – and contentious (and repetitive) – because some think that if Baggini doesn’t get his examples exactly ‘right” (ie., consistent with their own understanding), his cause is lost. But if this is true (and I don’t think it is), then the question becomes, why bother having this discussion at all.

    I have read the chapter. I find it’s discussion of the relations between rationality and ethical choices quite clear, and consistent with what I know of those issues in their academic context. I actually think the problem of psychology here, and in philosophy as a whole, much deeper than Baggini believes, but at least we have the tip here, if not the whole iceberg – and we don’t actually need the whole iceberg to follow Baggini here.

    I confess I didn’t read deeply in the section on ‘gendered reason,’ because the question only has relevance when philosophers stray (as they did quite frequently in the 19th Century, and still occasionally do) and try to analyze or prescribe what people do or should do according to their gender. And the question of hiring practices is a professional one, and doesn’t seem to me to contribute to Baggini’s central discussion (although I may be wrong).

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Dan: “Bentham flat out says that utilitarianism is grounded in a modern, scientific view of human nature. Nature determines that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are fundamental imperatives of all organisms and thus are rationally understood as being intrinsically good. The utilitarian recognizes this and thus, a rational ethic is one in which what is intrinsically good is that which is obligatory.”

    Perhaps I’m stretching this interpretation, but isn’t Bentham attempting to link to the function of instinct in animals (i.e. “nature”), who are deemed to be pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain because to assume otherwise would be absurd? The process is considered imperative and obligatory, because the animals have no choice in the matter. But I don’t see how this can be applied to humans without reference to intuition or learned heuristics of some kind.


  13. Coel,

    “There is then no leap of logic. That’s why utilitarianism is founded in emotivism”

    Hum, no. And at this point I’ll just leave it at that. The reason I address your points is not because I hope to convince you — not going to happen, ain’t that stupid — but because your misconceptions are pretty common and addressing them may be useful to others. But there is a limit. Which we have way passed in this conversation.


    “For the people who assert my position is not rational then I can only roll my eyes in their general direction”

    Setting aside that that sort of comments advances the discussion not a single iota, notoby said your position is not rational. We just said it’s wrong. There is a difference.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I had always thought that Utilitarianism was the position that good actions are the ones which result in maximiing utility.

    If I am wrong about that then, hey, I don’t even know what what Utilitarianism is and all the more reason that I won’t be altering my concept of rationality on the basis of the problems it causes.

    My point was that if maximising utility is regarded as a good because we feel it is good then that makes the basis of Utilitarianism emotional

    I never doubted that Utilitarians claim that it has a purely rational basis, I am only doubting tgat they are correct.

    I am not sure why that is a possibility that people here are not even prepared to countenance. There are a lot of philosophical claims that are wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. And the fact that a position is taught in college does not imply that its claims are correct.

    On that basis we would have to believe that the competing claims of Utilitarianism and deontology are both correct.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robin,

      “And the fact that a position is taught in college does not imply that its claims are correct.

      On that basis we would have to believe that the competing claims of Utilitarianism and deontology are both correct.”

      Two good examples of bizarro reasoning. First, nobody has said that just because something is taught in college then it is true. We have simply argued that it is prima facie unlikely that a dilettante would get something fundamentally right that every professional has gotten fundamentally wrong.

      Second, the term “true” or “correct” simply does not apply to ethical frameworks, it’s a category mistake. They can be coherent, useful, etc., but not true. And both utilitarianism and deontology are coherent and useful.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Massimo said:

    Setting aside that that sort of comments advances the discussion not a single iota, notoby [sic] said your position is not rational. We just said it’s wrong. There is a difference.

    Indeed. This is the basics of the classical syllogism. Strength of reasoning and truth of warrants are two entirely different things.

    All humans are actually shape-shifting aliens controlled by Alex Jones.
    Socrates is human.
    Socrates is actually a shape-shifting alien controlled by Alex Jones.

    Perfectly rational. And, perfectly wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi Massimo

    by definition; you get that one kind of rational ethics is one based on the idea that society is better off if we maximize happiness and reduce pain. Where on earth is the emotional part in this?

    That just tells you what makes society better off. It still leaves out the crucial step as to why the utilitarian takes the decision to make society better off, rather than, say, pursue his own self interest.

    Until that question is answered the only plausible motive for this is still that they feel that it would be good for society to be better off.


    • Robin,

      At this point I have to conclude that you have a poor conception of human reason. There are all sorts of things I do not because I feel like doing them, but because I think they are right, or good, or useful.

      In a sense, you are making one of the two mistakes Baggini’s book is about: hyper-rationalism on one side, denial of a fundamental role to reason on the other side.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Robin and Coel:

    What exactly is the point of this conversation? You clearly do not respect the fact that Massimo and I know our own subject enough to get the most basic facts about one of the most basic ethical theories right. So, why continue to talk to us?

    Instead, I suggest that you jointly write letters to the Presidents of the world’s colleges and universities and explain to them that they should no longer offer courses in Ethics taught by philosophers, because they don’t know their own subject. After all, every philosopher credentialed to teach philosophy is going to draw the same distinction between Emotivism and Consequentialism that Massimo and I have.

    You should also contact all the nursing and other programs that require bioethics/medical ethics for professional certification and tell them the same thing. Those philosopher guys/gals don’t know their subject! Hire someone else to teach ethics! Or stop teaching ethics altogether.

    Let us know how it goes. But until then, why continue tormenting us, the silent readers of this blog, and yourselves? No one is learning anything from this conversation. Quite the opposite, in fact.


  19. Massimo,

    At this point I have to conclude that you have a poor conception of human reason. There are all sorts of things I do not because I feel like doing them, but because I think they are right, or good, or useful.

    Which of us can claim to have a good conception of human reason? Human reason has in common with quantum physics in that the people who claim to understand it probably don’t.

    But you are still leaving out the crucial step. If I do the right, good or useful thing and ask myself why I did that the right, good or useful thing rather than, say, pursue my own self interest I cannot find any objective reason why I should. If I cannot find any objective reason why I did these these things then it was either arbitrary or it was because I felt that I should do the right, good or useful thing.

    Can you give an objective reason why you should do what you thought was the right, good or useful thing? If there was an objective reason then you would know it. If you don’t know it then it was either arbitrary or based on emotion. If it is based on emotion then it is better to put those emotional commitments up front.

    In a sense, you are making one of the two mistakes Baggini’s book is about: hyper-rationalism on one side, denial of a fundamental role to reason on the other side.

    Help me out here. Which thing that I said implies I am making those mistakes?

    I think the mistake you are making is the assumption that if I don’t agree with Baggini it can only be because I have not understood what he says.


  20. Even if there were some procedure that gives us the objectively right answer to moral questions, one thing I can be sure of is that I don’t know that procedure.

    So it follows that I can’t be using that procedure and so my moral decisions must either be arbitrary or based on emotions. Decisions based on emotions are at least better than arbitrary decisions. I can’t not make moral decisions so until I find that procedure the only kind of moral reasoning I can pursue is one that is based on emotions.

    If anyone else was using this procedure then they would know what this procedure is and would be able to lay it out so that we could all know it.

    But no one seems to be able to do this and so it seems that no one else has a procedure that gives objectively right answers to moral questions.

    So we are left with the inescapable conclusion that even if there is a procedure for getting the objectively right answer to moral decisions, everyone’s moral decisions are also either arbitrary or based on emotions.

    In this case the only non-rational approach is to be in denial about the role emotion plays in our decisions.

    The claim that moral reasoning about decisions based on emotions is not rational doesn’t bear water.

    The first point is that there are objectively true facts about what I want and don’t want and so we can reason with those objectively true facts.

    I can adopt one axiom “If x is the thing I most want to do or the thing among unavoidable options that is the least abhorrent to me and I cannot discover any objective reason why I should not do x then I will do x”

    That seems perfectly reasonable to me, but if it does not seem reasonable to anyone else then it does not mean that it cannot be used as part of a rational process.

    So if I have a valid argument using this axiom and objectively true premises then that is a rational argument, pretty much by definition.

    This does not preclude that it is oftent he case that the thing I most want to do is to benefit society but does not impose the unrealistic condition that I will always want to do it.

    If you are going to claim that this valid argument based on an axiom and objectively true premises is not a rational process then you cannot claim that the utilitarian who has a valid argument based on an axiom and objectively true premises is using a rational process.

    All these elements are the same in both cases and so if one is rational, then so is the other. If one is not rational, then neither is the other. You can’t have it both ways.

    And, as I have been pointing out, my approach does not have the problems that Baggini describes and does not require us to modify our conception of rationality.


  21. If a moral philosophy makes sense to someone but they can’t prove every last aspect of it, isn’t this comparable to believing in the existence of the external world, or the existence of other minds? You can’t prove everything, but I don’t see why anyone would say I “feel” the external world is real rather than “think” it.

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  22. Good and bad are not based on emotion. If I die, that is truly bad for me, or at least those counting on me. It is relative, to me. To someone who doesn’t know me, it would be irrelevant.

    Emotion is our selves sorting through all the competing elements attracting and repelling us.

    It is bottom up. Good and bad are not a cosmic duel between righteousness and evil, but the basic binary of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. Given we consist of enormous amounts of cells, organs, connections, relationships, internally and externally, all those competing impulses are shades of that essential binary of attraction and repulsion.

    Something isn’t good because we decide to like it. We like it because we are attracted to it, as opposed to repelled, or neutral to it.

    I realize I’ve said all this before, but it doesn’t get much reply. Though it might be useful to unlocking the conflict between utilitarianism and emotivism.


    Yes, there is an essential dichotomy of eastern and western thought. In a nutshell, eastern tends to be context oriented and western is object oriented. For example, some years ago, I read of a basic matching test, that compared objects and contexts. For example, there would be birds, cows, grasses and trees and people raised in the different cultures were supposed to match them up. The westerners tended to match the birds with the cows and the grasses with the trees, because they were similarly fauna and flora. While the easterners tended to match the birds with the trees and the cows with the grass, because that was environmentally contextual.
    Eastern religions tend to be more journey, than destination. It’s more about The Way, than all meeting in heaven. The idea of monotheism is distinctly western, as an ideal of (human) perfection. The yin and yang are not exactly monolithic.
    The basic concept of time is reversed. Westerners tend to see the future as in front of the observer and the past behind, because we see ourselves as distinct individuals, moving through our context. While the eastern view is the past is in front and the future behind, because we know the past and see what is in front, while the future and what is behind are unknown. This is more contextual, in that we do see events after they occur and this information flows by us.
    Safe to say the western view is more politically effective in the short term. Though the flip side will come round eventually.


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