Mark Hanson Commentary: “Voting Intuitions”

One question you’re less likely to be asked during this election season is, How are you deciding whom to vote for? We like to think we make the choices we do because we have good reasons. We’re rational creatures after all, aren’t we?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, however, that when it comes to ethics and politics, reason actually takes a backseat to intuitions—our gut feelings. First we intuitively “see that” something is true or right; then we use reason to argue why. The role of intuition in our judgment is even more obvious when we simply believe something without even knowing why.

Our experience would seem to confirm this. Have you ever tried to change the mind of someone on the other end of the political spectrum by offering reasons? Such efforts may even be counter-productive, causing people to cling to their beliefs even more fervently despite the evidence.

For example, if you’re a Republican, and I offered you evidence that public debt as a share of GDP and wealth inequality grow faster under recent Republican administrations than under Democratic ones—which is, in fact, true—would you likely change your view that Republicans are the more fiscally responsible party?

Political campaigns, in fact, rely upon our failure to reason. They see people change their views based on ads distorting the truth, depicting opponents in black and white images with contorted faces, and uttering phrases taken out of context. It’s silly, it’s dishonest, but it works.

Haidt’s view on the primacy of intuition over reason is not entirely new, but his work does add evidence to support it. This is troublesome to those of us who like to think that the best way to achieve solutions to problems lies in people reasoning together about hard facts and moral values.

Haidt does not believe, however, that reason is irrelevant. The way to create change, he argues, is by calming the passions and fostering conditions within communities whereby people can make more effective appeals to intuitions and reasons. Such communities would be supportive of good thinking and compromise, and would shame hyperpartisanship and inflexibility. To quote Haidt: “Reasons matter, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.” [end quote]

If Haidt is correct, how might we think about our intuitions in relation to how we will vote this November? Rather than examine intuitions issue by issue, I would take Haidt’s cue and start with our overall approach to politics. First, we should acknowledge that ethical and political choices almost always involve trade-offs. We want jobs and wealth, for example, but at what cost? At the expense of the environment, public health, or our sense of fairness? What’s your intuition about which candidate or party is more likely to find more reasonable balances between such competing interests?

Second, we need a government that actually functions to solve complex problems in a diverse society. So I would emphasize Haidt’s own conclusion about what is necessary for reason to find a place in solving our problems more productively. Whether we want a bigger or smaller government, most of us recognize that we need government to accomplish certain things we can’t do ourselves and to guarantee individual rights. But if government is to work in a society that, like it or not, has citizens with diverse intuitions on big issues, what does your intuition tell you about what kind of candidate to vote for—one who favors working together, or one who opposes compromise? Which candidate or party is more likely to foster a community that talks together about intuitions and reasons, rather than cultivating division and hyper-partisanship?

Finally, what is your intuition on whether things like evidence, reason, and truth-telling should have any role at all in politics? If you don’t like the fact that such things are increasingly scarce, which candidate is more likely to support those values?

My intuition tells me that a society that abandons respect for truth is in trouble, and any political system that gives it up fosters the kind of cynicism we’ve seen grow with each passing election. Reality matters. And sooner or later, intuitions confront it.

So as you make your decision this election, here’s a final plug for reason to accompany your intuitions. Offering reasons for our decisions remains a central responsibility for us as moral human beings. Intuitions can too easily reflect dangerous prejudices. They are the all-too-easy refuge for those who simply don’t take the time from busy lives and technological distractions actually to think, examine evidence, and test their views. Relying only on intuitions, which may be misguided, is irresponsible.

So look at your intuitions. Then examine them in the light of evidence. What do your intuitions, and the facts, say about who and which candidates are likely to lead us in a better direction? We’re rational creatures after all, aren’t we?

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.


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