haidt and rationalization
The rider [reason] evolved to serve the elephant [emotions]. — Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
Jonathan Haidt is the most prominent modern champion of the idea that, as Hume put it, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Like many modern defenders of ancient errors, Haidt dresses up his philosophical ideas as scientific theories. In this case, he defends his conception of reason as mere rationalization by claiming that, in the process of man’s biological evolution, nature selected for his ability to make excuses for doing whatever he feels like, not for his ability to acquire an abstract level of awareness.
This is wrong, because our need to rationalize derives from our ability to legitimately reason. We only need to make excuses for doing whatever we feel like because we are unavoidably aware, on some level, of the standard of rationality.
Your cat runs around in the middle of the night like a maniac because it feels like it. It is uninhibited by any need for abstract justification. It is only once a creature can reason that it feels any need to justify following its feelings.
Rationalization is a workaround for an obstacle—conceptual awareness—that did not exist before the possibility of rationalization itself did. Reason cannot have been naturally selected for on the basis of the rationalization it makes possible, because it is itself what makes rationalization necessary.
Rationalization is the abuse of our capacity for abstraction, an attempt to turn it against itself and thereby nullify its demands, allowing the rationalizer to behave like the animal he dreams of being.
Ayn Rand said that “evil philosophies are systems of rationalization.” The idea that reason exists to facilitate excuse-making is a rationalization of rationalization.