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media_spin_400How do you make a moral decision?

How do you determine if something is right or wrong?

Many of us think of morality as something we discover after rational and reflective consideration. You hear both sides of an argument, you consider reasons that may justify your action, and then you pronounce judgment.

But Jonathan Haidt says we’re getting it backwards. In reality, you judge first, and only then do you justify.

In The Righteous Mind (which I mentioned in last week’s post about self-righteousness), Haidt explains the first principle of moral psychology:

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Who’s Controlling the Elephant?

To illustrate how this principle works, Haidt uses the metaphor of the rider and the elephant.

  • The rider represents the controlled processes, the “reasoning-why” we think something is right or wrong.
  • The elephant represents the “automatic processes” – the emotions, intuitions, and whatever things we assume.

When we make a case for our vision of morality, we are appealing to the rider and telling him where to go. But usually, the rider is the servant to the elephant.

So what role does reasoning play in our moral development? Rationalization is what we do to explain our moral intuitions and commend them to others.

“We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment” (52).

Our reasons are an attempt to have others affirm and subscribe to our moral viewpoints.

Looking Right vs. Being Right

“Image is everything,” the old saying goes. And there’s a sense in which our morality follows that line.

In the ancient debate between Glaucon and Socrates, Haidt sides with Glaucon:

“People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality” (86).

So, it’s not surprising that “people are trying harder to look right than to be right” (89). And one of the ways you can look right is by convincing people to affirm your perspective.

Haidt then makes a powerful claim:

“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth” (89).

We are looking for approval, so we come up with or search for reasons to back up our moral judgments.

The result of Haidt’s work is to pop the inflated delusions of the rationalist who makes everything subsequent to cold, hard reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” he writes (104).

We should be suspicious of an individual who says he or she has reasoned to a position. Why? Because our “reasoners” are only really good at one thing:

“finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons” (105).

The Spin Machine in Your Mind

What does this principle show us? Our minds are like a political spin machine.

You’ve seen the talking heads on television, the partisans who are paid to drone on and on about how good their candidates or leaders are, no matter how poorly they are polling or how obvious their failures. Most of the time, these poor partisan souls really do believe everything they are saying, a picture that would elicit pity if it weren’t so pathetic.

But before we judge the partisan, perhaps we should get acquainted with the spin doctors in our own minds. We’re all susceptible to what is called confirmation bias, “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” (93).

When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves if we can believe it. We look for supporting evidence in order to give us good reasons for believing what we want to. Then, we can stop thinking. We are “justified.”

On the other hand, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves if we must believe it. We look for contrary evidence in order to give us good reasons for dismissing the belief. Then, we can feel smug in our rejection of whatever it is we didn’t want to believe. Again, we are “justified.”

How Do We Persuade?

Given the fact that humans are experts at spinning things to confirm what we already believe, how in the world can we have conversations?

How do we have debates on moral issues?

How can a Christian ever expect to convince someone else of a biblical morality?

Haidt sees a powerful social element to our judgments. Social influence matters. We care deeply about what other people think, to the point we are willing to adjust our beliefs or look for justification for other perspectives in order to fall in line with what others are saying. He writes:

“Other people exert a powerful force, able to make cruelty seem acceptable and altruism seem embarrassing, without giving us any reasons or arguments” (56).

In other words, we rarely change our minds without prompting from other people.

So persuasiveness in conversing about moral issues matters, but not for the reason you might think. The reason it’s hard to have moral arguments, why most debates end with most people feeling like their side “won” though nobody changed their mind, is because “you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments” (57). Going into combat mode is not likely to succeed.

Instead, “if you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own… Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide” (58).

And how do we empathize? Because intuitions are first and strategic reasoning second, Haidt says, ”If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.” You have to “elicit new intuitions, not new rationales” (57).

That’s where the church comes in. The place where new intuitions are created is community. Only in community are we able to have our moral intuitions shaped by others.

When you put forth a Christian perspective, you do so with empathy and conviction, but the most powerful way to combine the two is in a loving community where empathy and convictions are on full display. If social influence is the key to moral formation, then gathering with believers matters more than ever.

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6 thoughts on “Your Mind is a Spin Machine”

  1. Eric says:

    Very good observations, though I believe the conclusion of the matter misses the mark.

    [Rom 6:18 NASB] 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

    So we need a new elephant. We need to be on the elephant named righteousness and not the elephant named sin. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that proper intuition is given. It is true that a community of believers should be changed by the Holy Spirit. But we know from the book of revelations, that not every Christian community is having their intuitions changed toward the love of our Lord. So each individual needs to be changed by the Holy Spirit if he hopes to give proper intuition to the community. Community may cultivate the intuitions in men, but which intuitions that community cultivates depends on where every single member is getting their intuitions from. So yes community. More so everyone of us should surrender our judgments and reasonings to the Lord.

  2. Matt2 says:

    I read this and I am confused. Because if all of our justifications and rationalizations begin from our intuition then it seems as though nothing can be said to be true morally. Right? I mean if my mind spins everything then why should I hold my position over others? I understand as Christians we have scripture to influence our minds and it is what we trust in when it comes to morality, however isn’t our trust in scripture even put into question if this is true. Sorry to answer my own musings, but I would guess that the answer would be that sometimes (rare maybe) our reasoning changes our intuition to be more correct. So even though I spin most things by reasoning correctly I can change the elephant? Just a couple of thoughts after reading this.

    1. Trevin Wax says:


      Good question. The fact that our justifications and rationalizations begin from intuition does not mean that nothing is true morally. It means that in our warped, self-focused state (apart from Christ), we are likely to slip into self-justification mode on virtually any subject.

      The point about our intuitions and the elephant is that we need to have them formed by Scripture and by the community of faith. Knowing how we all tend to seek rationalization for what we intuit to be right, we must be all the more evident in having those intuitions properly formed, so that Scripture and the Church are challenging us at every point. The social dynamics of how this work are a clear indication to me of the importance of a gospel community for spiritual formation.

      1. Matt2 says:

        Thanks Trevin, I think that clarifies things a bit. It does revive an old fear of mine that I believe what is right and continue to hold on to that because I gather like minded people about me, but then again Christ has done more than just change the way I reason and think about issues to show me himself. Thanks for the response!

    2. Eric says:

      Good thoughts Matt2. It is good to take these thoughts further and see where they go. You are concerned that the result is a state of all truth being considered relative. This is a very good question to ponder. We know that is not true according to the Lord. Also, we know that it is true that your mind is spinning every thing you do to make you seem good because

      [Pro 3:5-6 NASB] 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

      So then it is confirmed by the scripture that our reasoning and our understanding is not resulting in going the right direction. Instead the Lord will have to straighten out our paths. The Lord tries to explain to us here through scripture that it is not our understanding of scripture that will make us morally right, but rather our trust in Him and His character. So you do hit a very large road block that cannot be traversed unless God meets us there. No person has ever reasoned correctly or else the verse would say “sometimes use your best judgment.” If man reasoned correctly the Lord could say, “Now that you are saved, you can reason better than everybody so trust in yourself.” But He never says such things. So the problem is that even if you know the right thing to do and reason the right thing to do you cannot necessarily do the right thing. Paul describes this elephant in Romans 6 and 7. Reasoning has not helped the christian to do right. The Lord is the only one who can look at our elephant and teach us to say “oh my elephant is going the wrong way.” He offers Himself as a good elephant to ride on (not our understanding of Him, but Himself). Perhaps those are musings of my own, but at very least we can agree that if we learn it is true that we are on an elephant that can’t be reasoned with, then we need someone to deliver us onto a new elephant.

  3. Erica says:

    Good article. Intuition does come first, but intuition can be examined by reason. It takes humility to examine our intuitions, but it can and should be done.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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