A New Moral Combo Sandwich of Stanovich, Kahneman, Haidt and Greene

Three thinkers have especially influenced my conflict thinking in recent years:

  • Keith Stanovich for his work on the impact of our conscious and unconscious thinking processes. The latter he sees are often largely installed by genetic drives and the mental viruses called memes: belief systems that run us without our really knowing it.
  • Stanovich also invented the concept of Dysrationality: the way we use our smarts to defend jumped to conclusions from counter argument and counter evidence
  • Daniel Kahneman for his work (with the late Amos Tversky) on the biases and heuristics/mental short cuts in our thinking processes (which he agrees with Stanovich are often largely unconscious) that create major and predictable errors in decision-making and
  • Jonathan Haidt for his marvelous metaphors (that also build on Stanovich) the “Rider” and the “Elephant”…our thinking and decision making is mostly unconscious “Elephant” which our conscious “Rider” retrospectively and self-righteously justifies to make us look good to our immediate social circle, acting like a defense attorney for our maverick “Elephant”..the logical decision making comes after the decision, not before.
  • Haidt has also taken his research into political differences and their moral foundations.
  • So we are largely in the view of these three thinkers at the mercy of our unconscious thinking processes and any progress towards what Keith Stanovich calls “The Robot’s Rebellion”…the rebellion against unthought through genetically and memetically installed prejudices, requires we uncover them, and rebel against them, if we want to do better in our decision making, to be freer to act in our real interests, not those of our genes and memes.

In his recent book Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene takes this thinking a step further. He suggests that the unconscious decision making above generates in us a sort of moral auto pilot, that allows us to make decisions on moral issues piloted by our local, tribal prejudices and disgust at any violation of said prejudices.  In Greene’s view, this evolved to work very well for fast day to day decisions at the small group, tribe with common moral values level, to bridge the gap between our selfish self and the group we are part of and depend on. It is an essential means to bridge the gap between “I” and “Us”. And he uses the famous Trolley problem of moral dilemma (see link below) to show how this works.

Unfortunately, Greene goes on to show, this moral auto pilot that works so well to keep us relatively unselfish in day to day interaction with our in group, our family, work group, neighbors, tribe, religion, even nation, does not work to bridge with out-groups we share the increasingly globalized world with: other tribes, religions, political parties and other countries we may be in conflict with, They have different moral auto pilots evolved to work in different situations by different histories along different paths. So moral auto pilots that work well to bridge between “I” and “Us”, simply often don’t work to bridge between “Us” and “Them”.

To bridge with those from different tribes, who are riding different “Elephants” to use Jon Haidt’s metaphor, we need to find some way beyond our moral auto pilots. We need to become far more reflective about our real interests. In Greene’s view, we need some sort of utilitarianism…Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness of the greatest number concept. I am not so sure if this is the answer or how to achieve this, but I think it an interesting idea.

What I do think, is that the interest-based bargaining approach of this blog: the idea we go beyond our moral auto pilot and really question our positions in terms of our real individual, tribal and global interests is essential if we are going to ensure the survival of humanity and the viability of the planet we live on. Rival moral autopilots have repeatedly lead us into wars of religion or ideology (or Meme Wars as I call them),  and between nations (tribal wars) that in a nuclear armed world will eventually do us all in, or block our attempts to save our species and planet from environmental disaster.

But of course part of the problem is that as Stanovich suggests many of our Meme systems , our ideological, religious, tribal or nationalistic beliefs, are Dysrational and include the instruction: “do not doubt this Meme, do not subject it to testing or counter data, do not be open to non-believers’ views”. When I have solved that issue, I will let you know. 🙂


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Environmental Conflict, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Philosophy of Conflict, Religious Conflict, The Conflict Model, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s