Recently Sam Harris made a curious wager. He offered to pay $10,000 to anyone who could disprove his arguments about morality. Haidt decided to make a counter-wager. He bet $10,000 that Harris would not change his mind. And then he went on to explain why he made the bet. What Haidt wrote provides an excellent brief on what is wrong with the view of reason and morality which both Harris and Rand share.
While Rand and Harris differ on many details in their respective philosophies, on the broad outlines, they're not so very different. They are both atheists who believe that an "objective" morality based on "reason" (or "science") is possible. And they are both extremely confident that their speculations on morality are true and correct. Haidt, better informed than either Rand or Harris on the underlying psychology behind reason and morality, has a very different view:
In the 1980s and 1990s, social psychologists began documenting the awesome power of “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias.” People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated. Also in the 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions. When emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae.
In the 2000s, in my own area of research—moral judgment—it became clear that people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later. The intuitive dog wags its rational tail, which explains why it is so difficult to change anyone’s mind on a moral issue by refuting every reason they offer. To sum it all up, David Hume was right in 1739 when he wrote that reason was “the slave of the passions,” rather than the divine master, or charioteer, as Plato had believed.
It is important to note that Haidt's conclusions are based on extensive research and psychological experiments. To be sure, this does not prove that Haidt is entirely or even mostly correct. This is a very complex subject and further experiments and new discoveries may lead to a revision of Haidt's theories. It would be irrational, however, to dismiss Haidt's conclusions on the basis of the type of speculative or lawyerly reasonings favored by Rand and her apologists. One such argument is to contend that Haidt's "attack" on reason undercuts all human knowledge, including Haidt's own claims about human psychology, reasoning, and morality. If "reason" is "faulty" or riddled with biases, how can Haidt justify his own views? But this charge misfires on several fronts.
In the first place, Haidt does not attack reason. He merely demonstrates its limits when it comes to ethical rationalizations:
I’m not saying that we can’t reason quite well about many unemotional situations where we really want to know the right answer, such as whether it is better to drive or take the train to the airport, given current traffic conditions. But when we look at conscious verbal reasoning as an evolutionary adaptation, it begins to look more like a tool for helping people argue, persuade, and guard their reputations than a tool shaped by selection pressures for finding objective truth. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber synthesized the large bodies of research on reasoning in cognitive and social psychology like this: “The function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” When self-interest, partisan identity, or strong emotions are involved, reasoning turns into a lawyer, using all its powers to reach the desired conclusion.
Although "reason" may not always lead to truth, it would be wrong to infer that knowledge is therefore impossible. While individual reason may often find itself distorted by emotion, self-interest, and other biases, its possible to develop mechanisms which allow reason to overcome such difficulties. As Haidt explains:
Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.
In short, Haidt reaches something very close to Popper's hypothetico-deductive method of knowledge. While human beings are rarely any good at noticing errors in their own reasonings, sometimes they're pretty shrewd at noticing errors in other people's reasonings (and experiments, observations, etc.). Thus through the testing and criticism of theories, human beings can reach a higher level of rationality than the speculative, lawyerly type of reasoning championed by Rand.
Rand's approach to rationality is therefore deeply flawed. Her view that knowledge rests on "proper" concept formation is eccentric and delusional. Concepts are just meanings used to formulate assertions about matters of fact. How such concepts are "formed" is thoroughly irrelevant. It's how they're used in theories that are important, and the only way to judge the theories is by testing and criticizing them. Trying to judge a theory about matters of fact by speculating whether the concepts used to express that theory were properly formed would be an extraordinarily difficult and useless exercise.
If Haidt's view of moral judgment is correct, Rand's Objectivist Ethics is largely irrelevant. It's merely a tool for helping Rand's followers argue, persuade, and rationalize their behavior. It has very little to do with actual conduct --- something that would be noticed more if people paid closer attention to how followers of Rand act, rather than to merely how they cavil.