CAN YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND IF YOU WANT TO? IPPA Might Help

YOUR MIND-Part One
From 1954-57 I was a young officer in the U.S. Navy. I loved the Navy and learned a lot that has served me well throughout my life. Even today I experience visceral awe at the sight of a naval ship—a somewhat sacred icon for me. But I learned something else in the Navy: total faith in the Chain-of-Command, from our President and admirals, right down to me, in all matters of national defense policy. That faith was shattered when, beginning around 1968- 1969 I gradually learned (from journalists and some academics), that Presidents and generals lie (in this case about the Vietnam War). I changed my mind about which moral authorities to trust, and changed my political perspective for the rest of my life. More on this experience later. Let’s get on with how IPPA may help with changing your mind.

First, let us get the history out of the way. What is this “mind”? In the West, until the late 1960s, even in psychological circles, the mind was usually divided into three parts: knowing, feeling, and acting (including motives). To change your mind meant reasoning something through and reaching a different conclusion from your previous one. In 1968 the standard Handbook in Social Psychology1 said, “The question arises of how closely the cognitive, affective, and conative components are related. If all three give approximately the same results, one should perhaps apply Ocam’s razor to reduce conceptual baggage.” [p. 56] The use of MRI and other technology in later decades showed that the aspects of the brain where the activities of these components take place are indeed interconnected. Where there is knowing, there is usually emotion, something the early Chinese Confucian texts also affirmed. So changing the mind involves a lot of emotional activity, which influences the knowing or cognitive parts of the brain. This is especially true when it comes to thinking or judging moral or political matters.

In recent years, the terminology has evolved. Following Daniel Kahneman,2  some people now divide the mind into effortless intuitions (including gut emotional responses), and effortful reasoning. In humans, the pupils of the eyes dilate when people exert mental effort. It takes effort to keep in one’s memory a couple of different ideas needing action. Where there are beliefs and considered choices, there is effort. In contrast, our effortless gut reactions owe much to their evolution in emergencies, as ways of quick survival for humans. They are without effort, not under voluntary control.

Jonathan Haidt goes a step further in The Righteous Mind (Pantheon: 2012). He tries to demonstrate that people cannot change their minds, or “moral foundations,” where those terms refer to effortless moral intuitions. It refers to them, because he says that those intuitions rule reason. Beliefs are simply post-hoc justifications or positions to which the gut intuitions have already led us. So now, the content of “mind” is primarily the ruling sentiments/social emotions/ intuitions, and secondarily, cognition. According to Haidt, one could divide people into two political stances based on the relative strength of certain intuitions: Liberals emote positively about Care, Liberty, and Fairness. Conservatives react primarily about Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. To repeat, most people cannot change their minds in their moral and political judgments, and their reasoning obeys these intuitions.

Is Haidt right? He has plenty of evidence that it is very difficult to use reasoning to try to change the specific moral intuitions that are dominant in anyone. So, I do not think IPPA’s target should be the very conservative right wing. The “change” we can hope for will not come by that group turning into progressives. The target should be the inactive liberals, and IPPA’s strategies should seek to persuade and push its target audience to decide to do something concrete—like vote, talk to neighbors about the issues, write letters, and donate time or money.  We should select tools for persuasion that appeal to emotionally laden values, including the the ones not cited by Haidt, that I identify below.:. Along with my experience at town meetings in the early 2000’s, Jonathan Haidt has led me to be pretty sure that this approach would be most effective.

FOUR INTUITIONS: WHY YOU MAY CHANGE YOUR MIND- Part Two
Let us consider Haidt’s list of moral intuitions: Care/harm, Fairness as proportionality/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/ subversion, Sanctity/degradation:

In contrast to his list, I believe there are intuitions shared by many people on both the left and right that he does not even mention. Their presence is important because they may open the door to modifying the sense of disunity between the political left and some who are passive, or even on the moderate right. I was shocked to find that those intuitions that pop first into my mind when I judge something as right or wrong were not also in a prominent place in Haidt’s list. He gives a descriptive account of values/virtues that he and others discovered through experiments. I do not say that his list is inaccurate, just that it is odd not to mention any of the four following intuitions.In judging a choice, act, or policy, my first “gut response” (intuition) is to consider consequences for the life, — the health and psychological well- being–of the persons affected by them. I agree with Thomas Jefferson’s inclusion of “life” in The Declaration of Independence as something special, to be protected. Nowadays we know more about what life is. The neurologist Antonio Damasio says this about the protection of life in the human biological system:

[This includes] the fact that the preservation of life depends on the equilibrium of life functions and consequently on life regulation: the fact that the status of life regulation is expressed in the form of affects –joy, sorrow—and is modulated by the appetites [desires]. 3

So we can take the impact of events on people’s joy and sorrow as indicators of people’s health and well-being. These emotional signals of joy and sorrows, reported by persons affected, go along with standard medical indicators of organ function and tissue health, stress, temperature, and blood pressure. Unlike Bentham, one does not have to advocate quantitative calculation of joy and suffering. I am content with the informal and probabilistic, educated estimates available when information is accessible. I treat health and psychological well-being as broader in scope than Haidt’s concept of “care.” They are goals to be achieved, in which some medical intervention may be required, and joy/suffering are present. Care helps, but care can be directed at the ill and infirm, without expectations of a return to health.

Second, I was equally shocked by the absence of any reference to love of family in Haidt’s list of prized values, whether loving somebody or being loved. The original target of such love is in the infant-caregiver bond, but it expands outward to include other close kin, friends, and community members. There is plenty of experimental evidence, since the work of Robert Trivers,4 for the genetic basis of sympathetic affection. It grows from child-parent bond into altruistic concern for genetic kin, and for others beyond. The term “family” is important to use to modify love, because familial-love is first to appear in life, and, for many people retains a strength greater in duration than that directed at non-kin.

Third, although respect or dignity, derived from one’s treatment by others, appears in Haidt’s grid under “authority,” favored by the conservatives, it seems peculiar that he does not recognize this as a universal value or ultimate desire, equally emotionally prized by liberals as well as the conservatives. It has to do with our being hierarchical mammals. And just about everyone tries to avoid its negative form (shame).. Although sensitivity to respect and shame may originate in relation to an authority figure, they evolve into something that often comes from, or is absent from, peers. Not all authority figures, whose status depends on money and arms, warrant our respect. Even the poorest hungry humans are vulnerable to respect and shame. In the early Confucian text, The LiJi (Book of Rites), the author makes the point that even in a famine, a self-respecting person refuses food when it is offered with a rude shout of “Hey! Come here and eat!”

A fourth intuition that I find absent in Haidt’s work is reciprocity in exchanges, a kind of equality or fairness. Haidt says that the liberals treat fairness as equality and conservatives treat it as proportionality. The trouble with this is that both poles accept proportionality, differing in the magnitude allowable in the breadth of difference incomes/money/resources. I do not know any liberals who favor the same salary for executives and line workers. The issue is what size of ratio: 35 to 1, or 450 to 1? Because I care about extremes of proportionality of income, I favor the community banks discussed in the IPPA.us website.

As an example of the possible universality of these values of health, love for kin and friends, respect/shame, and reciprocity, I would simply point out that for 2000 years, Confucian ethicists have honored the principle of the production and reproduction of life as central cosmic and human values, manifest in nurturing for long life children, elders, and living plants. Second, though loyalty to the emperor was the highest virtue in state Confucianism, family love which expands into broader humaneness was the highest in philosophical Confucianism, and, as filiality, in popular Confucianism. Third, respect was noted as one of the four intuitive moral senses by the early Confucian Mencius (372-289 BCE), as was the sense of shame. This position became orthodoxy for the civil service examinations. Their manipulation was a powerful control device in all branches of society, from the most intimate family relations through the central government’s establishment of positive and negative models. Finally, in China, reciprocity is built into human relationships, but may vary as a function of the relational networks to which one belongs. A network in China is a group of people tied by a common geographical, educational, workplace, or kinship relation, often with a shared patron.

So, if I were trying to motivate people to consider changing a perspective, I would try to appeal to one or more of these values that I consider to be equally shared by most people; and I would try to show how the matter being considered has relevance to the value cited. Of course, these would not be the only principles to which I would refer, nor the only actions I would take, nor the only arguments I would make. As advertisers tell us, you have to touch the eyes and ears at least eight times before you can expect to be seen or heard.

Another problem with saying people cannot change their moral foundation is that it rejects the possibility of learning leading to change. Has someone who believes otherwise heard of the joy of learning? To reject learning assumes that only the first response judgment counts and cannot change with new experience, and new factual knowledge. Memories link facts together. There is a huge amount of scientific information on the plasticity of the neural pathways in the brain, variations in the pathways used by neurotransmitters, and the different versions of the same genetic sequence, which allow for different ways in which the pathways interact. Personality differences are a consequence of these variations in the brain. Experience can strengthen neurons that might atrophy, and foster the growth of new cortical neurons. Learning involves strengthening synapses. The brain causes dopamine neurons or cells to react to bad predictions of the future with surprise and to flag positive outcomes. Learning is part of the process of making and revising choices. Over a long course of time, our brains have evolved to make choices and often to revise them. This can include choices of moral standards. Somewhat shamelessly, I will offer two personal examples of how learning changed my moral foundation. I had some advantage in changing, because my father was a pragmatist, a John Dewey progressive. Also, I studied philosophy.

CHANGING MY MIND-Part Three
We’ve been talking about how shifts in moral intuitions can result in changing one’s mind about social issues. I promised to offer two personal examples of how learning changed my moral foundation: I had been a naval officer stationed in Washington D.C. and in the Philippines from 1954-57, and was still in the Inactive Reserves for a while after that. I even received a Letter of Commendation from the Chief of Naval Operations. As I said, I loved the Navy, and learned a great deal in it that served me well in later life. At the time the Chain of Command seemed intuitively acceptable. This was my gut response to any criticism of the morality of those matters, as our Southeast Asia policy began to take shape. It took me years after the beginning of the Vietnam war to switch from hawk to critic of the war. I began by believing every word that Lyndon Johnson and the generals said about the quantity and morale of the enemy, and the regime we supported. It never occurred to me that they would lie. Starting about 1969, by which time I had gradually learned (from journalists, some academics, and, later still, from Daniel Ellsberg) that Presidents and generals do lie, this changed my political perspective for the rest of my life. I realized that there are moral authorities on policy matters other than military and political ones. One of the principles that jumped forward in my judgment was the magnitude of joy or suffering, or the health and well-being of people impacted by the Vietnam war, weighed against the benefits for Vietnamese who hated the communists and wanted to leave. Ever since, I have tried to inform myself of the details of major U.S. foreign and domestic policies. I still try, when I can, to conduct in-depth inquiry into major political policies which I believe all have ethical implications. This includes my work for the political action group IPPA.US, of which I am a founding member.

The other change I experienced was triggered by my studies of Chinese philosophy. The shift was to change from automatic, intuitive acceptance of the Jeffersonian idea that “all men are created equal.” I began to see that there are nuances there. In my culture, the position that all humans are of equal worth has its roots in the Christian claim that there is a divine spirit in all persons, and that God loves all souls equally. Among our modern writers who assume the idea of equal worth is the philosopher John Rawls. For him, all individuals are “moral persons” or have a moral personality, the factual source being that they are rational and are capable of having a sense of justice. The utilitarian Peter Singer rejected Rawls’ factual claim, but does incorporate the value of impartiality in his ethics. Everyone affected by an act should be treated the same.

In contrast, starting with early Confucianism in China, there was a basis for a meritocracy in the idea that all are born with four moral sentiments. But in practice, the focus was on the unequal worth of people, based on the greater strength of love for family members. “Filiality is the basis of virtue and that from which all teachings come,” says one text from around 200BCE. The mid-imperial Confucian Cheng Yi (1033-1108) said, “No love is greater than for family.” If I am looking for a source of human worth, I follow the Confucians. I do not accept the Christian idea of a divine spark within. I do accept as one source of worth, the magnitude of my affection for a person. My close kin do have greater worth than other people, in terms of my resources and care. People are not of equal worth. But, in terms of the law, I believe in equal treatment under it. All, including myself and my kin, are subject to it. So my second intuition about family love is always operative in how I spend my money and time. I will care more concretely for a sister than for an unrelated neighbor, given equal needs.

One of the justifications for a moral system is that it works. This means that it takes account of human motives and predispositions that have their origin in biology. When a system “works,” it relies on the principle “ought implies can,” which means that something becomes legitimate only if we can perform it. I think that the four moral intuitions to which I have referred in this essay meet the standard of “working” as I have defined it. If I am not following those moral intuitions, I can change so that I do, and I probably will want to. Practice helps.

Donald J. Munro-Professor–Emeritus of Philosophy and Chinese at University of Michigan

1. Gardner Lindzey and Eliot Aronson, ed.s Handbook in Social Psychology (1968) (Reading, MA.: Addison-Weesley, 1968) vol. 3, 155-156.
2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Ggiroux: 2011)
3. Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza,( Harcourt: 2003) 174.
4. Robert L. Trivers, “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, “Quarterly Review of Biology, 46 (1971), 39.

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