Mero Moment: Intuition Or Reason?

A professor at the University of Virginia believes the reason there is so much contention in politics is because people haven’t learned how to understand one another, and that this lack of understanding occurs because we simply don’t get that most people don’t think first, they first react intuitively and then spend all their intellectual capacity on defending their reactions. In other words, he says, our human reason is more often utilized to justify our moral intuitions.

He’s done many studies showing how regular people quickly judge a situation and then scramble in seconds to find reasons that articulate their judgments. He gives a wonderful example to prove his point: A young family really wants to buy a dog, except the father. He doesn’t like the idea but he caves into the pressure from his wife and children. As it turns out, he finds that he really likes this dog. It becomes part of the family. One day the kids leave the front door open and the dog makes a mad dash to the street, where it’s hit by a car. The father, even more so than the wife and children, is heartbroken as he holds this lifeless companion in his arms. He then goes inside and cooks the dog and the family eats it for dinner.

Now most people would say, what!? Nearly everyone would be appalled at the thought that this family would serve up the pet dog for dinner. And yet, what is the harm? The dog is dead. People eat animals regularly; in some parts of the world a dog is common food. Nobody is harmed from the act, so why are most people appalled that the family would eat their dead dog?

This example shows how human beings often react intuitively to most situations. We feel something first and then scramble to justify our feelings. Now, admittedly, even if this professor’s theory is accurate it certainly is problematic for a free society because freedom requires reason, not emotion. But that is part of his point about political disputes – people emote, they don’t think – and if we want to really communicate with people who disagree with us, we should try to see how they intuitively view an issue and not just imagine we can reason with them and change their minds.

This theory could also explain another fascinating aspect of politics: the incongruities that many people display between what they profess and the political positions they take. Here in Utah, where we’re Mormon-heavy, it’s interesting to me the numbers of Latter-day Saints who support political causes that seem antithetical to their worldview. There’s that old debate about how is it possible for a faithful Latter-day Saint to be a political liberal.

For instance, how can a faithful Latter-day Saint support homosexual rights or abortion? Throughout the contentious debate on immigration, many of my opponents wondered aloud how I could favor the integration of undocumented immigrants into Utah society if I truly believed in my church’s Articles of Faith about the rule of law.

Being a faithful Latter-day Saint, or a faithful Catholic or Jew, is much more about how we see and treat other people than it is about our political views. I have neighbors who care for others daily, who truly express love for other people in word and deed, but who disagree with me politically. I’d say they are faithful Latter-day Saints.

That said, I agree that some political views can be inconsistent with a person’s stated worldview. Perhaps this professor is accurately describing at least one reason for these inconsistencies. Maybe people really do express emotion first and then use their reason to justify those emotions?

If so, this is even more reason for us to become our better selves; that is, if we really care about living in a free society. Maybe it’s time we actually think first. It might save us a lot of problems when it comes to the growth of government.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.