Surviving November Pt 2: (Inner) Lawyers, (Inner) Press Secretaries and Presidential Debates

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking about Jonathan Haidt during the recent debates. […]

David Zahl / 10.5.12

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking about Jonathan Haidt during the recent debates. When it comes to The Righteous Mind, they have been pretty much an Exhibit A situation. That is, for all the learning and sophistication and charisma up on that stage, when two ‘righteous minds’ are locked in what Haidt calls “combat mode,” autopilot takes over and you can almost write the script. Yet we all pretty much know that the script itself is not the point of these things–people respond much more to how things are said than what is said. “Do I like this person? Do I trust them?” is the more relevant question than “Do I agree with their arguments? Do I think they’re right?” And maybe those two things are one and the same, who knows. When Haidt talks in the section below about how we care more about the appearance of truth than truth itself, this is part of what he means.

So public debate may be a charade, but it’s still a useful one. Meaning, these two men may be talking to each other, but they’re not really talking to each other–nor, truthfully, do any of us expect them to. The notion that one person might concede a point–“you know, I’ve never thought about it that way”–is absurd. The parties are not there to convince one another–duh!–they’re there to convince you and me. We get to watch them in a high-pressure environment, see how they do “on their feet”; we get a sense of their style and personality (not surprisingly, most of the commentary afterward has to do with feeling, not content). It’s a spectator sport, in other words, and we all understand it that way.

So we may talk about “winners” and “losers,” but those tend to be pretty arbitrary labels. People hear what they want to hear, myself included. If you don’t like what a certain person represents, you will devote your intellectual energy to poking holes in their statements–before they open their mouths. This isn’t to say that what the candidates are talking about isn’t important–far from it–just that the oppositional format highlights the limits and true purpose of reason. In most settings, reason is confirmatory rather than exploratory. It is the servant of self-justification and, ultimately, self-regard.

None of these insights are particularly fresh, of course. I remember in the early days of Mockingbird, we decided to host a mini-“discussion” with some guys down the street (the fact that it’s almost always guys who buy into the utility of this stuff should be a red flag, btw) on such non-divisive issues as the nature of Christian sanctification and the role of the Law in the life of a believer. The evening wasn’t a bust. We got our blood pumping, and it brought “our side” closer together. We were able to air some grievances and take the arguments in our heads for a spin in a flesh and bone setting. But one thing it didn’t do was to convince anyone of anything they didn’t already believe. It was the last time we tried such an event, either in person or online (which is far more vicious).

I’m not trying to say that propositional truth isn’t important. People’s minds are changed–Lord knows mine has been–and it often has to do with hearing someone else’s point of view persuasively presented. But when the brain goes into “combat mode,” when we become over-identified with a particular ideology, justification becomes the name of the game–yes, even when “justification” is the issue at hand! Maybe even especially then. While I’m not sure I’d go as far as Francis Spufford does, I do think he’s on to something, and the election season has only, um, confirmed that hunch. But enough from me. Haidt says it all much better and with far more authority (not that he’ll convince you!). These excerpts are from chapter 4, pg 72-81:

Plato had a coherent set of beliefs about human nature, and at the core of these beliefs was his faith in the perfectability of reason. Reason is our original nature, he thought; it was given to us by the gods and installed in our spherical heads. Passions often corrupt reason, but if we can learn to control those passions, our God-given rationality will shine forth and guide us to do the right thing, not the popular thing.

As is often the case in moral psychology, arguments about what we ought to do depend upon assumptions–often unstated–about human nature and human psychology. And for Plato, the assumed psychology is just plain wrong… Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth… Glaucon was right: people care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality…

If you see one hundred insects working together toward a common goal, it’s a sure bet they’re siblings. But when you see one hundred people working on a construction site or marching off to war, you’d be astonished if they all turned out to be members of one large family. Human beings are the world champions of cooperation beyond kinship, and we do it in large part by creating systems of formal and informal accountability. We’re really good at holding others accountable for their actions, and we’re really skilled at navigating through a world in which others hold us accountable for our own.

Phil Tetlock, a leading researcher in the study of accountability, defines accountability as the “explicit expectation that one will be called upon to justify one’s beliefs, feelings, or actions to others,” coupled with an expectation that people will reward or punish us based on how well we justify ourselves… Accountability pressures increase confirmatory thought. People are trying harder to look right than to be right. Tetlock summarizes it like this:

A central function of thought is making sure that one acts in ways that can be persuasively justified or excused to others. Indeed, the process of considering the justifiability of one’s choices may be so prevalent that decision makers not only search for convincing reasons to make a choice when they must explain that choice to others, the search for reasons to convince themselves that they have made the “right” choice.

Tetlock concludes that conscious reasoning is carried out largely for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery. But Tetlock adds that we are also trying to persuade ourselves… Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.


Ed Koch, the brash mayor of New York City in the 1980s, was famous for greeting constituents with the question “How’m I doin’?” It was a humorous reversal of the usual New York “How you doin’?” but it conveyed the chronic concern of elected officials. Few of us will ever run for office, yet most of the people we meet belong to one or more constituencies that we want to win over. Research on self-esteem suggests that we are all unconsciously asking Koch’s question every day, in almost every encounter.

If you want to see post hoc reasoning in action, just watch the press secretary of a president or prime minister take questions from reporters. No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Reporters then challenge assertions and bring up contradictory quotes from the politician, or even quotes straight from the press secretary on previous days. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: “Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.”

Press secretaries can’t say that because they have no power to make or revise policy. They’re told what the policy is, and their job is to find evidence and arguments that will justify the policy to the public. And that’s one of the rider’s main jobs: to be the full-time in-house press secretary for the elephant…

People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession–your child, almost–and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it… This is the sort of bad thinking that a good education should correct, right? Well, consider the findings of another eminent reasoning researcher, David Perkins. Perkins brought people of various ages and education levels into the lab and asked them to think about social issues, such as whether giving schools more money would improve the quality of teaching and learning. He first asked subjects to write down their initial judgment. Then he asked them to think about the issue and write down all the reasons they could think of–on either side–that were relevant to reaching a final answer. After they were done, Perkins scored each reason subjects wrote as either a “my-side” argument or an “other-side” argument. Not surprisingly, people came up with many more “my-side” arguments than “other-side” arguments. Also not surprisingly, the more education subjects had, the more reasons they came up with… Perkins found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side.


This is how the press secretary works on trivial issues where there is no motivation to support one side or the other. If thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in these dry and easy cases, then what chance is there that people will think in an open-minded, exploratory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?

This is a profoundly sobering take on human nature. But again, it is far from a hopeless one, especially when it comes to the New Testament (and/or the Protestant Reformation), which paints a very similar anthropological picture, of human beings (religious and non-) consumed with personal justification and righteousness. A search which is so addicting, both consciously and unconsciously, that it co-opts a tragic number of our relationships and pursuits, and is frequently found to be the root of alienation and hurt.

Yet this isn’t so much an occasion for cynicism as compassion. The notion that those who are most violently and adamantly opposed to our particular school of thought are bound by the same desperate psycho-spiritual needs as we are–that they are just expressing themselves in a polar opposite way–might help us love the “other side” a bit more, no? We might even be able to watch the next debate without having to leave the room. Maybe

Justification and righteousness are not the only things in life, of course. But they are a much bigger part of our day-to-day existence than most of us would like to acknowledge. In fact, I’ve even heard tell of those who are so driven by a need for confirmation that they take captive every corner of culture and thought imaginable–from the music of Axl Rose to the poetry of Emily Dickinson–to their peculiar religious point of view… Wait a second.

Giving this search the essential place in the human make-up it deserves, though, makes the announcement that “we have been justified through faith, [and therefore] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” good news, indeed (Romans 5:1). Not only that, but it casts the claim that Christ is not merely full of truth, or the appearance of truth, but that he is Truth itself, as incredibly refreshing and hopeful. Unlike us, he is more interested in reality than in the appearance of it, in those who have ears to hear hearing, rather than wasting time arguing with those who have already made up their minds (Mt 25:29).

Yet even those of us who find ourselves powerless against the tide of internal and external debate (and caught up in the unrest and anger it produces)–whether it be with a political party, a particular candidate, a family member, or a long-dead theologian–are not left comfortless. He came for the sick, after all. For those of us who can’t “lay down our weary tune,” as the Bard wisely commends us to do, Christ laid it down for us… But there I go again, way over my two minutes.


To read the preface to this post, go here. The next part in the series is The Must/Can Distinction and the Case of the Missing Ethics Books!